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The Passion of Real Beauty

I have something to say about beauty: I want a new definition of it. It’s not that the old one is wrong or bad, but beauty (as a standard) has been appropriated by an industry that ends up making women feel bad about themselves. I want the definition to be more inclusive. Last year, after publishing her book The Beauty of Different, Karen Walrond, an all around fantastic photographer, blogger and bon vivant, created a YouTube video reminding women that they are, indeed, beautiful. That, in and of itself, is nothing new. But that she used women who aren’t fashion models or who fall into the definition of “beauty” was something to behold. Recently, the video has gained new traction as it was added to UpWorthy, a site that is dedicated to making meaningful videos go viral. I subscribe to UpWorthy’s daily emails but got to see it yesterday when a friend from high school posted it to my Facebook wall asking me if I was in the video. (Disclaimer: yes, I am. Within the first 5 faces you’ll see mine.) (Second disclaimer: Karen is a good friend of mine who snaps photos of me whenever we happen to be together at blogging-related events.)

I got right on the phone to my friend and asked her to help explain why she made the video in the first place and asked her questions about her intentions and dreams for what the definition of beauty should be. Karen is a fellow Babble Voices blogger who recently came along on my journey to Ethiopia, Africa as the lead photographer. Her goal is to ensure that women know they are beautiful and her passion is getting as many images as she can out in the world that show how beautifully different we all are. As she says, “beauty is everywhere” and all we have to do is look at people no matter how different they are from us and see them as beautifully different.

Q. What is the standard of beauty and should that be changed? 

A. The standard comes from the fashion and magazine industry that tells us that beautiful is a western look: tall, blonde, blue-eyed. It tells us that women should look a certain way and that we can achieve that by making sure our hair is long and straight and that, in order to be considered beautiful, we must all attain that look though we all look different. Somehow, a subscription to Vogue ended up in my mailbox that I didn’t order and I think another magazine I was getting must have been cancelled so they replaced it with a new one.

Q. Do you normally get magazines and keep them in your house?

A. Oh, no. I’m raising a child who wouldn’t see herself in those images and it’s a very conscious effort to keep them out. The only magazine that Alex gets is one called Kiki where the girls all look very real. But, I make a concerted effort as a mom to limit those. For those of us who have children who are not valued by society, it’s particularly important to see all representations of beauty.

Q. What have you learned about women, in particular, as you photograph them?

A. It’s a rare girl who grows up completely comfortable in her own skin. If I could find one it would be amazing, but that doesn’t happen as images come at us rapid-fire. We hate to see ourselves in photographs and make all kinds of excuses not to be photographed. I don’t have any makeup on, my hair is a mess, I’ve gained so much weight. There are so few women who are fine when I pull out my camera to take their picture. Kids pick this up and we, I know that I am, are guilty of this all the time.

Q. Why is that? How does that change?

A. I think that confidence comes with maturity and experience and, as we raise daughters, all we can do is hope that our kids will get it. But they hear those comments about not wearing makeup and having messy hair and being overweight. When they hear that, they internalize it and get the very messages we were trying to avoid. But I know that someday, when my daughter is 12 or something, someone will say something about her appearance that she will take as fact and will hold onto that.

Q. Yes, for me it was Greg Christensen in 5th grade. He called me “thunder thighs” and I remember it to this day. So, how do we stop listening to that?

A. Women need to pull themselves out of their own heads. It’s hard. But for this project I was intentionally being inclusive as to the different and beautiful ways that women look. I’m sure it was an angry response to the messages we hear so I put together photographs of interesting women who were beautiful because of their interesting faces. And I’ve gotten lots of responses to that. Thirty-percent of the women in video are over 50 years of age. Some are grandmothers. But, it’s mostly underrepresented of those women in their 20s,there are several in their 30s, a considerable number of them are in their 40s, and it goes all the way up to women in their 60s.

Q. So, what happened? You put this project together over a year ago.

A. Someone at UpWorthy found it and put it on their site and was kind enough to feature it. Kim Hohman is her name. It just blew up from there and my Twitter stream was filled yesterday. The messages just kept coming! I finally had to turn it off it was so overwhelming.

Q. When you were a young girl, who did you want to emulate or want to look like as an adult? For instance, I wanted to look like Sophia Loren. Did you do that?

A. Not really. I’ve always loved faces and spent time wishing my face looked more like certain faces that I thought were amazing.

Q. Like who? Can you name some women I might know?

A. Oh, that’s a tough question. Let me see. Someone like Justine Bateman who has an interesting face. Or even Angelina Jolie, though I wouldn’t want that same body. I really love Tracee Ellis Ross’s face and Lisa Bonet. Of course, there’s the fascinating model, Alex Wek and, when I was a kid, I like Grace Jones but it was also for her sense of ever-changing style.

Q. What is your favorite part of your own face?

A. My mouth. I used to hate my mouth because I remember growing up and starting to wear makeup and my mother kept telling me to line the inside of my lips since big lips aren’t pretty. She said I should minimize the shape of your mouth. Once I grew older and realized that they were a part of me that I liked, I found that I love great lipsticks and anything that accentuates my lips.

Check out Karen’s 1,000 Faces project here and read her personal blog here.

Read more from Kelly at her personal blog, Mocha Momma: Soul-Pulling Dancing in Ethiopia

Follow Kelly on Facebook

Follow Kelly on Twitter

More of Kelly on Mocha Momma Has Something To Say: Changing the View of Ethiopia

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