EXPRESS YOURSELF

The Fraught Female Author Photo Experience

Is it possible for a writer to build her brand without damaging her soul?

rachel krantz
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readJan 24, 2022

--

Photo: Aziz Ary Neto/Getty Images

Taking the author photo for my debut memoir, Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy, was an unfortunately vital moment in my career. Thanks to social media, how an author looks — sometimes euphemized as their “brand” — has never held more weight. Even as a cis, white, thin, assumed-straight woman, I’ve internalized the memo that I’m potentially not hot enough to be a success. I feel the pressure to look appealing enough to entice the reader into a curiosity about me, but not so appealing that I look like the polyamorous bisexual slut (I arguably am) who’s trying to steal your partner (I’m not, unless that’s your kink).

I felt constantly aware of this thin line even while writing my memoir itself. You know, writing? The actual work I did that theoretically decides whether you buy my book… and/or deem me a narcissist for talking about my sexual psychology in any way that’s not entirely self-deprecating? As with taking the author photo, writing about my life as a woman is a path laden with phallic banana peels.

As Olivia Sudjic puts it in her essay “Exposure,” as a female writer, “Either you’re a narcissist or you don’t know what you’re talking about. Either you expose your myriad, contradictory, imperfect selves, or you conceal and disassemble and appear inauthentic or unrelatable and then someone exposes it for you.” I have chosen to expose myself first, and I don’t regret it (yet). But when you’re a woman writing about sex, and early readers start calling you “so brave,” you know you’re about to be in for some shit. Would looking like a model protect me, or only make people underestimate and dislike me more? I’m guessing the answer is both.

Image Credit: Nabil Shash

For my first attempt at effortless beauty, I sent the photographer my favorite author headshots: Rupi Kaur (pictured above), Rachel Yoder, Ottesa Moshfegh, Catherine Lacey, Emily Henry, Dantiel Moniz. It struck me, as I assembled these examples, that all of these writers were not only successful but also unusually beautiful. Did I want their author photos/careers, or did I just want to look like them/date them? Obviously, all of the above.

Through no fault of the very kind male photographer, I didn’t exactly enjoy the process of having my portrait taken. But when the first round of photos came through, I liked them well enough. But my (then cis-white-male) agent said I needed something “less-girl-next-door” (read: sexier). Yet also more serious. But still relatable. Only with studio lighting and professional makeup. I hadn’t walked the line perfectly enough. Or rather, my face hadn’t. I was approachable, but maybe too approachable?

Image Credit: Nik Zvolensky

I kept thinking of an exchange in Lily King’s novel, Writers & Lovers, which sums up the gendered ridiculousness of author photos well:

“Why do men always want to look like that in their author photos?”

“My deep thoughts hurt me,” Silas says in a scratchy voice.

“Exactly. Or”— I try to mimic him — “I might have to murder you if you don’t read this.” He laughs. “Whereas with women” — I take a book off the shelf by a writer I admire — “they have to be pleasing.” The photo backs up my argument perfectly. She has a big apologetic smile on her face. I bounce the photo in front of Silas. “Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.”

This double standard was spelled out quite clearly for Jenny Sadre-Orafai, author of Malak, who told me her publisher literally told her to smile when she sent in a serious headshot. “I went to the publisher’s website and quickly realized that every single woman was smiling in their author photo. The men were not. The publisher told me they needed something ‘better’ that said something ‘positive’ about me.” In the end, she gave them what they wanted. “All these years later, I’m disappointed in myself for not standing my ground.”

Image Credit: Laura Vela

For my second attempt at accessible beauty/gravitas/not spending more than $500, I hired another white guy I found off Yelp, because options in the rural area I was living in were very limited. I even got professional makeup done, and made the mistake of asking for red lipstick. (I thought it might have a Rupi Kaur effect, but because I am no Rupi Kaur, I looked like a deranged Jewish clown.)

When this second photographer found out the topic of my book, he began to try to get dating advice/awkwardly flirt, as often happens when men find out I write about sex. He kept saying how uncomfortable I looked (as if that would help), and tried to upcharge me when we finished for what I hadn’t realized was “extra studio time.” Nothing so bad compared to what I’ve encountered with male interviewers since, but another perfect encapsulation of something annoyingly typical nonetheless.

When I got the photos back I looked as uncomfortable as ever. I resolved to cut my financial/dignity losses and go with an image where I’d wiped the lipstick off and looked ostensibly bangable-yet-wisened enough to please the majority of potential readers. But my self-esteem felt low.

If this was the kind of mindfuck experience I was having as a white, thin, cis, 33-year-old woman, what must it be like for women of color, and/or trans, and nonbinary debuts, or women over the age of 50, or disabled people? As with most everything, much harder.

“I’ve always suspected that authors who are considered beautiful are better received by readers, and as a Black woman with albinism, I know I’m working against societal concepts of beauty that just barely include Black women, and hardly ever include me,” Destiny O. Birdsong, author of the novel Nobody’s Magic, told me. In the end, after feeling fetishized by the male photographer she initially worked with, she decided to take her own headshot. “It feels like a flex against the norm, like I’m thumbing my nose at whoever thinks my beauty isn’t possible. It’s me saying, ‘Oh, you don’t see it? Let me show you.’”

Image Credit: Destiny O. Birdsong

For Qian Julie Wang, author of the memoir Beautiful Country, taking the photos immediately made her think about mitigating racist and misogynistic trolls. “I caught myself wondering whether I could stave off some of the harassment by looking less approachable, less easy-to-attack, less womanly and Asian. Of course, I realized that my race and gender was going to follow me no matter what I did, and I was just as likely to suffer the brunt of not looking womanly or ‘soft’ enough,” Wang told me.

In the end, she picked a candid shot where she’s looking askance and appears unaware of any gaze at all. “Has it prevented public harassment? Not in the least. But I can look at my photos, like my book and my legal work, and know that I let nothing come between me and the work I was born to do.”

Image Credit: Ryan Muir

Every time I looked at my new headshot in the months to come, I felt a sinking feeling. Maybe you couldn’t tell how uncomfortable I was in the photo, but I knew, and I didn’t want to be reminded of it every time I saw my book. I also didn’t love that I’d afforded the opportunity to a photographer I didn’t feel I wanted to advertise. So I decided to try one last, potentially humiliating attempt. Third time’s the charm?

This time I would try to actually act in line with my values. No last-minute buying of new clothes I don’t really need. No having someone else do my makeup, let alone attempting contouring. And no more white male photographers — or men, for that matter. I found a very talented young Black woman who was genuinely excited by the opportunity to have her name on a book in multiple countries, and who was trying to grow her business, Malika Danae Photography.

And wouldn’t you know it, when we shot the photos outside, she did the job 50 times as well in half the time. I felt comfortable and attractive the whole way through. When the shots came through, I actually loved so many of the photos that I couldn’t choose. I actually loved them.

Image Credit: Malika Danae Photography

I couldn’t quite believe it, and neither could the friends who’d seen me patiently through the whole author photo saga. “Wait, how are these so much better?” one friend asked. “Did you sleep a lot the night before?” I told her that in these photos, I was actually comfortable. And, I suppose, not under the male-photographer-gaze, however potentially well-intentioned.

I wish I could say that with the right photographer, I learned to embrace all my flaws. That I don’t care anymore what you think of my author photo, or whether it helps sell more copies of my book. But this isn’t a Lifetime movie. This is life, and I still live in a patriarchal society. One where what I say is still, even as a writer, frequently of less consequence than how I look as I say it.

--

--

rachel krantz
Human Parts

Award-winning journalist & author of reported memoir OPEN, Host of HELP EXISTING podcast, Twitter & IG @rachelkrantz. www.racheljkrantz.com