How old is too old for your profile pic?

The other day, I met up with a work contact for coffee. I had never met her in person before, so I was a bit shocked when she turned out to be at least 15 years older than she appeared in her profile photo. The woman I had expected to meet was definitely younger than me and perhaps less experienced too — but in reality, she was clearly my senior in all senses. Had this disconnect been mutual, I wondered? When I got back to the office, I took a long hard look at my own byline portrait.

Taken back in 2016, it is from a more innocent era — before #MeToo, before Covid, before the world really began to fall apart — and, crucially, before I started having to dye my hair. I have kept it partly because the past seven years have whipped by in a flash and also because it is only now that I am ready to admit it’s a bit long in the tooth.

But, I pondered, by keeping an image of myself that is no longer entirely representative of the older, wiser, non-blow-dried me, am I doing myself a disservice? Keen to know if I was alone in this dilemma, I did a straw poll among colleagues and friends to find out how old their various profile pictures are, and how they feel about them.

It turns out that, in journalistic terms, and especially at the FT, where many staff see out their entire careers, seven years is nothing. One colleague looked a bit mystified when I asked how old his byline photo was. “Oh, not old at all,” he said. “About eight years?” Admittedly, the colleague in question has aged irritatingly well — his photo will do for at least another five years.

Another confided in an email: “I had my default byline picture done the day I started at the FT in 2008, three weeks after the collapse of Bear Stearns and two weeks after I became a father. It’s a terrible picture. I look ill (because I was ill), exhausted (because I was exhausted) and terrified (because I was terrified).” Why on earth haven’t you changed it, I asked? “To request an update feels like vanity rather than honesty, so I never have.”

Journalists aside, are we so used to people looking glossier and younger in their profile photos — whether on social media or for work — that a certain percentage of “let-down” is baked into our expectations of meeting them in person? “When it comes to internet dating,” a friend divulged, “I would say that I allow for a 20 per cent let-down.” Another admitted a certain attachment to her 20-year-old LinkedIn image. “I keep thinking I really must change it — people are going to think I’m completely deluded when they meet me now — but it feels like a little time capsule I’m reluctant to give up.”

When it comes to professional “shop windows”, it is even more risky for your image to remain in aspic than it is in social media profiles, largely because it suggests you are “inactive”.

“I always recommend people update their profile images quarterly,” says Doren Gabriel, CEO of DG Corporate, professional headshot photographers. Just as you should keep updating your profile with your latest achievements, your profile photo should also, ideally, reflect the changing seasons, he explained. I can’t quite envisage how this might translate. A rust-coloured suit, perhaps, with a mustard tie, at this time of year?

Whether taking a photo for a dating site or for your company profile, what is crucial, Gabriel says, is to make an effort to always present the best up-to-date version of yourself. Worse than overselling, it is even more of a disservice to look shabby, with bad hair. First impressions are everything, he insists. “It takes two to three seconds to form an impression of somebody.”

These days, we are creating multiple impressions, across numerous different platforms, from WhatsApp to Instagram, LinkedIn and beyond. Each represents a different facet of ourselves, or shop window, if you like. My WhatsApp image, for example, shows a picture of me dancing with my daughter at a wedding, the two of us looking like joyously unhinged pink flamingos. As an image, it is precious and personal to me, and yet I do occasionally use WhatsApp for work purposes. I’ve considered changing it but I can’t quite bring myself to, just for the few work-related calls I might receive. It could be worse: a photo of myself in head-to-toe Lycra, or a picture of the family dog perhaps.

Whatever image you pick will, inadvertently or not, reveal something about you — even if you are one of those annoying people who shun profile photos completely, or who think a cute customised avatar is the answer. Could a single photo ever work across all platforms? The glossy pout that sets your Tinder profile alight could look a bit desperate on LinkedIn? Ditto the stiff suited pose from your law-firm mugshot may not get you many likes elsewhere. Customising yourself for each setting seems a more reasonable approach. I have two different Instagram accounts, one private, one public. The only real difference between my profile photos is that for my public account, purely by chance, I am wearing sunglasses — something that Gabriel says is a total no-no.

Perhaps, as my colleague above suggested, you can’t win. Maybe it is actually a bit vain to insist on a new byline photo, let alone one with a seasonal twist. So I will stick with this one for a bit longer, if I may.

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