what do me, Kate Winslet, and Jamie Lee Curtis have in common?

posted on
March 12th, 2009
written by

We’ve all been “improved” by photographers. Remember Jamie Lee in MORE? And Kate in GQ? Then there is Jessica Alba’s recent calendar shoot. Also, apparently, Kelly Clarkson. And now, on…okay, a muuuuuch less dramatic scale…there is my new author photo.

When I was setting up the appointment for the shoot, I told the photographer’s assistant that I just wanted to look like me. He asked if I required a makeup artist. No. Not my style. I sent him to my blog, I showed him recent photos of me that I liked. The day of the shoot, I spent over an hour with the photographer. And said again – I just want to look like me. As he shot me, we talked a little bit about women being photographed. How we all have our insecurities. How I’d come to accept mine and don’t want to turn down life opportunities because I think I should be thinner or prettier. At the end of the shoot, he said that he could work magic with Photoshop, and if I wanted to look like I’d been going to the gym every day for four months, he could do that. I said no. I said I wanted to look like me. I said that a large part of my audience is made up of teen girls and I didn’t want to perpetuate that whole “I’m not okay” thing.

He sent me my proofs, and I found about ten pictures I loved, but had to narrow it down so I chose two. A couple of days later I got an email that my final images were ready and I could come pick up the CD. Yay! Got home, popped it in my computer. The headshot looked…different. But maybe I’d remembered it wrong? I checked the proof. I looked at the final image again. I looked at them side-by-side thinking, oh no he didn’t. Not after I said, specifically, not to. I thought maybe I was crazy and seeing things, so I emailed him and asked, “Did you do something to my face? One side of my face doesn’t look as full as it does in the proof.”

He asked if he’d “gone too far.”

My interior, screamy, high-pitched reply: “YES you went too far! Especially after I said to go nowhere!” My actual reply was much calmer, but very direct. I said I thought I’d been pretty clear about the importance of looking like myself and why I didn’t want to be altered in that way.

He apologized and said he didn’t mean to offend, and got me the images I wanted. In further communication I said I wasn’t offended. That this was about listening to a customer, not about some crazy easily offended woman losing her shit. (Not my exact words.) And also, apology accepted, which it totally is. I think the thinner=always better lie is so deeply ingrained in our culture that most people don’t even think about it, and it is quite possible that something that is hammered home every single day trumps a one-hour conversation in one’s memory. After all that I hadn’t even looked at the full body shots side-by-side, raw vs. retouched. When I did I saw my waist and arm smaller, just barely.

Now, I’m a normal vain person. It’s not like I want every chin hair and wrinkle broadcast to the world in HD. But there is a big difference between smoothing out a few lines or blemishes and resculpting my face and body. It’s like the difference between makeup and plastic surgery. And I am just really tired of and sad about my friends and random women and girls being so unhappy with themselves because they don’t look like women they see in magazines, who are uber-retouched, limbs lengthened, flesh carved away, etc. And tired of men thinking that’s how women look. (BTW, I saw a bumper sticker today that said: “Men age like wine. Women age like milk.” EFF YOU VERY MUCH.)

There is a reason I made my video blogging debut unwashed, unmadeup, and dressed in pj’s. I wanted to vlog a couple of years ago, but thought I was not camera friendly. I’m over that, and just needed to prove it to myself.

What is an image anyway? There were 99 other less flattering pictures – if I love myself so damn much exactly as I am why not use one of those? I have untagged many a Facebook photo of myself I didn’t like…is that the same? I do prefer the retouched full body shot—not because of the changes to my body, but the way my face is better lit up. Am I hypocrite if I use it somewhere? I think the issue here is that the photographer at some point decided or assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that he knew better than me what I should look like, or would want to look like, and that’s just a reflection of a cultural viewpoint that I object to.

Look, I’m not some serene person who is above all that. I suck in my stomach as much as the next gal and am always checking to see if my smaller jeans fit. It’s only in the last year or two I’ve even begun to think in terms of unconditional acceptance in tandem with good health. I am as conflicted and inconsistent as anyone. But for me, Photoshop thinnification crosses a line that I don’t want to cross.

And now, for your enjoyment, the original photos vs. the retouched ones. I know it’s not like day and night or anything. I’m probably the only one who would even notice, and maybe after seeing these you’ll think I got all indignant over nothing. But—and I know this isn’t something women are typically encouraged to say or believe—I LIKE MY FACE. I like the cheek that got shaved away, I missed it and wanted it back. Because it’s me.

Real Sara:

Photoshopped Sara:

Real Sara:

Photoshopped Sara:

Make a note of it:


  • Letitia - March 12, 2009 at 11:04 am -

    the photoshopped pictures do not look like the real sara at all, and the real sara looks rockin! i couldn’t believe how not-you and alien and not-a-shape-found-in-nature your head looked in the retouched headshot.

    also, i really appreciate you elucidating the difference between the customer complaining and a crazy woman complaining. i’ve had it up to the eyeballs with being disregarded because service people think it’s socially acceptable to categorical regard my complaints as “crazy woman”. i’m the customer! i have an opinion! i’m buying the product, and if you do something other than my direct instructions, you’ve failed and taken leave of YOUR BETTER JUDGMENT, not ME. whew…i’m getting a little hot under the collar just typing.

    point is, i love the real sara photos because they are the face of someone i love and admire and who encourages me to be me by being totally herself. the other photos are a cold, clinical magazine version of what a “serious author” looks like, and she scares me. stick to your guns. your intuition about what’s right for you and why is right on.

  • kickpleat - March 12, 2009 at 11:23 am -

    So glad you complained and it’s kind of crazy that after all your talks with the photographer, he just went ahead and did it anyway. I think you are awesome. Thank you.

  • Wendi Gratz - March 12, 2009 at 11:49 am -

    Looks like we’re both doing some deep, meaningful posting today. :-) I think I would have been more angry with the photographer than you seem to be. First – for the assumption that you’d want to be “touched up” at all – you look fabulous. Second – and even worse – for ignoring your very specific request. My daughter is six and there is already a girl in her class who talks about dieting and losing weight. SIX! It makes me want to cry. Or tear my hair out in frustration.

  • suzi w. - March 12, 2009 at 1:18 pm -

    Good for you! The more we expose what has been done to magazine pictures (or author pictures) in the name of “perfection” the better!

    Your post reminds me of the Dove ad campaigns that emphasize inner beauty.

    Suzi W.

  • Natasha @ Maw Books - March 12, 2009 at 2:53 pm -

    I can totally see it. Good for you.

  • Sara - March 12, 2009 at 4:17 pm -

    Thanks, all.
    Wendi – I was actually extremely pissed the day it happened, but I have learned that me+rage+Internet is not a good combo so I let my post sit awhile.
    Leticia – I KNOW! I kind of had this experience when buying my macbook, like I was talking to the guy about the wide screen and how I missed vertical space and was there any way to get more lines of text on the screen, etc., and he looked at me with an “awwww you’re kinda weird but cute” expression and said, “You’re the first person who’s ever even mentioned that, so…” [so...YOU'RE CRAZY]. Women can never complain the way a man would without risking being seen as hormonal, psycho, femenazi, whatever. Grr.

  • Rosella - March 12, 2009 at 4:46 pm -


    I totally understand your immediate rage. I am a writer and am beginning to look for an agent. I am so bothered by the fact that writers are not exempt from being reshaped to fit the current societal beauty ideal. My junior paper for school (written last year) was all about media and body image and I wish I had known that photographers reshape the bodies of authors!! You’re a writer. Your intellect, wit and wisdom should speak for itself. Reshaping your body is like the photographer saying it’s not okay to be uniquely beautiful and intelligent. It’s like saying that instead of writing or some intellectual pursuit, you should be in the gym every day until you look like that.

    I am glad that you’re not so angry about it anymore, but I’m so pissed for you!

    (By the way, Story of a Girl is the best young adult fiction I’ve read. It was so real and raw and a fast read in the best possible sense!)

  • Tammy - March 12, 2009 at 9:22 pm -

    Oh my gosh… the REAL Sara face shot is SO MUCH BETTER. The other one, well, it just doesn’t look like you. Kudos to you for being happy about who you are and what you look like :). You encourage me in my journey to get there as well. I am trying to learn to accept the extra skin left over afte losing weight, and it’s weirdly difficult!

  • Melissa Walker - March 12, 2009 at 10:38 pm -

    You’ve got wonderful cheeks, Sara. You handled this so well–I might have gone crazier. Unbelievable! And that bumper sticker… ugh. Eff you very much is right.

  • Sue - March 13, 2009 at 12:48 am -

    I agree, skinnier does not mean better! Good for you being secure in yourself. Women have such a hard time being happy with who we are when all around people are telling us to change. You’re amazing!

  • ann cannon - March 13, 2009 at 7:07 am -

    Real Sara is ever so much more lovely. What an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Brenda Ferber - March 13, 2009 at 10:45 am -

    I’m impressed with you on so many levels! Have you seen this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knEIM16NuPg
    It shows how much retouching actually goes on in advertising today.

  • Claire - March 13, 2009 at 2:32 pm -

    You rock! I’m so sick of photoshopped pictures of people everywhere I look. And by the way the “real you” shots look great. Love how they are posed.

  • Beth Kephart - March 13, 2009 at 3:46 pm -

    Well, I’ve always quite liked you (from afar).


    Well, now I’m even more impressed.

  • Sara - March 13, 2009 at 7:08 pm -

    Brenda, I hadn’t seen that video. So great/horrifying!
    Tammy – having seen you in your running outfits, which show a lot of skin, you look very toned and tight…”loose skin” are two words that have never passed my mind in regards to you.
    Thanks everyone, again.

  • Justine Larbalestier - March 14, 2009 at 12:05 am -

    Go, Sara! It’s so important that you did this. I am so sick of the inhuman creepy plastic-skinned photos on the cover of magazines. Makes my skin crawl. Bless you for resisting the pressure.

  • Erin - March 14, 2009 at 5:48 pm -

    You rock you rock you rock.

  • Toni - March 15, 2009 at 5:58 pm -

    I can see the liberties the photographer took, but there’s no disputing that you still have that “Sara Sparkle” in your eyes.

  • Shari - March 16, 2009 at 2:58 pm -

    Hey Sara,
    First…as a prof photographer he should know better than to retouch without permission. And second!! As an aspiring writer I’m so sorry you had to experience that! It’s hard enough being photographed…My family lives in Utah and we visit quite often…if you ever decide to be photographed again let me know! I promise not to take a mouse to you!

  • alvina - March 17, 2009 at 3:17 pm -

    I agree–real Sara is better! This post is totally fascinating–thanks for sharing!

  • MaryP - March 17, 2009 at 3:41 pm -

    You are my hero, Sara. And real. And beautiful. And brilliant. And . . .
    I wouldn’t want you one pixel different than who you are.

  • Annie - March 17, 2009 at 5:11 pm -

    Thanks so much for posting this, Sara, and for staying true to who you are. Photoshop is for funny pictures you send to your friends, not for pictures of kick-ass authors.

  • Melissa Marr - March 17, 2009 at 8:22 pm -

    Go you! This was a great post to read. (You look fabulous AND real, btw.)

    And I totally agree with you on the “real person” thing. I have opted not to do any pro author photos. Each year, my spouse or father is authorized to take snapshots. (The kids are always allowed to take photos of me.) It’s served 2 purposes: I’m actually in the family photo books now (!?), and I have a real image wherein I age. Real women age. Real women come in varieties.

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Elizabeth - March 17, 2009 at 10:04 pm -

    Wow. I really appreciate your perspective on this, and I’m impressed by how empathetic you are toward the photographer (I think you’re right that the years of conditioning could easily outweigh your one conversation in his memory, although that fact is a bit striking for precisely what it reveals about all that conditioning).

    I walk the same line as you, between feeling strongly about looking “like myself,” whatever that means, and then also wondering if there’s a certain arbitrariness and judgment lurking behind the places that I happen to draw the boundary between normal and excessive vanity. Like, I can preserve a certain image of myself as cool and non-image-conscious because I might not do what you do to look good — and that matters to me, somehow — but of course, I do other things.

    Maybe an answer is that there’s no good individual answer to this, except for trying our best to be aware of all the messages we’re receiving about how we look, and then also doing our best to accept whatever feelings we have about it.

  • Joe - March 17, 2009 at 10:05 pm -

    Wow! I shared this post with my wife (and BTW, Amy is a photographer who does lots of portraits) and she was shocked.

  • Rita - March 17, 2009 at 11:58 pm -

    Lovely, candid, wonderful post. As both a writer and a photographer (who has seen it all!), I felt this post on many levels. You nailed all the points, from all sides. Thank you for writing it!!

    (Got here through a link from Alvina)

  • christy - March 18, 2009 at 8:39 am -

    I love this. Thank you so much for posting it.

    I like my face, too.

  • Ellen Booraem - March 18, 2009 at 9:55 am -

    The real you looks ten times better than the fake one! Other than being, you know, real. I think you showed admirable restraint with that photographer.

  • Becky Levine - March 18, 2009 at 10:42 am -

    Oh my god, I can’t even start to think what I want to say. My outrage is for the not listening, mostly, I think–do we have to bring a long a sledge-hammer to get people to BELIEVE us! And you know, there’s just part of me that thinks this guy would have listened to a man, but I may be wrong there.

    You are darling. Your photo exudes all the comfort and confidence and happiness we SHOULD be passing onto the next generations coming along.

    Of course we all want to look our best. No, most of us aren’t satisfied that we are as we want to be. But what the @#$#@% happened to CHOICE?!

    I may fume here for a few more minutes. Thanks for posting.

  • Cait - March 18, 2009 at 10:45 am -

    You look so much more acessable in your real photos! The difference is between someone whom I would want to meet, and someone I might be sacred of. It takes real effort to love your body, particularly in this society where reality and the media’s image of a “perfect body” have nothing in common. You are beautiful just the way you are- and you should like your face! Thank you for putting this post out.

  • Jackson - March 18, 2009 at 10:47 am -

    I am a-okay with minor photoshopping myself (mainly for light/shadows, not for physical changes) but to do this after you said “no”….LAME.

  • Aprilynne - March 18, 2009 at 11:39 am -

    I actually like the shape of your face in the non-photoshopped headshot better. i like that curve to your jawbone.

    Good for you!!!

  • Lisa Nowak - March 19, 2009 at 12:13 am -

    That dude was way out of line. I can’t believe his audacity.

  • Jules - March 19, 2009 at 8:27 am -

    I love this post. I’m going to link to it this Sunday, if you don’t care, when I’ll have a photographer featured who has something called the “Real Women” project, in which she features beautiful photography of women of all shapes and sizes.

    I don’t even LIKE that photoshopped version of your face. I think it’s quite obvious that part of your face was lopped off, even if I hadn’t seen the original.

  • Sara - March 19, 2009 at 7:46 pm -

    Thanks everyone, so much.

  • Sara - March 19, 2009 at 7:46 pm -

    Oh, p.s., Jules, that’s fine, thanks!

  • MotherReader - March 19, 2009 at 8:21 pm -

    Great post. I totally agree about the face picture – it does look different. Go with the real you. I can see a touch of difference on the full body pic, but I wouldn’t worry about that one. It looks like some of the touch-up was to remove bumpy wrinkles in your clothes for a smoother line – not to specifically make you look thinner. And the lighting is better.

  • Amanda - March 23, 2009 at 1:19 pm -

    I LOVE the real Sara head shot! The retouched one looks so strange…like you’re ill or wasting away or something. You should definitely hold on to those cheeks! :) Thanks for sharing all this and for holding your ground.

  • Kim Reid - March 25, 2009 at 9:01 am -

    Okay, so I’m always coming super late to the conversation, but seriously—what was that photographer thinking??? I’m definitely going to contact you privately to get his name so I don’t accidentally give him any of my business. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful post about the incident.

  • Jenna - April 3, 2009 at 4:48 pm -

    The real ones are best. Thanks for being the real you!

  • MaryWitzl - April 28, 2009 at 5:29 am -

    I think if enough of us feel this way and let others know that, we’ll send a powerful message to the world — and to other women and girls. Good for you for calling the photographer on this.

    My ‘author photo’ is untouched and perfectly me-like too. Now that I’ve read this, maybe I’ll work up the nerve to display it…when I become an author, that is.

  • Micol - June 16, 2009 at 11:33 am -

    Brava. Can’t believe it took me so long to find this post, but it was well worth the wait! Thank you.

  • Sarah Ray - March 2, 2010 at 12:14 pm -

    Can you be my new role model? I’m 27, but I’m pretty sure I still need one. I struggle with “turning down life opportunities because I think I should be thinner,” as you so perfectly described. I spent the first half of last 4th of July crying because I was embarrassed to put on a bathing suit and go to the river with my husband and 2 step kids. I feel like I am “in the closet” with my fatness. I look regular, maybe a bit chubby in a cute way I can even appreciate, with my clothes on, but Whoah! Take off the pants and everyone will know my cottage cheese thigh secret!! I think people will be shocked and appalled when they realize what i’ve been hiding under there! In theory, I know it shouldn’t matter. I’m funny and smart and kind and that’s what matters. But I am supposed to be going on a cruise in a couple of months, and I find myself dreading it! What? I should be excited. argh.

    • Sara - March 2, 2010 at 3:45 pm -

      Oh, I hear you. I’m no role model when it comes to wearing bathing suits in public! It is damn scary. But, one of the great things about getting older is you start to worry less and less. I’m 39 now and really find I am 1000% more confident than I was at 27. I don’t even know if it’s more confident, or just realizing life is too short? Anyway, it does get better. :)

  • David Macknet - March 7, 2010 at 10:19 am -

    Tanita pointed me to this post, as I’ve been gradually working my way through the photoshop disasters blog. I’m gradually coming to realize that most everything we consume, media-wise, has been ‘shopped just as your pictures were. It’s … profoundly disturbing.

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