What Is Beauty?

I recently met a photographer who invited me to update my head shots and do a few looks. Thinking it sounded fun, but not knowing if I needed to do this, I took a few days to consider what I wanted and to peruse her portfolio. Turns out, she has photographed over one thousand women and her work is unique. Naturally, I said yes.

Leading up to the shoot, my professional and warm photographer Andrea asked me to describe the vibe I sought with the final product. My mind drew a blank. I didn’t know what my options were besides the trite and tired words: help me look pretty. She said, “you’re already pretty. What other words come to mind when you think of being the subject of this photo shoot?”

Uh. Stylish? She prompted me to think of people during a certain time period. I’m often inspired by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin from 1969, and I love the French song “Je t’aime…moi non plus.” I also love Brigitte Bardot and her pouty, sultry look. So Andrea asked me to send some pictures and I made a Pinterest board. I was captivated by the sharp black and white contrast and the overall style, which looks vintage now.

She recommended that I drink plenty of water, get plenty of rest, and do all of my photoshoot prep in the week leading up to the shoot. I hadn’t given much thought to the business of beauty, so I was surprised with how much preparation I would need to do.

The Day Of

I felt excited as I drove to her studio. After parking, I wheeled my black suitcase full of clothing options to Andrea’s intimate studio. She greeted me and I met my hair and makeup artist, Ieva. We were in agreement with the order in which we’d shoot: head shots and then the stylized portraits, which meant we’d change my hair and makeup as the day progressed. 

I brought various dresses and blouses, accessories, shoes and jewelry so I’d have options. The looks we discussed were not impossible to create, they simply needed some finesse to perfect.

My hair went from a tangled, curly web to smooth and full of volume! Ieva applied my makeup perfectly for the headshot, and I saw my reflection in the mirror. I was shocked with the transformation! I donned my first outfit and we tried various poses. I noticed the stiffness and nervousness in my body. Andrea soothed my anxiety with jokes and helped me into natural postures that would yield professional portraits.

Just as quickly as we began the head shots, we were done. Next, it was time to start the stylized, 60s-inspired part of the day. I went back to the hair and make up chair for a more dramatic look and then slipped into a black dress. We played around with the natural light shining from the large picture windows. I began to feel more comfortable. When Andrea showed me a few polaroids, I looked so different from the self I knew. I looked glamorous and felt like a movie star.

The photo shoot lasted most of the day, with hair and makeup interspersed throughout. I never knew how much work went into beauty. Over the last few years, I’ve made a point of paring down my products and the daily time spent getting ready, so this felt indulgent.

Throughout the day, I had this recurring thought that I wished I looked like the woman in the photoshoot all the time. I loved how my hair was styled, felt confident wearing glamorous dresses, and felt like my makeup highlighted my best facial features. Andrea reminded me that the photoshoot was all me, a more stylized and curated version of myself. I needed to think about this.

After and the Portraits

Later that night, it took a while to scrape off the makeup and brush the knots out of my hair. I had an unexpected feeling of exhilaration and my mood was so upbeat for the next few days! The overall experience of the photo shoot was amazing!

It occurred to me that Dove’s “Real Beauty” advertising campaign has showcased women of all sizes, shapes and races posing in their underwear and showing their “natural” beauty. Its current aim is for women to define beauty for themselves, rather than feel pressure to look a certain and specific way. Clearly, women have long felt we need to succumb to a standard of beauty in order to be validated by others or value ourselves. 

Like so many people and women specifically, I’ve personally experienced stress and a sense of despair when looking at myself in the mirror. Without going into a mode of self-deprecation, there have been lots of times I’ve felt my hair was too curly, my thighs were too big, or my stomach was not flat enough. I’ve been critical of so many of my physical features that I’ve tried to hide them with silly mumus or clothes that took attention away from my “bad” areas. Only in recent years did I accept my looks and realize “I’m not so bad after all.”

Hence, the photoshoot. Clearly, these photos are not a representation of everyday me, but they show a slice of life with drama, fashion, and beauty. The biggest takeaway I had was the visceral knowledge that models are regular women and regular women are models. Trite as it sounds, that was a huge awareness for me. With enough hair styling, makeup applications, wardrobe fittings, a great photographer, and a proficient photoshopper, every person could grace the pages of Vogue. It was something I didn’t really think about before. 

I’ve shown many of my friends the pictures from the photo shoot and they’ve all unanimously answered that this is how I really look. This has taken a minute to set in. Maybe the difference for me is that I felt so special that day, which made my confidence soar.

The photo shoot was an awesome day and made me feel really good. The pictures don’t just represent beauty, but now take me back to a time when something magical happened. 

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