We live in a time in which the proliferation of beauty products is at an all-time high. And yet, we also live in a time in which you'd be hard pressed to find a woman who feels beautiful, consistently and without qualification ("I love my eyes, but if only my [insert body part here] weren't so [big, small, flat, round, saggy, etc.]...). Instead of appreciating our unique attributes, we curse them as oddities. Instead of looking for what we love about ourselves (inside and out), we pick apart each minor blemish and imperfection, and end up hating our bodies and spending inordinate amounts of time trying to alter them to meet an invisible and ever-changing standard. Teenage girls who weigh 100 lbs. soaking wet call themselves fat, and truly believe their proclamations.
We long for the flawless skin of the model on the magazine, failing to recognize that her flawless skin belongs to Photoshop, and not to her at all. As I enter into the world of portrait photography, it is not lost on me that I will be bumping up against this ethical dilemma on a daily basis. Even as "natural light, lifestyle photographers" (a group I aspire to become part of) tout a style of photographic art that captures "real life in motion," "individual personality uncensored," and "candid moments captured," there is still a heavy reliance on editing photos to remove imperfections, while injecting smoother skin, brighter eyes and greater 'polish.'
Just the other day I watched a demo on a photography website in which a bride's skin was transformed, turning her normal and natural (if slightly blemished) rosy skin into plasticized peachy-cream perfection. The tone, the texture- all utterly transformed. And I couldn't help but think that if I were that bride, I don't imagine I would look at those photos and think, "Gosh, I looked gorgeous on my wedding day." Instead, I'd be thinking, "Gosh, my photographer must have thought I have awful skin, what with the way he/she 'fixed' it in every single photograph." Photoshopping my skin until it resembles a magazine model more than it does *me* would not increase my confidence. Instead, it would tend to make me even more hypercritical of my perceived flaws, and possibly reveal to me new 'imperfections' I had never before considered...
Anyway, I digress...
As a card-carrying member of the sisterhood of women worldwide, I have felt a compulsion in recent years to remind women of their beauty, even as popular media seems to do little other than undermine it. Not 'women' as some sort of generalized group, but real, individual women. (And more often than not, women I don't know from Eve.) It's a little embarrassing at times, I'll admit, and I don't always muster the courage to make it happen, but I do try.
It all started about 2 years ago, when I walked into a little cafe' here on the Main Line. I'd ordered a coffee and a breakfast sandwich, and as I stood at the counter waiting for my bacon, egg and cheese goodness to come off the grill, one of the girls behind the counter turned to me and said, "You have such beautiful skin." Five simple words, and yet they amounted to a grand kindness. I think I blushed, and I probably stuttered a little in thanking her. But obviously, it made an impression. It made my day, and it has since come back into my mind from time-to-time, and helped to rescue me from bouts of self scrutiny and my relentless insecurities.
So it is, in light of that experience, that I try to make a habit of telling random women that they are beautiful. The cashier at Whole Foods with the genuine and unrestrained smile, and dimples that are to-die-for. The woman with the dark and mesmerizing eyes who gives me a pedicure. The girl at the drive-through with the stunning red hair. And of course, my dearest friends, who will probably never fully grasp their own beauty, inside or out. I like to hope that in some small way, my words to them make a difference, an impression. That they recall the sister-stranger who told them they were beautiful, and feel emboldened in this unforgiving "nip-and-tuck" nation of Photoshopped faces and narrow, singular standards of beauty that exclude so many.
Yesterday, I was walking the streets of my friend's urban, river-front neighborhood, in search of photo opportunities for a class project. As I entered the park, an SUV that was exiting slowed to a stop. The woman inside rolled down her window and yelled out to me, "You look so pretty today. Have a beautiful day!" Thank you, Sister-Stranger. I am certain that I will never forget you, or your bold kindness to me. The world and its women need more of us, and more of these reminders.