Oh Picture Day, Oh Picture Day…

picture day - the dreaded combWhen you’re lying there in the hospital bed, scared as hell about this little person you are wholly responsible for for the rest of your life, they talk to you about colostrum. They talk to you about cutting fingernails. They talk to you about all this stuff you’re supposed to be worried about. But do they ever warn you about School Picture Day? I think not.

Do they caution you about how your child will one come home sullen and deflated after Picture Day and break your heart in a million pieces?

Though yes, I was on some nice drugs, no, don’t recall that at all.

Aside from the breakfast-time mad dash for the checkbook, generally just past the deadline that the envelope was due, you have to make all these Picture Day decisions that I don’t recall ever grappling with as a kid. Back in the Paleolithic era of my youth, you wore something cute (or overalls with a lot of soccer patches on them, if you were me in sixth grade, trying to prove something to the world), sat down in front of the creepy photographer, smiled, and got a free comb. A few weeks later, pictures came in the mail.

The end.

Now? You choose from one of 37 packages, each more absurd than the next. I don’t care how cute your kids are, unless you have the last name Duggar, you simply do not need 46 wallet-size photos of them.

Next you are required to choose one of three poses including “classic” and “close-up” and something that looks exactly like “close-up” but has a different name. Which…huh? You’re the professional photographer, and you want me to tell you which pose to put my kid in? Can I deduct 20% off the fee for doing your job for you?

Of course, this being 2012, you can choose to retouch your child’s photo in a number of ways, none of which I am yet ready to even think about. (“Can you trim a little off the ears, please?”)

Then at last comes the really fun part: sitting down with my children and the envelopes spread out in front of us, to have the “which background do I want?” fight.

Last year Sage ended up with Emerald City green, after Nate sneaked in a checkmark on the envelope next to his favorite color when no one was looking. Coupled with her pale pink top she looks like the rejected poster child for the Preppy Handbook reissue. This year, all she knew was that she wanted “anything but the green,” but lo! The photo gurus have added even more choices to fight over this year! Now we can debate the merits (or lack thereof) of two shades of blue, some sort of golden disco lights, copper something-or-other, “forest,” a red that makes every child look splotchy and drunk, and some sad excuse for a multicolor that should be called Look, A Rainbow Puked!

I pushed for charcoal grey, laying out a perfectly reasonable argument as to why we want to focus on the subject and not the background.

Thalia compromised with copper after putting up a fairly good–but not good enough–fight for the red. Sage, of course, went for the rainbow.

Do I sound like a crazy person? Do I sound like That Mom? Because I swear I’m not. I just feel like if we’re going to spend on these photos what I could spend on movie date night, including sitter, I would kind of like them to not suck.

Now because the universe tossed me one bone today, I managed to stave off Sage’s daily wardrobe debate the second I pulled out her special dress which she’s only wanted to wear to school every single day since we got it this summer. She didn’t even fight me when I told I’d prefer that she didn’t wear a costume garland from a Renaissance Faire on her head.

As for Thalia, she waltzed out feeling as pretty as can be in a bright pink dress…that she had also worn for her kindergarten picture day two years ago.

“Thalia, that dress is too small.”

“I’m wearing it with leggings! Like a tunic!”

“The sleeves come up to your elbows.”

“I can roll them up.”

“It just doesn’t fit, honey.”

“I love it.”

I sighed and gave up. She did look cute, if a little Herman Munster with the fit. Then surprisingly, Nate jumped into the fray, spouting off about skin color and genetics and pinks and I have no idea what else.  Somehow he managed to get her out of the dress and into another special outfit–a white oxford over leggings and a gorgeous purple Ralph Lauren tweed jacket we got (hiiiighly discounted) for their spring fashion show. He even made the effort to iron the creases out of the collar.

She felt pretty. She felt grown-up. I could see it in her eyes and the way she carried herself. You would too if your Daddy ironed your shirt before school. So I kissed them goodbye and sent them off, and didn’t even think about trying to make a final case for new background colors.

So I was surprised when Thalia, a girl who has never avoided the camera ever, came home feeling sad.

First she didn’t want to talk about it. Then she came around.

“I didn’t get one compliment on my outfit,” she confessed. And she explained how all the other girls were in dresses, oohing and ahhing over the pleats and the twirliness of it all, while she stood out probably looking…weird. Not in a dress.

My mother tried to explain to Thalia that she is an artist, and that artists are always going to have their own taste and sensibility and do things a little differently than everyone else.  Thalia did her best to change the subject. I comforted her (just a little) by revealing to her the absurd number of compliments about her wearing the very same outfit in a photo on my Facebook page. 124 people–grownup people who know about fashion, mind you–saying how amazing she looked. It cheered her up a bit (thank you Facebook friends!), but I could tell it wasn’t the same as one girl in the class coming over and saying, “you look nice.”

Not one girl.

And to a girl like T, who is always thinking about how to make other people feel good and feel included, it must have been crushing.

It sure crushed me.

Later in the night, I pulled my oldest girl onto my lap, and just hugged her for a minute. She tried to blame Daddy for changing her outfit. But I reminded her how beautiful she felt when she walked out of the house this morning, and how beauty comes from the inside and that’s how I know. Then l squeezed her closer and looked into her eyes, and I told her I really wanted to talk about confidence. Deep in my heart, I wondered if she could learn the lessons that it takes most of us 30 or 4o years to figure out; it was possible. It was worth a shot.

“Thalia, I want you to know one thing: it doesn’t matter if the girls liked your outfit or not. It doesn’t even matter if 124 people on Facebook liked your outfit or not. If you ever feel good about a story you write, a painting you make, a dance you perform,  a word you spell right, or something you’re wearing, that’s what matters. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Don’t give people that power. Do you understand?”

She nodded slowly.

“I mean it,” I said. “It’s really important. If you remember one thing in life it’s that your good feelings are yours to keep, and you don’t let people take them away.”

She seemed to absorb this for a moment. And then she looked up at me, with a new twinkle in her eye.

“And the second most important thing to remember in life?” she said, suddenly bursting out with the biggest toothless 7 year-old smile.

“What?” I asked.

“Never listen to anything Mitt Romney says!” And she threw back her head and laughed.

I love her so much.

Also, I freaking hate Picture Day.


Thanks so much Elan for including this post in Five-Star Friday. Being recognized by writers I respect, among other writers I respect, s one of the nicest things ever.


47 thoughts on “Oh Picture Day, Oh Picture Day…”

  1. Oh what a wise and wonderful girl she is! I’m sure she looked beautiful. I’m sorry she didn’t feel that way because the other girls didn’t say anything. That must have been heartbreaking for you. (It’s heartbreaking just to read about.)

    In terms of the retouch option, I always check it to be safe because half an hour before I went to have my school photo taken in fourth grade I walked into a broken TV antenna and cut my face right below my eye and it looked terrible. And the night before Quinn’s first kindergarten photo he smashed his face into the edge of our china cabinet and cut and bruised his nose! But he looks like his normally not mutilated self in the photo for which I’m grateful.

  2. This made me cry so hard. 🙂 You’re an excellent mom and your girls are lucky to have you.

  3. Have you seen the latest Olivia book? I think it is called Olivia and the Fairy Princesses. Reading about Thalia with her stylish and hip outfit amongst all the girls in frilly dresses made me think about it.

    Our first school picture day went off OK- I was even pretty happy with the results. Which is a good thing, since if they’d sucked we’d have been stuck for gift ideas for the great-grandparents (I mean really, what DO you buy 90 year olds? If you don’t have it by the time you’re 90, maybe you don’t need it…)

    But I hear you on the dress pressure on little girls. My kindergartner is over the top into Hello Kitty. I do not think this is because a stylized disembodied cat head is an integral part of her personal style. It is pure peer pressure. 90% of the girls in her class have Hello Kitty backpacks. And the sad thing is, I find myself saying “at least she’s coming out of the princess phase….”

    Of course, when she does develop her own unique personal style, she may find it involves odd hair colors or black lipstick or something like that, and I’ll find myself longing for the Hello Kitty days.

    1. Oddly I’m more okay with the pink hair color than the princess backpacks. And as far as licensed characters, I can get behind Hello Kitty…but it’s harder when it’s because someone else has it and not because your girl likes it.

      I will totally check out that book, thanks Cloud. You always have good advice!

    2. 90 year old gifts…. soft cozy lap robes, food baskets with small jars and pkgs of things they’d never buy for themselves but love, mini loaves of their favorites, 2 cookies, a brownie, their favorite tea or coffee, a magnifying glass, a puzzle, a good book (to pass on to someone else after they’ve read it), warm gloves, a new hat, a cozy (stylish) vest, chapstick, hand lotion (usually unscented for my FIL), an invitation to lunch with you (most don’t want to do dinners at 90, but lunches & brunches are something they plan for and look forward to for days), small flower or centerpiece, spend an afternoon preaddressing their Christmas card envelopes for them — you can visit and chat while you do it and sneak the stamps on the cards when they’re not looking.

  4. brilliant.

    I have three little boys, so our issues are different than these (to be sure!), but that core issue of confidence is absolutely the same. Thanks for the boost of wisdom in the morning!

    Found you thanks to Kimberly of Red Shutters! 😉

  5. My girls are only in preschool, but this year I was wondering what the deal is with school pictures, other than to have a photo in the yearbook if your school does one. It’s like photos with Santa. Is it just something we do, even though they cost an arm and a leg and normally come out looking meh at best? So not looking forward to the pose, background color, and package choosing.

    1. I don’t think we even have a yearbook. I think this is just “for you.” Or for the photo company, making a fortune selling wallet photos that will end up in a drawer somewhere forever. GOod luck with it!

    2. I promise that once they’re in college and you look back at 13 years of school pictures — it all sort of works. The what was that outfit/background/hairstyle, missing tooth or refused to part lips to smile and have strange grimace years end up being some of the very best. And even the boo-boos — honestly, you’d forget some of those things if they were there memorialized for you!

      But I certainly agree with the too many choices. Just take the damn picture!

  6. Seems to me I remember a 3 1/2 year old (who was already reading and whose teachers wanted her sent immediately to a private school) at the Yale Children’s Study Center being asked to interpret a Rorschach blot: “Why, that’s Henry Kissinger,” she said. Kissinger, for those who might not remember, was the Mitt Romney of his day. And so it goes….

  7. Ok I will admit I am the Mom who let’s her kids wear whatever the hell they want on picture day AND I let them pic the background, which is USUALLY the rainbow puke one…because they are MY kids and totally believe in unicorns and rainbows that puke. Now, that means we’ve had some DOOZIES of school photos. I mean… holy crap. But it’s awesome. Because it’s THEM. One year Hala came out looking like goth Madonna and Jack like he belonged in a Swedish boy band, vest and all. Now somehow, this year, they are both in oddly BORING outfits which bothered me. Hala picked hers because it had bling and Jack wanted a solid color to bring out the background more and because ‘I just don’t care mom, just make sure I don’t make the background look bad’ … the MORE important thing here…. never believe a word Mitt Romney says. Ever.

    1. Oh Erin I wish I could be the mom who lets my kids wear their bathing suits and leg warmers and Renaissance Faire fake flower garlands. But deep within me, I just can’t do it.

      Fortunately I have 8 million of them dressed just like that, that I didn’t have to pay $66 for. And they’re probably my favorites anyway.

  8. Awesome post. Teaching this to our daughters is so dang hard: validation comes from within.

    RE: Airbrushing. When Girl got her pictures back, she looked at them and said, “They got rid of my freckles. That’s my favorite part of my face! Why did they do that? Can we have them put them back?”

  9. Sigh. I hate that she came home deflated. But I love your little talk…

    Every year, my kids wear the exact same outfit for school pictures and the first day of school. And they only get the gray background. Because their mommy isn’t good with multiple choice.

    (By the way, my favorite school picture EVER is the one of my sister with braces and a pinchy-armed Koala bear hanging off the neck of her cowl-neck sweater. Oh yes she did.)

  10. Liz-

    Loved, loved, loved this post. More importantly, I really loved the advice you gave Thalia. It is so hard for girls to feel accepted and proud of themselves because there’s always someone lurking around the corner just waiting to cut them down. Sadly, as they get older, it only gets worse (gotta love Teens on Facebook and Instagram…not) but if we arm them with confidence early on and warn them that other kids (especially girls) can be really mean because they’re probably super jealous, hopefully her next picture day will be absolutely stellar. BTW — by the time she hits 13, she won’t be asking either of you for fashion advice so enjoy it now while you can!

  11. This post was perfectly-timed, because for some reason this year both my boys’ school pics turned out pretty bad. One had hair hanging down in his face, and the other had the goofiest smile I’ve ever seen on a 12 year old. Both fully admitted they didn’t like them and didn’t want us to buy them. So, we’re not. However, it did hurt my heart a bit to see how disappointed they were that the photos turned out how they did. I, too, want to know what the photographers are doing – aren’t they supposed to notice things like this? We didn’t even have the energy to do the retakes, and I wasn’t convinced they’d look any better.

    Liz, I wish my mom had thought to have the “confidence talk” with me when I was Thalia’s age and cared so much! I suspect you’ll need to revisit that talk throughout her childhood, but if she can learn by 16 what it took the rest of us at least 10 more years to learn, that is awesome.

  12. Was tearing up and then just belted out a good laugh! Sharing this post with my Mom.

  13. School pictures aren’t as crucial to me now, because I take so many pictures of the boys that I’m almost certainly (just due to sheer mass of images) going to get a better shot than the professionals do in their thirty seconds.

    I buy them anyway every year, because of the ‘official record’ nature of it, even if I wince at how enormous the packages are. This year, we chose a nice neutral, but they sent home a ludicrous forest background as well, where the micro dude was lounging in a tire swing with a WTF expression on his face. I would too. Pic here:


    Thalia is awesome, by the way.

  14. that picture day background color shit is the best birth control i have seen in YEARS. holy hell, what is wrong with the world?!

  15. Our school has TWO picture days a year (not counting retakes). And ohmygawd the choices! I once tried to sneak a basic gray background past Annabel, but she wasn’t having it. And really, it wasn’t worth the argument.

    The day I’m not looking forward to is the day they look at their pictures and tell me they look ugly. That day will break my heart.

  16. 3 days before my son’s 1st nursery school picture day, he slipped on the ice and bashed his lips and face in. Bloody gums, wobbly teeth, special soft food because he couldnt chew.
    You would have to look *really* closely to see any of that. Some photographers really do know their business.

  17. It is so painful to read about anything that makes her sad, but oh what a fabulous thing you said to her. I only wish someone had said that to me way back when in the Pre-Paleolithic era…
    And they gave you a comb?!

  18. Amen on the form you have to fill out. Try to do that in the carpool line — searching frantically for a pen while trying not to spill your giant mug of Joe. Good times.

  19. I love you…but your first mistake was letting anyone else decide what background to choose for the photos. My kids never get the chance…and they have no idea they could express an opinion one way or the other. With pictures, it’s a dictatorship in my house. However, with the outfits, I have to say one thing. I decided a couple of years ago that they should wear their most favorite outfit…even if it doesn’t fit…because I will have those school pictures forever…and it’s a great reminder of their favorite outfit that year. Katherine has her favorite dress on in preschool, and it’s probably my favorite picture ever. She still loves that stupid dress…and you could see it on her face in the picture. She stood proud and was adorable. And it’s a great reminder to me of that favorite dress.

    1. We are in that sad, strange purgatory stuck between “express yoursef! Make your own decisions!” And “oh my God, that green looks REALLY bad.”

      For what it’s worth, I would have let her wear the too-small pink dress. It made her happy. Twice.

  20. Way to turn a sad day for a little girl into a great learning experience! When she’s older she’ll be so happy that she showed her individuality at such a young age. But I remember from my own picture days how painful they can be…sounds like you did an awesome job turning it around for her!

  21. My now-16-year-old bright light of a daughter is the one who taught me the value of knowing yourself. Her kindergarten class had a spring fashion show (why, I’ll never be able to guess) and all the little girls in her class wore their new Easter dresses and darling little Gymboree and Gap outfits, and my girl INSISTED on wearing her Buzz Lightyear costume. It was one of the most awesome days of my life, and cured me from being “that” mom once and for all.

    1. I think I love your daughter. I certainly know MY kindergartener would love her – although she’s more of a Woody fan.

  22. I can’t believe the tears on my face from this post!! I’m totally copying what you said to Thalia. Need to make a note of it!

    My daughter actually wears her school uniform/dress code for school pictures (which are universally awful but yes, needed for that yearly progression for posterity ;)) which solves some of these issues, but I am worried about this problem in general. She is about the same age as Thalia, but has never really cared much about clothes. And, by that, I mean she will now “dress up” a bit for special occasions, but on a day to day basis, she pretty much just insists that she be comfortable (i.e., only knit clothing, elastic waist pants-so grateful for the jegging trend!, no layers unless it’s totally freezing, no ruching on tops, etc.) In preschool, on Halloween, she was only 1 of 2 girls who were not princesses when she was Stellaluna (a bat) and she was only mad because no one seemed to know who Stellaluna was.

    But, I know as she gets older, her sensitive self is going to be hurt by this type of thing…and now I have a great response to try to remember. What you said to Thalia is just so perfect…

  23. Isn’t it unusual to give “self-worth” lessons to 7-year olds around outfits? I totally get what are you feeling – we seem to be laying waaaay to much on our kids these days – decisions on outfits, backgrounds, project material, expectations of fashion show catwalks… Yes, valuing your positive feelings is really important lesson (and I adore the way you did it, can I copy please?), but then, I don’t remember having anything significant enough at my 7 year-old that warranted that kind of handling. No peer pressure until tweens. No school photos beyond – hey, photographer is in the school, get ready with smile. No outfits to “match up” to. Everybody had whatever they found clean (or conveniently on the room floor), no branding, no trademarks. I don’t remember having Hilfiger this and Gimboree that, Hello Kitty something-or-other. Are we spinning out of control here? I do agree with choice is good, but then, I also agree with “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” book – we have reach the the point that this kind of choices are bringing on stress without adding value.
    Silver lining: this is at least providing good intro into important life value lessons – for those that do remember to use them wisely. I would just get frustrated and curse the picture day (as I did when I saw the price tag for 3 bazillion wallet pics + 1 regular sized photo and braced myself for outfit battle, getting my older son into something half-decent and getting my daughter out of beachwear in October).

    1. The reality is that the peer pressure around clothing starts early. If not clothes, then backpacks or American Girl dolls. I have a little girl who likes to wear pink streaks in her hair and legwarmers on her arms. If that’s how she expresses herself creatively, I want her to feel good about it. So yes, self worth lessons around outfits are important because it’s not about the clothes, it’s about self-identity and nonconformity. It’s about her feeling good about herself for any reason and not letting someone else take that away.

      That’s why our conversation really wasn’t about clothes. Or labels. At all.

      Also, I remember the designer jean thing hitting our fairly low-key suburban neighborhood hard starting around 1980. Gloria Vanderbilts vs Levis. So this is not a new thing.

      1. Me and my communist upbringing – it obviously delayed the onslaught of princess/hello kitty/gimboree. But you are right, I went to Levis vs Levis (or 501 ONLY) phase. And not wearing jeans was, like, so yesterday. And peer pressure around smoking – that was big too, and non-conformity to that was big part of my “individuality”. So you are right, being happy with whatever you enjoy should be an early lesson, reinforced often. I’m just naive and deluded in thinking that I still have years to do so.

  24. Adorable. And a reminder of how hard it can be to be a girl.
    This year, sharing all of your feelings about picture day and the dreaded forms that make it impossible to get only the fridge magnet (which is all I care about), I finally had the nerve this year to order the absolute minimum package and to opt out of the retouching, feeling sure that my boys, who never care about the pictures, will never notice. So what does my 12 year old boy say when the photos come? “They’re awful! I look so tired!”

    1. Wait, you get a fridge magnet? See that I would do. But then I think it requires buying a package PLUS the CD and then download the picture and go get my own magnet.


  25. Love this line, “I’m wearing it with leggings! Like a tunic!” Girl knows how to work her closet!

    Your lesson about confidence made me tear up. What a wonderful thing to teach her right now. And the second most important thing in life to remember made me laugh.

    Is picture day outdated now? It feels vintage to me. You’d think with everyone taking photos of their children more often with all our tech devices and social media sharing, kids wouldn’t have to do this song and dance anymore. It’s kind of stressful for them, standing in line, waiting to nail this one photo to be in their grandparents wallet forever.

  26. Up until this year my son’s school had picture day in the fall AND in the spring. In the fall is the “traditional” photo (with today’s billions of choices), and in the spring there were EVEN MORE FUN new backgrounds and poses from which to choose. BLECH. (I always pick the background and pose, but my kids pick their clothes.) I completely forgot about spring pictures my son’s kindergarten year. So much so that I hadn’t even combed his hair that day. It must have been rather unruly because when my son came home from school he mentioned that his teacher had tried to comb it for him. That was a little embarrassing. Also, my son has the hardest time making his smile look natural for a posed picture. In the past we’ve done retakes. This year’s photo was good enough. I have many more photos of him that I’ve taken that look better though.

    Love what you are teaching Thalia. Important lessons. And it’s amazing how early appearances matter. My daughter is 4. Apparently, the girls in her preschool class decided that girls with sparkly shoes are pretty. I’d like to be all snarky and say thank goodness we had bought her sparkly shoes before this decision came out. But I am just blown away by the idea of sparkly shoes=pretty girl. And then I think that things aren’t going to get any easier as she grows up and that how my husband and I handle things with our daughter now will help to frame the path that she follows. So thank you for sharing this story.

  27. I haven’t had to tackle picture day yet, but it will be coming next year – I don’t look forward to it. Apparently, the big thing here with the photographers is the photos are taken outside, in front of a tree in the school yard. A friend of mine took her kids to the exact tree the next weekend, and took much better photos of them herself – and didn’t have to pay the crazy package prices for two kids in school. I think I will do the same when our turn comes around.

    Sorry Thalia was down about her outfit – I’m sure she looked exceptionally beautiful!

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