It occurred to me the other day that in all my time as I photographer, I still haven’t met a single person who is naturally ugly. There are people who conform or don’t conform to our cultural beauty standards. There are a few people I’ve seen with awful disfigurements – and if I stare long and hard at them I still can’t make them ugly in my eyes. There’s always something beautiful and redeeming about their bodies that makes me conclude that they are beautiful in the balance of it all. And even people who’s faces naturally look a bit frowny or odd are transformed when they smile. I think the worst I can say about some people’s faces or bodies is that parts of them may be unpleasant. Sometimes just odd or more interesting than beautiful. But not ugly.
Something that happens to me probably once or twice a month is that I see a woman who probably doesn’t think much of herself – and I’m always guessing at that by how she carries herself or if she’s wearing something baggy and it doesn’t look like it’s just because she wants to be comfortable. I look at that woman and I have a moment of true appreciation of the human form and I think, “She probably doesn’t realize that she’s beautiful!” And I wish I could tell her, but I’m afraid that people will think I’m a super creepy person or something if I say things like that, no matter how well meaning they are. I’ve only managed to actually say it twice, and I got slightly strange looks each time. Sometimes I merely compliment them on their choice of earrings or handbag to be able to say something that might improve their day, though I can’t say with the depth of feeling I have how beautiful they look to me. And due to societal constraints I can pretty much never consider saying it to a man without it being seen as some sort of come-on. I see a lot of beauty in men, too. Men’s hands, for instance, are often beautiful or special in some way. They often show a lot about who the man is, or who he’s chosen to be.
Nearly always, during photo sessions and especially boudoir sessions, I feel that spike of beauty recognition for a moment, and later I see it in a photo again. Sometimes those are photos that the person doesn’t like. They will tell me, “My arm looks fat,” or “I have big teeth.” Or some such non-sense.
There are some photographers who see real beauty, and others who see possible beauty with some help, and others who see something a little deeper – beauty that shines out from beneath the surface and shows on the surface too. I’ve been privileged to meet some photographers and people who see that way, and I am continuing to develop that side of myself.
Every woman I have ever worked with as a family, wedding, and boudoir photographer has been beautiful. Every single Mom, every single little girl, every single teenager. Some people’s eyes are so stunning they take your breath away. Some people have gorgeous dimples. Some people have incredible bodies with amazing hips or cute butts. And gents, I’m not leaving you out either – but if I were to say I was looking at your butt I might scare some people away from family sessions – even though the truth is that I look at all of you, and I evaluate you all to find your assets. And everyone has some amazing assets, and never just one.
So what is ugly in this world, if not us? Is there a size by itself that is ugly? No. Fat is not ugly – there are many beautiful people – and I do mean beautiful on the outside – that are much larger than the status quo. Is skinny ugly? No, it’s not ugly by itself. There are many people who are very small with sweet faces and happy smiles that we adore. Size is not a standard we can judge beauty with.
But I can point out some things that make us ugly. Condemnation – even self-condemnation. Judgement of ourselves and of others. Tiredness because we don’t let ourselves rest. Hatred of ourselves or others. These things make people ugly, often on the outside as well as the inside. It’s all in the lens we look through. My camera can’t see anything beyond it’s lens without my help. It’s limited, and so are we. If we try to see ourselves and others through lenses that allow ourselves to track down any bit of ugliness we can find, we will end up hating something that may not be ugly in truth. Sure, there’s ugliness in the world, but I don’t believe it’s natural. We make choices that encourage it, or allow it to stay rooted in us.
So the next time you see someone whose face or body doesn’t look the way you’d expect a beautiful person to look, stop to consider. Look at their eyes, their smile, their hands, maybe even the small of their back. See if there’s something you can do to make them beautiful in your eyes.
This post is part of a series called Definition. Check out the original post.