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Why 30-year-olds are smashing cake into their faces. Yes, just like babies.

Cake smashers, clockwise from top left: Desiree Smith (Courtesy of Wilton), Kara Waggoner (Courtesy of Ashley Dorton), Amanda Laudermilk (Courtesy of Garrett Bush, Little Elephant Photography), Darah Edwards (Courtesy of Sarah Gibson, Indigo Bird Photography.)
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There’s something regal about commissioning a portrait for your birthday, so maybe that’s why all the women (and several of the men) who are taking part in social media’s most precious new trend are dressed like chic fairy princesses. After all, if you are a grown adult who is planning to celebrate your birthday by buying a beautiful cake, arranging it in a decorative tableau, and smashing it into your own face by the fistful as a photographer snaps away, you had better be wearing a tutu, right? A tiara doesn’t hurt, either.

“The poofy-skirt dress was a must,” said Darah Edwards, 30, of Sanger, Tex.

“I think it just makes you feel like a princess,” said Kara Waggoner, 30, of Richmond. “You’d be surprised by how many adult tutus there are.”

Professionally photographed cake smashes started out as a kid thing, and now have expanded to include the young at heart. They’re exactly what they sound like: Take a birthday cake, smash it into your hands and face, and record the blessed event for social media posterity. Keep the Wet Wipes handy.

Like adult coloring books and Donald Trump’s candidacy: How did we get here? Baby cake smashes have been a trend for a few years now. Initially, they were an informal thing that happened at baby’s first birthday — give Junior his first taste of cake and snap away as he makes funny faces! — until some photographer somewhere realized they could be staged and monetized. And that’s how the baby cake smash became another stop on the march of occasions that might merit professional images, after the gender-reveal photoshoot and the newborn photoshoot, but before the mommy-and-me shoot and the Christmas cards and the vacation photoshoot and the senior pictures.

The days of sitting for a traditional portrait before a seamless backdrop are long gone. People are “getting bored with just everyday portraiture,” said Amanda Alvares, a photographer based in Newman, Calif. The shopping mall studio Glamour Shots has been supplanted by independent photographers who can give you a fashion editorial experience, or “Dirty Thirty” boudoir shots to commemorate the occasion. (“I’ve seen a lot of dudeoir trending,” said Alvares. Dudeoir. Let that sink in for a minute.)

And increasingly, they’re offering cake smashes to grown-ups with a cheeky sense of humor who have seen how much fun babies are having, and want to recreate it 29 years too late. Darah Edwards’s sister commissioned photographer Sarah Gibson for a cake smash shoot in Denton, Tex., for Edwards’s birthday last month after the sisters saw similar shoots on Pinterest.

So they ordered a pink ombre cake from a local bakery, and a “Birthday Girl” shirt from Etsy. Edwards made a paper crown, and on a grassy area at Texas Women’s University, she “just plowed into it,” she said, squishing up fistfuls of cake and putting them in her mouth, taking care to keep the icing away from her blonde curls.

She paid about $100 for the shoot, which was “a real neat tribute to my 30th birthday,” said Edwards. “When I was younger, I thought 30 was old. But now I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m still so young. I think it’s making it more fun to be 30.”

That’s the underlying message in most of these photos: They’re turning 30, and they are totally fine with it, no really. People have done smashes for other monumental birthdays, like 25 or 50, but it’s 30 that seems to trigger the most tutu-wearing and buttercream frosting angst.

“It’s such a turning point in your life, and people have a negative connotation about it,” said Waggoner, a makeup artist who got her birthday shoot for free, as the photos were mutually beneficial for the portfolios of her and of her photographer, Ashley Dorton. “Society has these rules – you should be married with kids at 30, you should dress this way. As a woman, there’s so many expectations.”

You see, back in the olden days, people were considered adults after they graduated from high school or college. But with more people moving back home after graduation, and a cultural shift toward prolonging the fun of college through one’s 20s, adulthood is now something to put off until you turn 30. So a cake-smash photo shoot is a last hurrah, of sorts – one more chance to do something childish before the bill-paying and boring stuff sets in.

Amanda Laudermilk of San Antonio, Tex., turned 29 in May. She considered waiting until her 30th birthday to do the shoot, but decided that 29 was better: “People always want to be 29 forever,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be a quote-unquote adult by 30, but I think I’m pretty darn close.”

And because it was Laudermilk’s last year to be a kid, she wanted to celebrate by doing childish stuff. She commissioned the shoot while visiting family in Lawton, Okla. “It was almost kind of stress relieving,” she said about the cake smash.

Working with grown-ups is not that much different from working with babies, said her photographer, Garrett Bush of Little Elephant Photography. “There’s always that one thing that they’ve seen a baby do” – put icing in their hair, pick up the plate and lick it – “that they say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It’s a lot easier for [adults] to take directions, obviously.”

Sometimes, the clients want to take the cake smash into a sexier territory, with suggestive lollipop and icing licking. And when you think about how they’re supposed to be imitating a baby, making this a sexy adult baby photo shoot – it’s a little weird, right? No, no it is not, say the photographers.

“As long as it’s tasteful. It has to be appropriate,” said Alvares.

She took the idea to new heights with her recent shoot, the rare cake smash to feature a man. She posed Gerardo Alatorre, a tattooed, Rubenesque man, with glitter sprinkled in his beard wearing a flower crown and loincloth. He smashed a purple cake next to some Scrabble tiles that spelled out “Birthday Boy.” Alatorre was not a paying client; Alvares had recruited him as a model. It was her idea to subvert the genre and “get a good laugh out of people.”

Because that’s what adult cake smashes are for: laughter, and perhaps more importantly, other people. The photos are a performance; they exist to be shared. 

An Elon University study of people who post photos of themselves on social media said that millennials “feel the need to present themselves in ways that attract the most attention from their peers.” Like so many things born of Instagram, cake smashes for grown-ups fall into the category of: Maybe a wee-bit narcissistic, but not harming anyone, so why not?

“I used one of the pictures for my profile picture” on Facebook, said Edwards. “A lot of my friends, they’re all about that 30 age. They all commented, ‘This looks so cute!’ and ‘I think I’ll do that for [my birthday].'”

And for Waggoner, who had been anxious about turning 30, it was a much-needed boost of self-confidence.

“I was like, when else am I going to be able to shove my face in a cake and feel pretty?” said Waggoner. Her photographer “made me feel beautiful even though I had a pound of cake on my face.”