How to stop 'bad' photos from sending you into a spiral

If you’re terrified of looking bad in a photo, you’re not alone. Here’s advice on how to get through

Hero image in post
photo: Triangle of Sadness, 2022, Arte
Hero image in post
photo: Triangle of Sadness, 2022, Arte

If you’re terrified of looking bad in a photo, you’re not alone. Here’s advice on how to get through

By Darshita Goyal04 Jul 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

After lusting over a beach vacation for months, the stars (and the weather gods) have finally aligned and your bags are packed for an endless supply of sun, sand and Aperol Spritzes. While the Airbnb looks gorge and the lemon spiced crab is a plus, the real highlight of this getaway is that swimsuit that you’ve been dying to wear. And of course, film a TikTok in.

The scene is set: it’s golden hour, your cheek tint is dewy and your swimmers are snug in all the right places. In fact, your gang practically screamed about how good you look. You hand over the phone to that one friend who knows your best angles and start strutting.

But when you pause to scroll through the pics, your giggly summer high comes crashing down. The Aperol starts swirling in your stomach. You can’t fathom how the image you saw of yourself in the mirror looks so different from the one on the phone. Perhaps you think your arms look too big or your skin looks dull or your teeth look crooked but somehow, everything is wrong. From that moment, you shrink away from any group pics and drown yourself in oversized tees, even on the beach. Just like that, the happy holiday is officially over.

If you’ve experienced this or any version of it, you’re not alone. Reddit and TikTok are flooded with similar stories of how one “bad” photo can send them down a spiral of self-hate. A video from @TastySelly where she decides never to wear a dress again because of how it made her look in one photo has over 500,000 likes and 2,000 comments from people resonating with Selly’s experience. “I’ve started avoiding photos cause I know one bad picture can throw me off balance for weeks and make me never wanna wear that outfit again,” someone writes.

At a time when capturing and posting has never been more intrinsic to our life, photos and videos hold more power than ever. Did you even go on a holiday, get a tattoo or celebrate a birthday if you didn’t post about it on social media? Or at least in the group chat? While an unflattering picture can unnerve anyone, it is especially difficult for those of us who struggle with disordered eating or have body dysmorphia. In fact, as per evidence published in the scientific journal, Clinics in Dermatology, social media exposure can worsen body image dissatisfaction and comorbidities of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) such as depression and eating disorders.

This phenomenon is heightened by the extremely filtered, “perfect” photos we regularly see online. Whether these photos are achieved by amazing genetics, ace editing or just easy access to aestheticians, the disparity can make even a stray hair in our own pictures feel catastrophic. Apps like BeReal, which were designed to present authentic portrayals of everyday life, are fast losing popularity. According to analytics firm Apptopia, the number of people who used BeReal daily dropped 61% over the last year, from 15 million in October 2022 to 6 million in March 2023.

Recently, Mashable’s Meera Navlakha reported that one of the growing reasons why people mute each other on Instagram is from the envy they feel at not looking the way someone they follow does or not having what they have. “For many of us, our sense of worth unfortunately feels conditional. It’s an ongoing assessment of good enoughness, and appearance is part of the picture. When a photograph is unflattering, it can feel like a visible display of inadequacy,” explains Charlotte Fox-Weber, a psychotherapist with a special interest in body image related disorders.

Over the years, many of us have discovered tools and coping mechanisms to help make bad photos feel a little less gut-wrenching. Ahead, we spoke to a few such people along with some mental health professionals for their advice on how to prevent an impending photo-induced breakdown. Read on for tips to stop your holiday being consumed after one bad photo.

Your feelings are valid

Bex Knight, a PR account manager, often felt like her response to photos was exaggerated. “I think the first step is accepting that you’re not self-obsessed or vain for being impacted by a bad photo,” the 29-year-old says. Knight also recommends trying therapy if it’s accessible, as hearing from a professional that your feelings are valid can go a long way. If you want to ask your friend to take down a picture of you or switch off your phone and lie in bed to process, it’s completely okay.

Communicate with the people around you

As if being anxious about how a photo looks isn’t bad enough, this sentiment can also bring social anxiety with it. It can be tricky, but important, to find the right words to tell friends or family how much a bad picture can impact us. Zoe Clews, a psychotherapist suggests, “If you’re with people you feel safe being vulnerable around then an example might be 'I'm struggling a bit with my mental health / body image right now so I'm not comfortable with photos being taken, if there are any group shots I'll be sitting them out and please don't take any photos of me without my permission.'”

“If they are social contacts that you don't feel so emotionally safe with then a simple 'sorry but I don't want my picture taken' or 'sorry, but please don't post this photo of me on social media' will suffice.” Clews adds that it’s often helpful to draw those boundaries ahead of time (when possible) so it doesn’t come as a surprise and saves us from explaining ourselves in a triggered state.

Practice grounding

Sometimes, seeing an unflattering photo can feel so consuming that nothing else seems to matter. Having struggled with this, Freddie* tries to shift his attention with grounding exercises. “I used to hyper-fixate on a photo so much that I couldn’t get out of bed or lift my head up. In therapy, we started practising the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique; tapping into my different senses is a helpful reminder of me being a whole person outside my appearance,” he says.

Cut off the toxicity

After being bullied for her appearance through school, Shelly Ann Wong grew up feeling extremely conscious of how she looked. When she saw a picture of herself, everything that was ‘wrong’ with it instantly jumped out to her. “It was really hard but I created boundaries and cut off the toxic people in my life. I realised their voice was in my head, not my own, and that’s the best gift I could give myself,” the 26-year-old makeup artist explains. Wong mentioned a YouTube video she often returns to, as a reminder. “It was a comparison of how you criticise yourself today versus how six-year-old you felt. I started talking to myself a lot more after that so it’s my voice I remember,” she adds.

Curate your social media

No, we’re not talking about aesthetics but mindsets. For so many of us, scrolling on Instagram (TikTok/Twitter, pick your poison) has become an unconscious learned behaviour, and the content stays with us. Make sure the aspirational influencers you follow don’t all look the same. “I actively started following more people on social media who love and celebrate their bodies. Seeing them grow as creators and be so confident and body positive made it easier for me to love my body as well,” Wong explains.

Say no to candids

For some of us, the problem isn’t the photo but how someone else takes it. You may prefer mirror selfies or self-timed pictures because you can dictate how they turn out. Instead of rejecting photos entirely, Knight decided to manage the environment in which they are captured. “I have a very strange relationship with photographs as I actually model,” she says. “There’s a level of control to modelling and it’s very intentional, so I’m comfortable with that. I struggle with taking the more relaxed, candid photos out and about with friends.”

Growing up, Prashant Pundir was terrified of photos because they highlighted his acne scars. While this relationship is still volatile, the 26-year-old writer has discovered a fix that works for him. “I actively like to dress up and ask my friends to click pictures, but I am still very particular about the process. I only click pictures with filters,” he explains, adding that your relationship with your body is allowed to be a work in progress.

It’s a bad photo not a bad life

Preachy as it sounds, it helps to say it out loud: a bad photo is just that, a singular moment in time and not a permanent indictment of who you are. “Truth is, everyone looks like shit sometimes in photos and more likely than not, you're being hard on yourself. The goal is to put a not-ideal photo in its place—it’s ultimately just a two-dimensional image, not a depiction of who you are or a marker of your worth,” says Arunima Joshua, a 28-year-old freelance writer and editor. It may also help to think of how you see another person, it’s rarely about how big their nose is or how lumpy their skin is, Clews adds. “When people are attractive to us it’s also their laughter, their voice, their kindness, their energy, their life force, their confidence.” Extend that kindness inward.