Smiles, History & Selfies

We all agree that a great smile goes a long way, in almost every aspect of life. To be certain, there is a solid body of scientific research that supports the connection between smiling and positive aspects of our personal and professional well-being. What about remembering and capturing those beautiful smiles? Why does it seem that in every “historical” photograph no one is ever smiling and today, it would be unnatural for us not to consider a bit of “cheese” with our pictures?

Authors on this topic have contemplated a number of factors which have played a role in this shift in photographic norms. A common belief is that dental health did, in fact, play a role in this phenomenon. Before the existence of routine, professional dental care, people had lousy teeth and simply did not want to share in a “public” setting, like a photograph. In 2005, Christina Kotchemidova, an instructor at NYU, published an article in Critical Studies in Media Communication that explored this topic and she wrote that while technology (e.g., the development of instant photography) facilitated the increase in smiles, the idea of advertising, influence, and persuasion played a strong role. In short, Madison Avenue used smiles as an increasing way to portray positive experiences with products and services, and people wanted to mimic those emotions in their own photographic memories.

The role of technology is no doubt still at play. The Kodak instant camera has now of course been replaced with our smartphones and capturing self-images, almost always smiling, is an established, worldwide, culture norm. In a recent study, researchers found that a group of participants who were asked to take selfies with a smiling expression over a three-week period experienced a positive perception of their own smile over that period of time. This study supports the connection between photography, smiles, and well-being.

Where does all of this lead us? While “Cheese” sure has a deeper meaning and a lot of history, one thing does not seem to change—the power of a beautiful smiling face.

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