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The Campaign for Real Beauty

I was shown this video yesterday, a time-lapse that begins with a plain-looking, pimply young woman, and within about 30 seconds (time-lapse time), she’s displayed on a billboard as a supermodel. And yet, the person on the billboard isn’t the person we started with. It’s revealing.

You need to see the video.

It’s really quite disconcerting. The most troubling section is where you seen the woman’s face–after the layers of makeup and the volume of hairstyling and the magic of lighting and the flattery of studio photography–her face is being touched up and distorted in a Photoshop-like program, until her proportions (eye size, neck length, etc) are supermodel-like. And that’s disconcerting because I’m a photographer, and I use Photoshop. I have the power to do the same thing.

I have to hand it to the makers; it’s from Dove, interestingly enough, and their Campaign for Real Beauty. Their point is that fashion models and extreme dieting don’t make a perfect woman, that normal people of any age are beautiful, and that beauty isn’t skin deep. The whole site ( is focused on this issue. It’s impressive.

I heartily applaud their efforts, and hope that more and more corporations will follow suit. And more photographers, as well.

Like anyone, I’m attracted to physical beauty; it’s in our nature to be so. Yet I find myself constantly fighting to remember that real beauty is not skin deep, is not artifice, is not sex appeal, is not the goods I’m being sold in the hundreds of images I see every week. It’s tough work. I mostly fail. But I don’t give in.

In my own photographic work, I made a decision long ago not to work with models, if I could avoid it. I don’t generally shoot model cards, don’t shoot fashion, try to avoid the risque. Not because I’m a prude, but because I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to lie. And I don’t want to believe the lie. As the above video shows, much of what our culture calls beauty–and what we export and sell to the entire world as beautiful–is a lie.

I would rather photograph real people. Whether or not I’m trying to make them look good, normal people are pretty interesting. Making a normal person look good–drawing them out of their shell, helping them relax and have fun, and using the tools of my trade to show their best side–is usually fun work, and I enjoy it immensely. But I try to emphasize the fact that I’m creating a portrait of someone, not a glamor shot. It may not even be pretty, but it could be true. It’s one thing to make a person look good; it’s another to treat them like putty and mold them into a lie.

In my current documentary project on eating disorders, I work regularly with women and men who have been beat down and bought in to the lie that beauty has to do with their weight or sex appeal. Most of them hate themselves. Most of them are trying to kill themselves. I usually sit there, talking with or photographing them, and simply want to say: You are so beautiful. You have so much inside of you that is beautiful. You have so much going for you. It’s not always appropriate or profitable to say such things, but I think them, I pray for them, I do what little I can with my words and photographs to encourage them.

It’s not often I give a thumbs-up to a multinational corporation for much of anything. But thanks, Dove, for telling the truth.

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