What’s the first thing you think of when someone takes a photo of you? There is no right answer, although there may be several borderline weird answers. Do you think of somebody fashioning a scrapbook with it, complete with artfully pressed flowers, wrinkled paper and, eventually, the smell of years of accumulated dust? Maybe. But if you’re a typical young adult in the 21st century, your first thought might be more relevant to the short term: Will this picture be worthy of a status as my new Facebook profile picture?
Sometimes people take pictures with this “profpic status” foremost in their minds. The cry of “I really want a new profile picture!” is not uncommon at parties, in front of famous landmarks and when huddled over a MacBook while using the four-screen, rainbow setting on Photo Booth. You want to show everyone that you have friends, that you go places and that you have a Mac. It makes sense.
But sometimes you want to show people that you’re pretty damn good looking. This leads many of us to choose profile pictures that show us at our most attractive. And hey, given that hundreds of our friends have to look at that photo every day, who wants to look anything less than their best? In the search for the perfect picture, we want to look perfect. It might be the lighting, makeup or your friend’s million-pixel Canon camera, but some pictures just make you look better.
Still, the perfect picture of you isn’t necessarily the perfect profile picture. At the risk of sounding like a terrible person, I think of these as the “misleadingly” attractive profile pictures. One of your friends took a picture of you, and you painstakingly edited it — enhanced the warm colors, cropped out an unsightly limb, and maybe even used an airbrush on some facial blemish. It certainly makes sense that you want the most attractive version of yourself to be your profile picture, but this can have its own set of repercussions.
For one thing, it throws off those people who are stalking you but haven’t met you yet. I remember the summer of 2007, as the Stanford Class of 2011 received its dormitory assignments for the upcoming year. I was placed in Branner Hall, the then-largest freshman dorm on campus. By August, a Facebook group for its future residents had emerged, and I frantically spent countless hours looking over every single profile in order to pick out my potential new best friends and love interests.
Soon enough I was confessing my newest pre-college fear to my high school friends: Everyone in my freshman dorm was too attractive. I would walk into a dorm of gorgeous, tanned Californians (and some other people too), all running around the hallway in designer swimwear, playing shirtless Ultimate Frisbee on the Branner lawn and doing other things that I thought were normal outside of Illinois.
And then came move-in day. The shock repeated itself every time I met someone who I momentarily failed to recognize but eventually connected to a matching name on Facebook. In retrospect, it was a very obvious epiphany: More often than not, people just don’t look as good in real life as they do in their carefully selected profile pictures.
On one hand, you’re keeping others’ expectations very high. Maybe I’ve never met you and I’ve only seen your senior prom picture online, in which you spent hundreds of dollars to look as good as possible. When I see you in week five of winter quarter, chugging a large coffee while huddled in a cubicle at Green Library, you’re bound to look far worse. And you risk looking that much worse to someone who doesn’t know you very well — who will do a double take when they realize that the person in the library is that hottie on Facebook.
And yet, maybe your Facebook picture is a reminder to your friends that, when they do see you looking exhausted and caffeinated, they should remember your true potential for beauty. They’ll shower your picture with comments and likes about how beautiful you are, and it’s all just genuine admiration for your appearance. Appreciation by your friends is, arguably, the point of Facebook; if you don’t plan your profile picture based upon the assumption that strangers will be stalking you, it may be for the better.
This is a phenomenon that translates to any and all headshots, profiles and even ID pictures. We want to look as good as possible, and we want to know we look good. The fact remains that those of our friends, colleagues and family members who see us on a daily basis know that we typically look a certain level of average. And guess what? They still like us. They like us even though we don’t always look as ideal as our Facebook pictures would suggest.
Do you think Miriam looks like her headshot? You can tell her at melloram “at” stanford “dot” edu.