“Mom, please don’t ask me to smile”

Recently, our 11 year old told me that my beloved family scrapbook albums and digital photo books are a sham because “in more than half the photos, you forced me to smile against my will.”

I was horrified to hear that they felt I was strong-arming them into smiling and posing for family photos.

Saying “smile” or “cheese” when taking a picture is a socially accepted part of American culture – it’s typically not seen as something negative. I certainly never thought of it that way when I was snapping all those family photos.

Out of curiosity, and to see if they were right, we sat down to count up all the photos of Xage in one of our many family albums. We counted how many photos they were posed/smiling (meaning I likely coerced them to some degree) vs. how many candid shots there were.

In that one album, representing a random three month sampling of time, there were 169 posed or smiling photos vs. 73 natural or candid photos. It turns out, they were right – I was “making” them smile too much. It felt like a microaggression to them and now that I know it, I’m trying to do better. Especially since I’m sure my beloved, long-suffering husband feels the same way!

I asked Xage: Aren’t you glad to have family photos, such as those of you with our beloved dog Autumn now that she’s gone?

And they said yes – they don’t mind photos in general. They just don’t want to be told to smile if they are having a bad day or feeling sad. They feel it’s fake and inauthentic of me to constantly ask my family members to smile when they both suffer from depression and often don’t feel like smiling.

This is a hard one for me. I know that I need to be better about it, but I also know that taking family photos and documenting our adventures is an important role that I play in our family.

Sometimes, I’m able to point to old photos and say “Look, remember this day, you had fun, I know you did!” in order to show them things that they forget. People with depression often have a hard time remembering happy memories, since the sadness just takes over at times.

So, I must keep on in my role of family memoirist and documentarian – but I also need to emphasize the candid, authentic shots more and supplement those with just a few select posed, smiling shots. I’m glad Xage spoke up to let me know this was bothering them. I love that they are able to speak their mind and articulate their needs even at the tender age of 11.

Let’s face it, for years, girls and women have been annoyed by men telling them to “smile” – both strangers and friends or family members. I have always been an easy smiler, so it has never personally bothered me, but I know many women resent it when men, especially strangers, ask for or demand a smile.

When someone tells you to smile, even if they have the best intentions, it’s almost like they’re saying “what you’re feeling or thinking right now isn’t important – you need to put a pretty smile on your face to improve my view.” It’s rather selfish on the smile-requester’s part. It smacks of the patriarchy or toxic masculinity, especially since it’s usually said to women by men.

All emotions are welcome in this house. Sometimes we’re sad, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re a million feelings in between. Bottom line, smiles should be freely given and earned, but not demanded or requested. We need to consider the inner life of the person we’re photographing or interacting with, and not just our own preferences.

Do you ask people to smile when you take their photo, or do you shoot more candids and natural shots? I think this realization is going to make me a better photographer – and certainly a better family member. Do you have any other good family photo tips to share?

About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat, snake and guinea pig mom. Travel nut. Writer since birth. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.

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