Last week a friend of mine called my attention to a column in the Sunday newspaper from Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners:
My very proper mother taught us that one does not display pictures of oneself in one’s own home. I have always followed this rule and notice that all my relatives do as well, but I cannot find the rule written anywhere. Over my long life, friends have occasionally given me pictures of myself, some in frames. I have never displayed them, but I worry that I have hurt my friends’ feelings. Is my mother’s rule real and current? I actually like the rule, but want to do the right thing by my friends.

Gentle Reader:
The rule is still in effect, but your mother forgot to point out the loopholes. There are enough of those to accommodate your gallery. One is that you can properly display them in rooms that are considered somewhat private—your bedroom, your study, and, by extension, a family room. Another, on which Miss Manners expects to be challenged, is that a painted portrait is traditionally considered acceptable in the more public rooms, but photographs are not. She does not wish to argue against photography as an art, but let us say that photographs of you with the mayor or in your wedding clothes are best shown in the family’s area. Proper mothers are always right; but sometimes they need explaining.

This letter from Miss Manners represents the societal norm that I am committed to changing. What I have witnessed in the over twenty years of photographing people is women’s resistance to even having their portraits taken, let alone hanging them on the walls of their homes for all to see. The complete embarrassment my female clients have expressed in just thinking about hanging up their own images is what made me very sad and has inspired me to try and make a difference.

It seems a patriarchal society has put constraints on women that tell them they are not good enough to be displayed on the walls of their homes alongside their children unless they are in pictures with other people. Who ever decided that an image of a woman alone, being photographed by herself, is a sign of narcissism and selfishness? WOW. This is indicative of a society that places women’s roles as subservient to everyone around them. We can stare all day long at images of women on TV, magazines and billboards, but not at our own image in OUR OWN HOME?

So Miss Manners says to put the portraits in a private space where just you will see them. Doesn’t this sound contradictory? Put your own portrait in the place YOU hang out, but not in a public place where other people may be able to appreciate the artwork. It is a truism that each person has a right to decide what works for her, but I see women buckling under this rule that it is socially unacceptable to show yourself, alone, in a photograph, in your own home. By breaking down this rule we can liberate women to make their own choices. Instead of only seeing images of women who look a certain way, we can begin to see all sorts of women on the walls, and start to reprogram our reference points for what is good. One way to raise up female energy in our world is by displaying all women in prominent places. What are we leaving as lasting legacies for future generations of women to use as inspiration and guidance?

About Robin Ruth

Robin Ruth, M.A. is a San Francisco and San Jose fine-art portrait photographer and has specialized in black and white, and color film images for over 20 years.
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  1. Robin De long says:

    I have been an interior designer for over 25 years, and I have always recommended that my clients place their family photos in the family room, hallway or bedroom as Miss Manners is suggesting is appropriate. However, after reading Robin’s comments and reflecting on this habit, I am beginning to question why I have been programmed to place the photos in such a limiting fashion. I have always promoted my clients to hang up family heirloom portraits as well as current ones to substantiate the family legacy, but never hung them in the public area of the home.
    Why not?

    As I contemplate my concern about Women not being represented on the walls of their homes, I feel a deep desire to change my patterns in accessorizing people’s homes. What appears to have been good designing (placing photos in private places) has now become a bad habit that needs to be changed. Women not only are the heart and soul of the home, but deserve to be proudly displayed in public view (or not) in their own domain. There needs to be more diversity in images of women that we see, and why not start by displaying these female images at home? Why have women disappeared from the walls of their homes?

    • Robin Ruth says:

      I have to agree with you Ms. Delong that there has been an unconscious programming of what is “good taste” in designing. I also have a background in interior design and look back at how I adhered to these prescribed “rules” about where to hang the family portraits. I am not suggesting that portraits of women replace the artwork that is hung in the public areas of the home, but that they be included with the art as another form of creative expression, while at the same time being an empowering statement about female authority.

  2. Annette says:

    Wow! Ms. Manners spells it all out without even a thought for the underlying message it sends. I can picture my Grandma’s house and the only picture with her in it in the living room was from her wedding. I guess that made it ok?
    Robin thank you for the work you do in changing this.

    • Robin Ruth says:

      Thank you Annette. I do hope to create an awareness about how damaging these messages are to women and their feelings about viewing their own images. For some reason women feel embarrassed to be in a photograph all by themselves, let alone hanging it up for other people to see! Wedding pictures have traditionally been accepted in public areas: what is the message here? That being married and attached to someone else is an OK thing to proudly display for all to see, but not being single? That the day you legally were no longer a single woman is to be represented in a prominent place in your home, but it is narcissistic to have just yourself in a prominent place? This inability to display and view our own images, whether we are alone in the photograph or not, results in, instead, of only being exposed to images of other women via the media (which are unrealistic and unattainable). Unconsciously our brain is being programmed with the images we see most often as the “reference point” for what is good and desirable. Think about it.

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