November 26, 2012

Your Beauty Lies Behind Your Mask.

Serenity, age 4

Lately, I have been thinking of all things make-up.

And mostly, what I have decided is that make-up is one of the masks we wear to cover up who we really are.

I am not completely makeup free, but I am getting closer to that every day. For one thing, I just don’t have the time to obsess about how I look like I used to. There are too many other things that demand my attention. And as I focus more on the work I love, it becomes less and less important to be “beautiful.”

Another aspect of that is seeing my daughter grow up in a world where she will always struggle. My son came three years earlier. There has never been an emphasis on how he looks. Sure, he is handsome, and I am sure he enjoys hearing that. Yet, his worth is not determined by how handsome he is in the way my daughter’s worth in popular society will be tied to how beautiful she becomes.

As I look at my daughter’s bare face, I am amazed at her utter perfection. One of my favorite things is to watch her admiring herself. She is completely in love with herself.

Somehow, as we grow older, we lose that feeling about ourselves.

From healthychildren.org:

As girls approach and enter adolescence, their self-esteem can become more fragile. In about one-third of girls, a decline in self-esteem becomes pronounced and long-lasting. Sadness, anxiety, and eating disorders are more prevalent in girls on the brink of becoming teenagers. Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, some girls lose much of their emotional strength and spirit. They may develop a crisis in confidence and become depressed. Their optimism dampens, and they become less likely to take chances. By adolescence, girls are much more likely than boys to say that they are “not good enough” to attain all of their dreams.

By the time girls enter high school, less than one third of them report being happy with the way they are. When it comes to body image, negative feelings can begin much earlier. As young as the age of seven, many girls start becoming self-critical of their bodies, and up to fifty percent of nine-year-old girls have already tried dieting. Some may find themselves on the fast track to eating disorders, which are often associated with depression and even thoughts of suicide. 

These statistics abound, yet I see girls everywhere mimicking their mothers in an endless quest to be beautiful.

I have tried to be very conscious about my influence on my daughter. I never diet and I never put myself down. I have tried to show her that my life—as far as it matters—exists outside of the confines of being considered beautiful.

However, since we do live in the modern world, I am not her only point of reference. She has been around older girls and has already played with makeup and nail polish. Much to my dismay, she is already convinced she is more beautiful adorned.

Likewise, when I do bother to get ready, I notice how pleased she is that I am, once again, “beautiful.”

But this is a double-edged sword. The more time I spend playing into this society’s standards, the less time I have for activities that are actually fulfilling, and as I near my 40th year, I have finally begun to realize that my life is not going to last forever.

I have also dwelled on how many times I have used make-up to cover up how I am feeling. When I am tired I might put on some lipstick to brighten my face. After crying—some waterproof mascara. How many times have I masked myself to look happy so I could attend a party I really did not want to go to?

In my work with women these last years, I have come to realize how many women utterly hate themselves. They hate their wrinkles. They hate their bodies. They hate their stretch marks, breasts and stomachs. It is rare to find an adult woman who believes she is enough, just as she is.

It has become apparent that we are playing hard at a game we cannot win. The game gets harder as we age, and the more time we spend on this game, the less of ourselves is left.

Last year, I came across a project that I instantly fell in love with: Feminine Transitions. In a world filled with photo-shopped images of women who are heavily made up, this book is a breathe of fresh air.

Feminine Transitions is a refreshing and inspiring full-color photography book that includes a series of portraits revealing the elegance and subtle honest beauty of females from the ages of seven weeks to 103 years old.

I had an opportunity to discuss this book with author and photographer Alyscia Cunningham last week:

The one thing that has struck me most since I first watched the video about your project was the refusal of many of the women to remove their make up for the shoot. Why do you think women are so resistant to take their masks off?

Alyscia: I believe some women over the years, get so used to seeing themselves with their masks on that it becomes who they think they are (or what they look like). With their “make-up” they are able to fix all what they may consider imperfections (wrinkles, puffs, dark spots, etc).  It’s like their masks are their representatives (not their true selves). Then they become completely uncomfortable with their physical appearance. I know this has to do with society but I also believe it stems from previous experiences. How they were raised, what they say, who their examples were, etc. Through my project I realized the issue of self-perception is more serious than I thought.

What prompted your resistance to the norm of wearing makeup?

Alyscia: Fortunately, my father always told me how beautiful I looked naturally. He often voiced his opinion against any unnatural alterations (unless it was medically necessary). My mom used to wear light make up and I remember him telling her that he liked her without it. As I got older, and tried make-up for a photo shoot, I really didn’t like it. I looked like a totally different person. I believe that my father was the foundation for that.  Coincidently, I happened to marry a man who feels that same. To be quite honest, if he felt different we most likely would never been in a relationship.

Can you speak to the environmental impact of make-up?

Alyscia: Trash, chemicals, toxins, animal cruelty, air quality. Make-up most definitely affects the environment. Millions of chemical toxins are dumped into our waterways each year and that causes a ripple effect, which impacts every living thing. Not to mention the side effects of using make-up on a consistent basis. Studies show that some chemicals known as athletes and parabens may lead to the development of cancer. Chemicals can also cause dark circles, pimples, premature aging, acne and other infections. We can have an entire discussion about this. What I will say is that women should do their research before putting their daily mask on.

How big of an influence do you think media has on the perception women have of themselves?

Alyscia: I believe that the media/society has the largest influence on the self-perception of women. We live with advertisement all around us. Commercials, magazines, billboards, doctors….so much of it has to do with looking ageless or reversing aging. Society is not embracing our natural transitions; instead they are trying to brainwash people into staying young. Although women get most of the pressure, men get it too. Now they are emphasizing to get surgery for balding or color for gray hair. When did it become not OK to gray?

Lillie, age 93

I feel for our senior women. They are trying to keep up with the “young” look because society tells us that getting older is not beautiful. We now have an entire generation of younger people following in the footsteps of their elders. When I look at many women today, I don’t see who they really are. So many women are covered in make-up, wigs, acrylic nails, drawn in brows and fake eye lashes. Who are we? Although media has the largest influence, we must have the common sense to know what’s best.

What have you learned from your project?

I have learned that there are serious negative issues with women and their self-perception. I knew it was problem but I really truly didn’t know it was this severe.

Has the project changed at all since its inception?

I was first going to shoot girls/women at known transitions periods. For example, five (first year in Kindergarten), 10-11 (typically around the time menstrual starts), 13 (teenager), 18 (graduates college), 21 (considered an adult), etc. After starting, I didn’t quite get responses from these age groups. Then I decided to just shoot everyone that contacted me instead of the age increments. I actually photographed a few women and girls who were the same age.

I was also going to take personality portraits on the opposite side of the head shots. That idea changed because it didn’t fit my idea of including the blurbs beside the pictures. My cover image has changed as well. I couldn’t connect the faces of a little girl and older women together because of the different proportions of their faces. Other than that, the main idea of photographing females in their natural state always remained the same.

How has having daughters impacted you?

Alyscia: Knowing that I have little ladies looking up to me as their example is powerful. The decisions I make as a woman are inspired by my girls. It is extremely important to represent myself as a true and respectful woman so that they will do the same. I take that very seriously. It is equally important that I teach my son how to choose the right woman and model how to treat her. Everything I do is with my children in mind. My daughters must pass the torch to their daughters and do the same.

How has the response to your project been overall?

Alyscia: It has been great! I received lots of love and encouragement from women across the globe. Everyone is waiting for Feminine Transitions to be printed.

Do you feel supported by other women?

Alyscia: I do feel supported by other women. However, it would be great to get support from women of influence. That would be those who have contacts that can help me to get to the next level so I can publish my book. As a woman, I feel that it is my duty to help other ladies by sharing ideas, showing support and providing helpful information. It would be great if we can all get on board with that idea. Men truly don’t face this issue.

What can other women do to support your project (aside from the obvious: buy your book!)?

Alyscia: Share information! If you see my project online and know of a company that will appreciate my message of embracing our natural beauty, please share my project with the individual/company. I am looking for sponsorship in order to publish Feminine Transitions. If you have ideas that can help me feel free to provide me with that information.

Finish the sentence:

A woman is


Creation is

made possible because of women.

When I think of pregnancy I think of

the blessings of birth.

What I love most about being a woman is

my strength.

I want to change

the mentality of the women and girls that allow themselves to be disrespected. I want them to know their power.

I want my daughters to know

I promise to represent myself as a woman at all times, to lead by example, and to teach them to do the same. I look forward to (but not rushing) being a grand mother and great grand mother to their children and grandchildren and be that elder that they can all come to and trust.

If I could change anything with Feminine Transitions, it would be

change the perception of beauty. I want to empower women and girls to embrace their natural beauty not the media’s idea of what’s attractive.

For more information about Feminine Transitions, visit www.alyscia.com.


Ed: Brianna B.


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