Resilience and Strength

by Liz

“They keep saying that beautiful is something a girl needs to be.

But honestly? Forget that. Don’t be beautiful.

Be angry, be intelligent, be witty, be klutzy, be interesting, be funny, be adventurous, be crazy, be talented – there are an eternity of other things to be other than beautiful.

And what is beautiful anyway but a set of letters strung together to make a word?

Be your own definition of amazing, always. That is so much more important than anything beautiful, ever.

Don’t Be Beautiful by Nikita Gill

Third in a series of photoshoots dealing with fear and cultural expectations of beauty, I wanted to take some shots where “beauty” wasn’t the point on any level. “Pretty,” “lovely,” “elegant” weren’t important vocabulary words to this concept. This was going to be all about strength and resilience.

The special effects make up artistry was done by Amber Woody. When we were talking about the look I was going for, Amber suggested bruises and cuts in different stages of healing. I really liked what that would mean thematically, an ongoing battle. The red gloves, the only bold color in the shots, aren’t just for fun. They are my personal boxing gloves. I didn’t want this to be in costume. In conversation with the photographer, Laurie Ellsworth, we talked about the differences between being gloved and barehanded. The idea of suiting up, heading for a fight, day after day, really began to take hold of my imagination.

“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”

Margaret Thatcher

Everybody deals with difficult things. Everyone struggles. The hardest things are not quick or easy solutions. Some problems have to be attacked again and again, from different angles. To me, being strong doesn’t mean you knock-out your opposition in one punch. I admire the strength of resilience and endurance – the person who gets up every time they fall down, gets back in the ring every round, especially when they have to fight the same fight over and over.

Laurie was experimenting with exposure and lighting set up she had never used before. We had talked about dramatic and minimalistic lighting. You’d never know we shot these photos in daylight outside, or in my living room with three floor-to-ceiling windows with the blinds pulled all the way up. I don’t know anything about the technique, but I loved that Laurie was learning and trying something new the same way these modeling shoots have been learning and trying something new for me.

Loads of great photos came out of this shot, only some of which are here. The others will come out as I think about them. They surprised me. So many of them were sad, defeated, discouraged – the opposite of what I was going for. I have a lot of acting experience with weak, victimized, sorrowful, downtrodden characters. Still, I didn’t expect that to come through so much, for those qualities to be so easy, so natural, and so familiar. They may be digital photos, but pardon the pun, I’m still processing them.

And then there were the angry photos. Interesting that anger should be an easier reach for me in front of a camera than confident strength. I think anger is ugly, at least on my own face, and oftentimes it begets ugly behavior. Anger can be useful as a motivator, but I certainly don’t like being angry, even when it propels me powerfully to appropriate action. It would be so easy to bury the ugly and angry shots, but that would defeat the purpose. If “beauty” doesn’t belong in the vocabulary of this concept, then I have to kick “ugly” out of the conversation too. Anger can stay. It’s a type of fuel, not the best for your engine, not the longest-lasting, but fuel all the same.

Finally, the shot that I keep thinking about the most. It’s not my favorite, it makes me a little uncomfortable, but I think ultimately I like it. I trust Laurie Ellsworth as a photographer, and as a lifelong friend. There are a lot of things about this shot that still makes me nervous. It, more than any other photo, challenges me to move the conversation away from “beautiful/ugly.” This picture does make me feel strong, at least in my arms. It doesn’t push “anger,” or “mean,” in my face. If it looked and meant only “mean,” I’d dismiss it. I don’t want to be mean, even if it tries to masquerade as strong. There’s something in my eyes though. Maybe I can see it because I know I burst out laughing right after Laurie snapped this shot. There is a kind of jubilation in this pic. I was having fun with my friend, even if trying to summon my strength felt a bit silly sometimes. She was encouraging me, we were laughing together, learning together, figuring it out, and trying again. I can see the hesitation, the slight uncertainty, the full-throated commitment to trying anyway, and the spark of delight and humor in the middle of the attempt. In that way, maybe this is the most “me” photo of them all. As much as I want to be completely strong, tough, and resilient, I’m a woman who is striving for things a little out of reach, even though it feels risky and scary, laughing and kind of enjoying the whole thing.

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