In the Eye of the Beholder

One photographer’s path from self critical to self love.

Photo via Shutterstock

Beauty is a fluid concept that means something different person to person.

For me, for a long time, it was a reminder of everything I was not, and everything I could never have. Growing up, I lived beneath a very critical parental eye whose focus was glued on physical beauty. Beauty was emphasized above all else, and by the person who–– more than anyone else–– was supposed to love me fully, unconditionally. I learned that love was conditional, and it was based on how attractive other people might find me.

The concept of beauty taught me that I must not actually be very lovable, or likable for that matter.

My hair, body, even my makeup meant more about who I was than any other quality I had. Despite being an outgoing, loving, fun, adventurous, courageous, sweet and intelligent young person, my positive attributes were never readily pointed out, only my “flaws.” And they were always physical. I learned that the imperfect outside must reflect the inside and buried it deep into my heart.

Perhaps I could be loved if only everything about me were different.

I became an expert at being able to point out all my flaws. My reflection was an immediate, daily reminder of everything that was wrong with me, my life, and what needed to be fixed. My internal dialogue put me down whenever it had the chance. After all, if I focused on all my negative attributes, perhaps I could change those things to be “better.”

Perhaps I could be loved if only everything about me were different.

The burden of never being pretty enough or worthy of love and acceptance–– that systemic self loathing that so many young people struggle with–– plagued me into my late thirties.

That’s when I first began to learn unconditional love, as I uncovered it within myself.  But it’s not that easy, is it? First, I had to begin by witnessing the beauty around me and practice loving everyone else exactly as they were.

Picking up a camera was my first step in retraining my critical eye. The first part of my journey was listening to my heart, and redefining what beauty meant to me. As a photographer, I recorded the true nature of people, including and celebrating their imperfections. I would hear people rattle off their list of what they didn’t like about their self and it pained me when they would ask if I could photoshop their hips or do a photoshop face lift, fix that bump on their nose or erase all their hard-earned laugh lines.

My answer was always no.

In the editing process, I started to REALLY notice people. The details of their faces and bodies, their nuances–– the true beauty of them. I saw the personalities that shined through, the smiles that could light up a room, the sweetness, vulnerability, and willingness to be seen by me. Being willing to be seen by someone else is an honor, and it wasn’t something I took lightly in those first days of my work in photography, and it’s one I don’t forget today.

My goal wasn’t, and isn’t, to make anyone look like a cover model. It has always been to make people look like the very best version of themselves.

As I learned how to see beauty, I’d reaffirm my subjects of their unique qualities, their beauty, and their value to help them feel comfortable; I knew it was what they needed to hear, because it’s what I needed to hear.

In expressing validation for others, I was giving myself new language to use in all those internal dialogues that pop up throughout the day; When you consistently reinforce others beauty, you start to recognize your own, imperfections and all. Instead of telling myself my breasts were too small, I started noting how cute they were. My family’s infamous Clarkson Nose stopped being a negative and transformed into my signature laugh-crinkle. My flawed skin became a roadmap of all the places I’d traveled the world over.

And some things just became things.

That “stupid scar” on my nose? It’s just a scar.

Like anyone else, I’m just a person. I have small, perky breasts and a nose that crinkles up into an expansion of my smile. My skin shows a lot of sun, a lot of days spent in rivers and on trails and walking through jungles in far away lands that are the stuff of daydreams.

I have a scar on my nose.

And I’m beautiful.

What’s more: I’m loved. I know, because I love myself.

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Jennifer MacNiven

Jen teaches people to tune into themselves — their breath, bodies and mind – through yoga, photography, and mindful wellness. Her passion is helping others explore their inner and outer worlds.  Her soul’s path is to travel, be in nature, and be in motion, and she has spent the last few years traveling the world, most recently setting up residence in Bali.  Jen is a certified yoga instructor and health+wellness coach, as well as a Souldust Guide. She is also a long-time professional photographer, which lends itself well to seeing things from a new perspective and creating lifestyle shifts.  Jen loves dancing and moving her body, hugs and conscious connections, being outdoors, camping, biking, swimming, chocolate… LIFE.

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