Like the iconic little black dress, denim, and sliced bread, some things never go out of style. Others, like the big hair of the ‘70s or assless chaps, are less enduring. Looking back at photographs over the ages, we’re often horrified by past trends. For our generation to avoid such embarrassment in the future, we must make a conscious effort to distinguish classic, long-lasting styles from peculiar, transient fads. One such recent craze—which we must work tirelessly to eradicate—is our obsession with smiling in photographs. Smiling has had its moment in the sun. It’s time for straight-facing (otherwise known as mean mugging) to reclaim its rightful place as the default photo facial expression.
Smiling is considered the custom, but it’s a relative newcomer to the scene. Mean mugging, however, has been a mainstay since the days when portraiture was done with a paint brush. Kings and queens of old were portrayed as stoic and expressionless, or with—at most—their best attempt at a royal smize. Even with the advent of photography, early in the 19th century, straight-faced portraiture remained the norm. It wasn’t until a deliberate push by Kodak’s advertising department at the turn of the century that smiling entered the picture. Through their attempts to bring photography to the masses, Kodak found that people were anxious about having their picture taken, and focused their ad campaigns on smiling models, thereby showcasing how easy and fun it was to be photographed.
Since then, the fake smile has wormed its way into popular culture. Instagram is littered with post-hike or pre-brunch smiles, but it’s unlikely that anyone is particularly cheerful while their amateur paparazzo struggles to find the perfect lighting and their meal grows increasingly tepid. Smiling in pictures has lost its purpose as an expression of genuine happiness; instead, posed smiles are used to dupe acquaintances—particularly on social media—into believing that we are radiant, ethereal beings with no struggles or stressors. It’s all too common for people to crawl out of soul-crushing spin-bike sessions only to prop themselves against a wall, plaster on an ear-to-ear grin, and snap a disingenuous pic to share with their social media following. Those smiles are lies.
Most people are adept swindlers, and their fraudulent fake smiles can be difficult to identify. Some people, however, never learn to smile for the camera. For these unfortunate few, the enduring childhood class-photo grimace-smile—with the mouth stretched to display all 32 teeth and the eyes open as wide as possible—remains their best attempt at a toothy ‘smile,’ and they must resort to an awkward closed-mouth grin. Smiling is heralded as the most attractive arrangement of our facial muscles, but it excludes those who are unable to produce a dazzling smile at the drop of a hat.
Mean mugging is the most natural—and accessible—pose. While not everyone can smile on cue, everyone is born with the ability to produce a masterful blank stare.
Even the biggest social media influencers—many of whom were blessed with an impeccable set of teeth and have countless reasons to smile—have turned their backs on the smiling fad. According to their Instagram pages, the Jenner sisters haven’t open-mouth smiled since November 2017. Similarly, it’s been months since Taylor Swift posted a smiling pic, and Beyoncé has only posted three since mid-September.
The tastemakers have spoken: Smiling is finally out. It’s time for us to return to the stony faces of days past.