It starts before we’re old enough to know what’s happening – the seeds of negative self image are sown long before a woman reaches adolescence. They take root and burrow into the core of our being, gnawing away at us every chance they get. But eventually we reach adulthood and are finally able to take a few steps back and see ourselves for what we are. There comes a time in our lives when we finally see more than just the reflection offered in a mirror – we see the skills we have, the knowledge in the lines of our faces, the laughter in our eyes. We remind ourselves of all that we’ve overcome and accomplished, our successes and triumphs. A list grows long with all the things that make us … remarkably, wonderfully, exactly, perfectly…. us.
Yet the gnawing is still there; its voice is audible and clear. Despite everything, it remains.
When I became a photographer, it was unbelievable how many of the women who stepped in front of my camera made it a point to tell me how awkward or unattractive they are. How they’ve never in their lives taken a decent photograph, and I should prepare myself for the world’s most awful shoot with what is obviously the world’s ugliest and least photogenic girl. Even more remarkable than their self-doubt, however, was how incredibly wrong each and every one of those women were.
A few months ago it was my turn in front of the lens, and instantly I became that girl. Instantly I was convinced that the (amazing, wonderful, and crazy talented) friend of mine behind the camera wouldn’t get one. good. shot. How could she when it was ME in front of her lens?? The first few frames felt weird, forced, ugly. I knew thats what they likely looked like as well. But then we wandered into a parking lot – and there was something about the way the light was pouring onto the pavement, glinting between a rusty conversion van and a few nondescript, shadowy vehicles – that gave me pause. Something about the banter between two friends, and Anda‘s calming yet effervescent energy behind the camera, that made me reconsider all of my insecurity. Allowed me to surrender to the moment.
Which is exactly what I did. I turned my face to the sun, closed my eyes, and opened myself up to her camera. And for a few fleeting moments – as the sun set over a frozen lake – I was free.
The images from our session turned out lovely, and I fell hopelessly in love with nearly every single frame. But as I sat there perusing my disc of images, I stared at my giant teeth, the few pounds that have taken up residence in my mid-section since the arrival of my two children, and the way my calves don’t taper to my ankles like they do so nicely on most other women. I stared, and judged, and hated those things.
Because that little gnawing voice doesn’t shut up. Defeated, I shut off my computer and walked away.
I came back to the images the following day and looked at them with a different set of eyes and with a different idea in my head. I decided to see them – to see myself – for everything that I am instead of everything that I’m not. It wasn’t easy. I forced myself to try and see me the way Anda must have while she was shooting me. They way my friends and my family see me. Letting go of myself, allowed me to see a fun, vibrant, happy young woman standing in a flood of gorgeous light. I saw emotional, raw images that exactly captured how I was feeling in those final moments of a perfect spring-like winter day. And best of all, I saw myself the way one of my newest, and dearest friends of mine sees me, and I fell hopelessly in love with that.
It was then that the idea for this project was born. It had been brewing for some time, but it became a mission when I realized what it could do – what it could reveal for other women. I’ve made it a point since that day to shoot a portrait of every woman who steps in front of my camera. To capture at least one frame in which they are the only subject. But that wasn’t enough.
Thus, the Beauty Collective is born. A portrait project aimed at capturing the essence of women. Of showcasing imperfection, and defining it as exquisitely beautiful.
At the very least I hope to tell a story about beauty – in all of its forms – and at best I hope to spark a shift in mindset – a change in the way women see things, most importantly the way we each see ourselves. A chance to shift our collective gaze to what lies remarkably in front of us, instead of searching intently for what isn’t there.
In doing so, perhaps I can redefine what it means to be real. To be honest. To be a woman. To be impeccably flawed.
A few weeks ago, I gathered a breathtaking group of women together to shoot the first series of photographs for this collective. Some of them I’ve known for what seems like my whole life, others I met the day of the shoot – strangers who’ve now become friends. I asked them to send me a list of the things they are most insecure of – the things they gravitate towards upon seeing themselves. I also asked them to list the things that they love most. Their lists were incredibly similar yet discernibly varied. The lists of likes almost always included personality characteristics: Free spiritedness, determination, humor, empathy, compassion. Conversely, the list of dislikes ONLY included physical characteristics – generally things that the average onlooker would have never noticed. But I am not going to share that list, those things. Because those things aren’t what you’ll see in their photographs. In the images below you will see seven stunningly beautiful women. Women who you will see as determined, compassionate, humorous, vibrant, empathetic, loving. Beautiful. A group of women who should see themselves that way.
Because these women are beautiful.
Exactly as they are.
Exactly like this.
These photographs are completely unretouched and were processed using VSCO Film presets for Lightroom.
Thank you to the women who embarked on this amazing adventure with me. Thank you for your honesty, for your candor, and for lending a few moments of your life to me.
If you’d like to be a part of the next installation of the Beauty Collective, or are a photographer and are interested in shooting your own collective, I’d be honored to have you on board. Please contact me for more information.
I am SO PROUD of you. You’ve been talking about this project for SO long. These photos and these women are STUNNING, just as they are in their raw form. You accomplished EXACTLY what you set out to do. I remember our many a conversations about how you so desperately wanted to do a project that captured a woman’s every day beauty. For a woman to look at their photo, past their flaws and see what everyone else sees; undeniable beauty. I teared up as I looked through this collective of photos because I see your passion for doing just that. SO proud. What a beautiful project this is and you are AMAZING for thinking beyond the lens and making it a mission for ladies to see beyond a simple reflection in the mirror and, in your own words “perhaps redefine what it means to be real. To be honest. To be a woman. To be impeccably flawed.”
THANK YOU, for being you. Xoxo (many times over) A gorgeous collective that I hope to partake in some day. <3
What a valuable project to embark on at this moment in time – when we should feel the most empowered and are instead beating ourselves down. A shocking number of women and girls in my life have come out as suffering from eating disorders in the last few years, and it was really emotional to look at these breathtaking images and imagine how they would feel trying to escape their -isms. You’ve done us a great service, Athena. Thank you! …and it goes without saying (but I will) that I’d love to be involved.
I mirror exactly everything that Tina said (well said Tina.) Athena, you set out with a goal in mind and you far exceeded that goal. These photos are incredibly honest and beautiful. You succeed once again. My cup runneth over with pride. I think you are amazing. xxoo
Wow, Athena. I am so lucky to know someone with such a good heart. I started reading this post, always loving your honesty. I tried not to scroll down too far because I like to be surprised by the pictures. Upon doing so, a river of tears came out of nowhere. Totally unexpected. I felt each one of their hearts skip as you pointed the camera at them. I felt their fear and then their release as they let go and showed who they are. And they are truly beautiful. This is absolutely your finest work. Amazing. Bravo, darling. I want to hug you hard.
Athena. Beautiful. Just. Absolutely. Beautiful! This Project. Your words. Everything.
I’m with Anna, I want to hug you right now.
I sat at my computer and the hair on my arms raised…in a good way :) Why is it that we have album upon album of photos of our kids, our husbands, our pets for crying out loud,..yet we as women, as mothers are rarely documented. And when the moment strikes, that maybe once a year Christmas card shot, we agonize over the details that we should be the proudest of- the hair that’s never curled right, the few extra lbs that come after carrying our babies inside of us, the eyes that have a few wrinkles around them….This was the light of my morning. What beautiful women. And a beautiful message. Thank you!
i absolutely love this athena. so beautiful this post, and every single frame.
i think you should shoot a collective here in rochester!
Athena- When I signed up to be a part of this project, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I stressed, and worried about every detail about how to make myself look “better”. Even once I got to the session and got in front of your camera, the nerves grew more and more. I couldn’t see your vision. I couldn’t believe that I was beautiful just as I was.
but, after reading this post (and after wiping away the tears of which there were many) I finally see your vision. I finally see what you see. I am beautiful. We all are beautiful. Exactly as we are.
The words “thank you” do not express what I want to tell you. But for now, until I can find the words…..I just want to say Thank you for showing me things about myself that I didn’t even realize were there.
When I am deeply moved by something, words completely escape me. At this moment, I have no words.
Only an overflowing heart.
xo Athena. To the moon and back, xo.
p.s. I can’t stop looking at these images, I love them all so much. I just want to sit down with you and gush over what I love about every single frame you’ve posted here. Love love love love LOVE :)
you put such beautiful words with such a gorgeous collection of images.
i love this wholeheartedly. love this.
it’s scary when you think about raising girls. and knowing that they are probably going to think of themselves this way someday. and yet? they are the most beautiful of creations. i only hope that my girls will meet someone someday that will help them see themselves like i was given the chance to see myself in your photos.
thank you. from the bottom of my heart. thank you.
these are all amazing. go, you. really.
ahh! this is so wonderful. i just said something about women and beauty on twitter, and then saw this so um perfect timing, haha! seriously, i think so many women look at photos at other women and think “they look perfect” and don’t realize that every single person has some kind of insecurity, some kind of perceived flaw. and only we see that, honestly nobody else does. people don’t get that.
go you!! xoxo
I love your words so truthfully spoken. What a perfect time in these women’s lives to be able to see their beauty through your lens. Are you going to capture all ages in your project?
Love this, all of it, everything about it. Don’t stop.
Athena – WOW. This is so powerful. I love this. What you are doing here sends a very powerful message – and a message that needs to be recieved by all. Congrats to you, and I look forward to seeing more of this.
Your words are so true and I feel them deeper having a little girl of my own. Thank you for your invitation and your amazing work. You are truly awesome and inspirational Athena and I absolutely love that about you.
This project was wonderful to see! I love that you did this… I know all too well of being that girl in the camera saying, “Good luck on making me look good”, or “Hope the camera doesnt break.” This enlightened me and also gave me an inspiration to know that what I think about myself isnt true. There is beauty in everyone no matter, size or what you look like….and to see all of these beautiful ladies and how this project tuned out made me smile…kudos to you!! Ever need a subject? Im here.
You have started a wonderful and needed project. Your project will have a positive impact on so many young women. Years ago, as a woman in my mid-40’s, I took a class at UMD on Body Image. What I learned from that class can finally be seen in your images of these young ladies. Madison Avenue instilled these thoughts into women for decades to improve their bottom line…and, now, you’ll see more and more of this insecurity becoming an issue for young men as they are encouraged to wear the ‘right’ hairdo and the ‘right’ clothes, and mold their bodies into the ‘right’ look. This project is important for every every young school girl to see…and experience. Athena, I wish you continued success. You have given a life to this subject. I thank you.
Athena! I just wanted to tell you your message is awesome and the images breathtaking! Take care and continue the wonderful and inspiring journey.
(class of ’99)
Bobbi Jo Driscoll
I love the blog…very inspirational.