Essay: On Beauty Standards

I wrote this to photography clients in December 2015 and I’m going to post it here as one of the many reasons I’m taking a step back from portrait photography. Time and time again I photographed women who refused to believe they were naturally beautiful. It was depressing and disheartening continually arguing with women who so easily dismissed their own beauty and self-worth. I felt like I couldn’t give them something they needed far more than photos. I knew what they were feeling wasn’t my burden alone. Maybe it felt like it because I carried the same burden. I think one of the many reasons I couldn’t uphold the boundaries of my own feminist principles because it would mean a certain financial ruin. I had to soften that skin and trim those thighs or else I wasn’t getting paid and thus wasn’t paying my rent or feeding myself (that ultimately became what happened). It was hard to get women to acknowledge their flaws, especially white women, and especially in front of a camera. We would all—myself included—fall back on the typical beauty standards when trying to find the aesthetics in a photograph and as my ideals of beauty evolved to include the flaws, my clients’ ideals did not.

There were other mitigating factors that are too numerous and to go into them would take another essay entirely. A couple of factors that I will note that led to my lack of success is that I had no financial or family support. Lots of women photogs I know have husbands or partners or someone within the family helping them; I had none.

I also had a hella time getting money from people. They didn’t wanna pay for anything. Digital photographs are apparently supposed to be forever free. If the clients have downloaded and paid for the photographs once and conveniently lost them, they believe they should be able to download them multiple times for free. They forget that storing and displaying these photographs takes enormous amounts of space. Space on the internet is not free. Websites are not free. External storage drives are not free.

I love photography. I wanna keep pursuing it if only to keep pounding away at those unhealthy beauty standards and mentoring young models. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard from them. It would make you shudder in horror. A post for another time.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the below to ponder.


I wrote the majority of this essay some time ago and meant to post it on my woefully ignored photography blog, but haven’t gotten around to it. I added and edited a few days ago (needs a lot more editing; I get verbose, *shrugs*, whatever, I own it). You may choose to read it or not. If you don’t care to read it, you can skip to the last few paragraphs and get the gist of it there, maybe. Trigger warning: emersion in the millennial culture has augmented my language to include the word FUCK, a lot, and using that word does not infer an angry tone; it’s simply a part of my diction forthwith. Haha, kidding, I’ve always been a potty mouth. I just wanted to hop on the blame-the-millennials bandwagon to see how it felt; boring, lame. 

This –> (e.g. I want this photo in color and not black and white or vice versa, I hate this photo please remove it, please make my butt bigger, please make my head bigger, please give me boobs, please remove my double chin, please get rid of the husband and replace with Channing Tatum, etc.) was an attempt at sarcasm, dry wit, and humour. It wasn’t instructions. I am a notorious smartass and the older (and poorer) I get, the zero fucks I give.

And thus begins the essay…

Over my professional photography career, I’ve been back and forth on the issue of ‘beauty standards’ and the edits that I provide both my clients and models of which the majority are women, women who are unfairly set to a certain set of beauty standards that hurt all of us in many ways: emotionally, mentally, physically, professionally, aesthetically, etc. I don’t have to explain it to any of you; you know it because you’ve lived it whether you are aware of it or not; yet, I find myself having to do just that time and time again if only from a simple saying of ‘you are beautiful just as you are’ and at this point they’re looking at me like I’m ridiculous and should they be giving me their time and money. I get the most ridiculous retouching requests ever (kind of like this) and I tell myself excuses like well, these ARE my clients and I’m getting paid to do it (very poorly), all the while in the back of my mind, I feel my own principles going the way of those liquified muffin tops and lightened wrinkles. Unhealthy beauty standards have become inherent in our culture and have affected our self-worth and sense of self harming the way we see ourselves and the way younger generations see themselves.

When another woman (or man) is set to a certain set of standards, beauty without flaws, we all lose and so do all those little girls and boys who are looking to us for those standards. I am definitely not a role model in lots of areas, but on this, I can, at least, try to be even if I fall short, which I’ve done so many times before now and probably will continue. So, unless the edits requested are necessary to the genuineness of the photo in which I, as a professional photographer fall short, (e.g. lamps growing out of heads, my inability to keep the horizon aligned because of my crooked eyes [I see the world differently than you], floating heads, etc.) then what you see in your gallery is what you get. I usually touch up very few small things that take the viewers eye away from the overall attraction and artistry of the photo itself, but then I ask myself: at what point do I stop with the edits? How genuine is this? Should this be considered fake? If I put an arch in the back here, is that wrong? If this was film, I wouldn’t be touching it up, would I? Just because I can, does it mean I should? Are these fabrications contributing to decline in art and photography? Are these edits contributing to unhealthy and unattainable beauty standards? Doesn’t this do a disservice to the rest of us living so imperfectly, happily or no, with our flaws? How does this affect younger generations? ETC. I could go on and on. I’m guilty of imprudently altering the faces and bodies of women in some very dramatic ways (even my own body) on their requests as well as my own and I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me; It does. I overthink and analyze until my head hurts, which, if you’re still reading, I’m sure your head hurts by now, but it’s an important subject and shouldn’t be trivialized as insignificant in regards to all the other issues in the world. I can’t do anything about them (although as an activist, I’m trying); I can do something about this.

The editing will stand and if you have an issue with that, you’ll need to find another photographer. I’ve been living under the poverty level for four years now and economic oppression compels you to sell out your principles for little to nothing just to eat or pay the bills; so I’ve decided to keep my principles, poverty or no, since I’m already here basking in the glory of meagerness. That means even if you pay me $50 an hour for editing (my hourly editing rate) I’m not going to give you big perky boobs or a firm Kardashian booty; make you tall and skinny like Gisele; remove your double or triple chins; get rid of that lovely scar or mole or freckle on your face and all those wonderful character lines; and remove all traces of what it is that makes you YOU and what your family, colleagues, friends, and most especially YOUR CHILDREN see as your authentic flawed and fucked up self. Get in line; we are all flawed; we all age; we all get flabby (gravity is a fact); some of us have a little more weight than others; I’m not judging; I understand; I empathize. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL and if you don’t think so, try working on that sense of self that includes kindness and compassion and empathy and authenticity inside you that’s far more important; I do; and, if all else fails, get to the point of zero fucks to give. It’s very liberating.

Just in case you’re questioning my time and what you paid for: I worked from Sunday to when I finished uploading; around 60 hours total calculated @ $11.90 an hour from what I received from all five of you, barring any subsequent back and forth email communications and additional editing and uploads including adding a few color photos on request of images that were previously black and white. I went through each and every photo culling the ones that I, in my humble and scant professional opinion, thought was best. I edited them choosing between color and black and white, which was the most ideal for that particular image, for each and every image. Some of you got more images because you have more kids – lucky you. Some of you asked for color instead of black and white and before I would’ve agreed, but I went back and looked and my assessment is that the black and white photos are, once again, most ideal for that particular image be it because of color disharmonies, clothing distractions, skin tones, etc. What I provide is not a pick and choose big box store you can select from a variety of tones. It is art. It is my art. It is unique.

Thank you for choosing me as your photographer to help you create fun family memories. Thank you for investing in me as an artist and I hope you feel your investment was worth it and you think as I do, that we created some wonderful art together.

 

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