It’s Almost 2016: How Big Is Your Smile?

My three lovelies_Misfortune of Knowing Blog
Can you believe there are only four weeks left of 2015?

Every year seems shorter than the last, a byproduct of aging that is hardly something to smile about. However, put me in front of a professional photographer for a Holiday/New Year portrait, and I’d probably grin like a fool. It’s how we’re expected to look in photographs these days, as disingenuous as it may be.

Recently, a study of yearbook photographs showed a “rapid increase in the popularity and intensity of smiles in portraiture from the 1900s to the 1950s, a trend that still continues today.” Unsurprisingly, given gender stereotypes, women have always smiled more than men. (See A Century of Portraits: A Visual Historical Record of American High School Yearbooks, PDF).

This “uber-smile” trend reflects the growth in access to photography as well as changes in cultural norms, including in etiquette and beauty standards that once preferred smaller-sized, puckered mouths over joyful grins. It was common at one time for photographers to instruct subjects to utter “Prunes!” instead of telling them to squeal “Cheese!” as they do today.

To explore these cultural changes over time, the researchers assessed a dataset of 37,921 frontal-facing American high school yearbook photographs in 814 yearbooks from 115 high schools across 26 states from 1905 to 2013.

I went to high school somewhere between 1905 and 2013, and I cringe a little bit at the thought of anyone ever using my horrendous senior portrait in their research (no matter how low the odds are). The faces of a number of poor souls actually ended up in the report (miniaturized, at least). I’m all for open access to historical sources, but at least when it comes to the awkward teen years, can’t they wait until we’re dead or something? 😉

But I digress…

Lending credence to the old saying that “a picture’s worth a thousand words [or more],” the study highlights how image-related data-mining techniques can help historians gather information that is “usually hard to put into writing and require a visual aid.” Smiles, with all of their nuances, are often easier to show visually than to describe in words.

As I said in Too Many Smiles (Or Too Few?), “The common synonyms for smile, including beam, grin, smirk, simper, and leer, come nowhere close to describing the many smiling expressions our faces are capable of making.”

fangirlIn that post, I talked about Levi, the perpetual smiler from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (a novel I also discussed in Fangirl: A Story That Shouldn’t End). The word “smile” showed up in Fangirl more than 200 times, and even the main character lamented at one point that she wanted to “come up with more words for Levi’s smiles.”

I too would love to have more words for “smile,” even if “smirk” would be an accurate description for most of my facial expressions. I’m not really a smiley kind of gal–unless, of course, someone holding a camera demands I say, “Cheese!”

*It’s almost 2016, but the picture of my three lovelies at the top of this post is from 2014.


  1. If only all copies of my HS yearbook could be destroyed! Interesting to learn we’re smiling more these days. I bet Levi’s yearbook photograph would be intense. Fangirl’s a great book.

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