Fourth in a series of photoshoots where I wanted to explore my own relationship with fear and beauty, the initial concept for this shoot was taking a stunning red dress out in the rain to conceptualize freedom.
Bravery is the audacity to be unhindered by failures and to walk with freedom, strength, and hope, in the face of things unknown.Morgan Harper Nichols
Here’s some really personal stuff
Being an actress has kept cultural standards of beauty at the forefront of my mind for decades. I get casting calls with descriptions like “girl next door vibe,” “quirky, cute best friend,” and I have a real shot at those roles. Casting calls that mention, “gorgeous,” “sexy,” “stunning,” or “romantic leading lady,” aren’t generally looking for someone who looks like me. That has been a cold, hard fact of my employment even in my 20s. I turn 39 this year. I support my physical health with consistent intention, but I’ve let nature happen to my wrinkles, eyelashes, and hair. I don’t like to wear makeup beyond mascara when I’m not auditioning or performing. The discrepancy between my industry norms and how I want to live is pretty wide sometimes. I don’t mind anyone else doing what they want to feel good about their appearance, but I’ve realized what I don’t want to do while still feeling a lot of pressure to do it.
Once I had the most awkward conversation with a female costume designer because the male producer of the show wanted my breasts to look bigger. This was the night before the show previewed. I was already receiving a lot of help in that area from my bra and some inserts. The designer, trying to find an acceptable compromise and having a body shape similar to mine, suggested I add a second push-up, padded bra on the outside of the first still keeping the inserts. This was one of the rare moments I held the line for myself. I thought, You knew what I had when you hired me and there is nothing about this role, script, or production that necessitates me being bigger chested other than a sexualized aesthetic preference and I’m not doing it. I wonder if I would have been so brave if I didn’t already have a significant resume and relationship with the company. For the entire run of the show, I wore my regular bra, no enhancements, and no further conversation about the topic occurred.
Last year, I had a friend tell me something profound. This friend thinks I am beautiful, and we have talked about my deepest feelings and thoughts on the topic of beauty philosophically and personally. This friend was about to compliment me and instead said, “It’s not my job to make you understand that you are beautiful.” My brain instantly followed up with, “It isn’t anyone else’s job either. If that job belongs to anybody, it belongs to me.”
Not long after that conversation, I was getting ready to shower in my bathroom. Being the problem-solver, responsible person I’m inclined to be, I was thinking about “my job” to understand that I am beautiful. I looked at myself in the mirror and worked it out. “I have felt beautiful before. What’s the standard? What’s the definition? How many times do I have to feel beautiful before I meet the definition?” The ridiculousness of that question astounded me and shattered my perception of myself. Parsing out whether I have to feel beautiful twenty times total over the course of my life, or at least once a week, or five days in a row–it was all such nonsense.
That was a turning point, not a cure-all.
Of course, I haven’t felt beautiful 100% all the time without any difficulty, effort, or mental reminders of what I’ve discovered since then. But I feel so much better about myself because the definitions are mine, and I’ve decided that “I am beautiful. Sometimes, it’s just harder to tell.” Somedays I don’t make any kind of effort on my hair. Somedays my body is too tired or doesn’t feel good. Lighting makes a tremendous amount of difference. Most of my camera shots don’t work out. That’s not the reality of my beauty. Those are just moments where something has gotten in the way and made my beauty less apparent.
Even with this newfound confidence, I still have moments where I feel the pressure–on a film set in January where my choices to have undyed hair and no lash extensions were definitely in the minority, looking at a casting call last night for a role I really want but am not the right type of beautiful for. That’s why I keep working on this conversation with myself. I’m reminding myself, and it has to be public for me. I figure if you’re reading this, you aren’t too annoyed. But the conversation about beauty with myself has been bound up in other people’s expectations, pleasures, and in the public eye all along. If I can’t have the courage to own it all publicly by blogging, posting, etc. then I worry that I don’t really have the strength of the conviction at all.
Maybe it’s useful for someone else.
I don’t feel the desire to change the entire cultural climate about beauty. If you enjoy any of the extensions to hair and eyelashes, acrylic nails, plastic surgery, extensive makeup, and beauty products, by all means, keep enjoying them guilt-free. I just want to feel like there is enough space for what I want beauty to be for me and for anyone else who feels the same way I do.
I dare you to take off the mask of perfection and show up as you are. Feel the freedom, the relief, the lightness. Because when we are real, that’s when we actually heal. And those around us just might heal, too.Ashley Hetherington
So here’s the real deal about this red dress photo shoot.
I didn’t brush my hair that morning, the curl was leftover from a film set the day before. I wasn’t freshly showered and my legs weren’t freshly shaved. I had wanted to shoot in the rain, right? Well, I was sleeping in after a late night on set when my friend and photographer Laurie Ellsworth messaged me that it was raining and if I could meet her in about half an hour, we could get the shots. I wasn’t going to say no to that, even if the timing meant I wasn’t going to be able to prepare for the shoot the way I had anticipated. It was going to be all about feeling free and beautiful in my own way anyway, so au natural it was! I put mascara on, and a hint of color to my lips. I decided on the gold earrings last second because (thank you lack of sleep,) I felt pale and drawn and knew the gold would help me out. I purposefully left all shaping undergarments in their drawers. I’m in the best shape of my life and as much as I have things about my body from bearing children that are noticeable without shapers, this is me dangit! It’s not really being free if I have to smoosh it all in.
Imperfection is a form of freedom.Anh Ngo
There was a reason this shoot was last in my series of four. It mattered to me to place it after dirt and nature, after taking on the cold water, after exploring strength and resilience. Even as I want a healthier relationship with my notions of beauty, I still don’t want that concept to be as important to me as freedom, courage, wild and natural, strong and determined.
Laurie is a fantastic photographer, but I’m not a professional model. There were more shots that didn’t work out than ones that I thought nailed it. And dancing barefoot on wet granite on a wintry morning was the coldest my toes have ever been, including being twice in a freezing stream. This shoot was still a blast.
Now I’m looking forward to more time behind the camera. All the ideas I’m excited about now involve other models or are about completely different concepts than beauty and fear. Maybe I’ll come back to those someday, there’s always more to learn, but I’ve had the conversation with myself that I needed for now. Thanks for listening to it, seeing it, and being the public part that makes me feel like I’ve finally, completely stood up for myself about it.
Freedom is not about the size of your cage or power of your wings or non-attachment to a person or a thing. Freedom is about being so truly, madly and deeply attached to your own soul that you can’t bear – if only for a moment – a life that doesn’t honor it.Andrea Balt