Why #BadPictureMonday Is The Hashtag We All Need

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.

The other day, I made this really pretty toast. I try to go easy on the Instagram food porn, but this was an exceptionally pretty plate of spring-garlic toast. And it was Sunday, and the sun was setting, and I was so pleased with myself and my conventionally attractive dinner. So, I grabbed my phone, held the plate up to the window, and clicked the camera icon — and it was on reverse. I’m sure I need not explain the specific panic and revulsion which seized me in that moment, confronted with my own behemoth under-chin. For who among us has not accidentally opened their camera in selfie mode and discovered they are, in fact, a beast?

I flipped the camera and posted my dumb toast picture on Instagram. I told myself the accidental selfie was a little instant karma for being vain about my dinner. Or maybe it was a reminder from the universe that physical beauty is illusory and fleeting. The one thing that didn’t occur to me was that maybe it didn’t “mean” anything, and that devoting even 10 seconds of thought to The Chincident was an appalling waste of time and energy. Good god, woman, just eat your toast.

We live in a highly filtered universe. In the last two decades, technology and social media have made it ever more easy to create and project the most stylized, discreetly edited versions of ourselves. I know, I know, pointing out the disparity between ourselves and our online personae is so overdone that it’s become a right of internet passage in and of itself. But in an age when a regular, unfiltered, unstaged photo is considered faux pas, a bad photo is simply inexcusable. Closed-eye pictures, awkward smiles, weird angles — we’ve virtually erased all these things from our fields of vision. We see only each other’s good sides, and we see them all damn day. No wonder we panic when the camera turns on in reverse mode. We’ve become a society afraid of our own chins.

That’s why we need #BadPictureMonday. We need it.

#BadPictureMonday is exactly what it sounds like. Every Monday, people upload their photographic misfires: Selfies from the discard pile, passport photos, etc. This hashtag is chock full of portraits accidentally lit from below, and party snapshots taken when the subject wasn’t looking (and therefore wasn’t posing). There are pale, puffy-eyed vacation pictures where the jet lag really shows, and the dreaded bent-over-while-wearing-a-bathing-suit picture. That user cheerily captioned her post, “Unflattering angle FTW!”

Some of them are not necessarily bad photos, but show so-called “bad” features. One person posted a sensual glamour-shot picture highlighting her facial hair. Another took a cute mirror selfie with one hand behind her head, pin-up style, revealing the soft back of her arm, and a little armpit — two ordinary body parts that almost everyone has, and almost everyone studiously hides. Looking at a photo like this, it’s hard not to ask the question: Wait, what’s the problem with armpits, again?

My current favorite #BadPictureMonday is from Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, who also created the hashtag campaign. In the photo, she’s sitting at a table, her gaze slightly downward, clearly unaware she’s being photographed. As a seasoned public speaker and performance poet, Taylor normally projects a sense of vivid confidence — the kind of grandeur that fills a room. But here, in an unguarded moment, she is smiling to herself, and her grin is almost childlike. It’s such a sweet picture, but of course, that’s not how Taylor sees it. “There are so many negative voices accompanied with this photo,” she captioned it (though she declined to get specific about what she dislikes in it; no need to give those negative voices further credence). Anyway, she adds, “they cannot drown out my radical self love.”

Taylor has devoted her entire career to dismantling oppressive beauty standards, challenging bias, and making marginalized people more visible — but she’s still human. And when she sees a not-so-great picture of herself online, she still has that human instinct to reach for the “untag” button. That’s how #BadPictureMonday was born.

The Body Is Not An Apology is now a large-scale online community and publishing platform, with a full staff of contributors. But it began in 2011 as a Facebook group headed up by Taylor. As the group grew in popularity, members would post pictures of Taylor (friends tagging their personal photos with her, and fans sharing pictures from her events). “[These were] photos I really hated,” Taylor tells me (now laughing at the memory). “I was very quick to delete them or to untag myself.” Still, within the first two months of launching, the group was full of pictures of her. She was was tired of all this vigilant untagging and self-criticism. And, more importantly, “My behavior just wasn’t in alignment with this thing that I was growing.” Her group was called The Body Is Not An Apology, after all. She wanted to practice what she preached.

“I thought, ‘Well, what would happen if I just didn’t untag the photos? What if I just embraced them?’” Taylor did that, and then took it a step further. Not only would she leave the “bad” photos tagged, she would share one herself, every Monday. Upping the ante even further, she made the first one — a blurry, mid-gesture snapshot that a friend had taken of her at a party — and made it her profile picture.

This, of course, would become the photo that thrust Taylor and her grassroots group into the spotlight. TODAY picked up the story. New York Magazine covered it, declaring that, “Ugly Is The New Pretty.” The Facebook group grew by tens of thousands, and followers jumped on the hashtag themselves, broadcasting pictures they would normally delete. It was a testament to just how accustomed we’d become to digital perfection that simply not untagging a goofy party pic was headline news.

Taylor’s first #BadPictureMonday was intended as an act of self-accountability (“and for the purpose of learning to love myself no matter what I look like in an image,” she adds). But she now recognizes the large-scale ramifications of sharing these images, deliberately and consistently. #BadPictureMonday diversifies the staggering uniformity in our social media feeds. It chips away at the insidious perfectionism that grows larger and stronger with every new photo-editing app and every improvement in our smartphone cameras. It is a wide-open invitation to stop taking yourself and your selfies so seriously, for one damn second. It is a reminder that we are all humans, with armpits and chins.

Sharing these photos, Taylor adds, is also a meaningful political act, whether or not it’s intended as such. Each time we choose to share an image we find beautiful, versus one we find less so, we tacitly contribute to aesthetic ideals. We underscore both the idea that there is only one way to be beautiful, and that only the beautiful should be seen. “And that is how marginalization thrives,” says Taylor, “by telling us that there are some people who should be erased, some bodies that should not be visible in the world.” #BadPictureMonday interrupts what Taylor calls “the politic of invisibility.”

Looking through my phone at all the pictures I haven’t posted over the years, I realize it’s not just my goofy faces that I’ve hidden, but moments in my life. I don’t mean to say that everything in life needs to be photographed, let alone posted on Facebook. But there were things I’d wanted to share and celebrate, when I’d paused and said, “Ooh, take a picture?” My first book signing. Dropping my wedding invitations in the mail. That time I met Diane Sawyer and she hugged me. I don’t know, maybe it’s better that these memories are private (not the Diane Sawyer one — definitely not). The point is not that I didn’t share the photos. The point is that I didn’t share them because of how I looked.

I think that might be another part of the magic of #BadPictureMonday. So many of the pictures are of people doing really cool things — things that don’t necessarily make for great photos — like this one of a woman in her trapeze class. Her face is partially obscured, her expression is concentrated with effort, and her feet are a little blurry. It’s a full body shot and, as she says in her caption, “There was a time not so long ago when all I’d see is the fat. But now I see one badass woman!”

That’s all I can see too. Her blurred-out feet, et cetera — all that, I noticed second. On first glance at any of these “bad” pictures, my first thought is exactly that: Badass.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.