TikTok's search for THE photo
We all have one—unless, of course, you don’t.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, from Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.🧩
Is “the” photo the new GPOY? —Kate
Back when I used dating apps (unsuccessfully, I might add), I had to put a disclaimer in my bio that there was one big difference between my IRL self and the photos I had displayed: the pictures were all of when I had long hair, which I had cut shortly after I graduated college. I couldn’t update them yet, though, because I had yet to take a photo of the newer version of me that had the same je ne sais quoi. In other words, I had yet to take a new “the” photo.
The first time I stumbled across the term “‘the’ photo” was only earlier this week, but I understood exactly what it meant when I read it. On TikTok, users have started sharing their “the” photo—the photo you use for everything that doesn’t just perfectly capture your essence, but also seems to emphasize your best qualities. It was probably taken by, I don’t know, your brother while on family vacation. From what I’ve seen, “the” photos aren’t necessarily planned. Perhaps what’s so magical about them is how surprising and thrilling it is when a photo taken so casually ends up capturing you exactly how you hope to be seen.
It’s one thing to have a favorite photo of yourself, but social media gives it a utility. You know when someone has recently taken their latest “the” photo because there’s a brand new icon in the Instagram Stories carousel, a new version of a face appearing on your Twitter feed. It’s a stake in the ground for an era of their identity, and if they’re anything like me, the rest of their online behavior begins to adapt to the version of them they feel is projected by the photograph representing them across platforms.
But I also think the concept of “the” photo is helpful for understanding what exactly people mean when they say social media has a negative effect on their body image. While I’m certain that making comparisons to other people’s bodies is a huge factor, thanks to having them splashed across almost every feed, my own struggles don’t come from any kind of side-by-side. It’s more the fact that everyone else seems to frequently like pictures of themselves enough to share them, and I only come upon a winner every two or so years.
In response to the “the” photo trend, a lot of users are posting similar lamentations. If you don’t feel you have a “the” photo, its absence feels like confirmation of the worst thoughts you already have about yourself.
“POV: you don’t have a ‘the photo’ bc ur too scared to ask ppl to take pics of u,” one video reads.
“I don't have ‘the’ photo,” another says. “I’m the funny friend.”
Unfortunately, though, its scarcity is exactly what makes “the” photo so special. On the other hand, that takes a bit of the pressure off. My most recent “the” photo was taken in summer 2021, two years after its predecessor. The clock doesn’t start ticking, for me, at least, until around summer 2023. I’ll update you on the new version of me then.