I recently participated in a photo shoot with some friends and classmates. The photographer (also a classmate) was experimenting with women's perceptions of themselves, to write a paper for the Metaformic Theory class (for more on that fascinating subject, please read more at Metaformia.org). She asked us to bring to the shoot our choice of props that made us feel empowered, and disempowered, and she had us fill out a three-part questionnaire with questions for before the shoot, just after it, and for when the photographs arrived.

I was somewhat trepidatious at participating, as I do not feel I photograph well. I've also always felt I had a weak, receding chin, especially in comparison with other members of my immediate family. But I like doing things that challenge me, so I went ahead and participated despite my nervousness.

I was quite surprised at how much fun the shoot was, as well as the wide variety of responses the women had. It was fascinating to see how what empowered one woman might be disempowering for another. It was a real pleasure, as well, to see the women really lighting up with enjoyment as they posed for their empowerment photos. I had a good time, even though I was not expecting much from the photographs.

When the photographer brought us the contact sheets (the pages with the teeny-tiny versions of the photos on them), I was fascinated once again to see the reactions. Everyone dutifully filled out the last part of the questionnaire, then shared their contact sheets. We were all excited to see the photos, and interestingly everyone there loved how all the photos looked — except for their own shots! It was rather nice to see the group quite truthfully assuring each woman that her particular shots were nowhere near as dreadful as she thought they were — that they were, in fact, quite lovely. I watched and listened as I shared my photos as well, and admired all the beautiful shots. They really were quite marvelous; the photographer is a professional, and it showed.

After that I went home, and thought long and hard about what I'd seen and experienced… then sent a follow-up e-mail to the photographer, whom I refer to as 'Jasmine' here. I cc'd it to everyone who participated in the photo shoot as well, and from the response I thought perhaps it could be helpful to others on-line as well. I'm reprinting it here, although for privacy's sake I've either removed or changed all names mentioned.

Dear Jasmine;

I had a few more interesting thoughts which I wanted to share with you and the other participants in your fascinating study…

The first thing I realized, about a week or so after I received the contact sheet of photos, was that I was far, far harsher on myself — on my personal looks within the photos — than was anyone else who saw them. Indeed, several people told me I looked fantastic in the photos where I was happy and feeling empowered. Apparently my pleasure really showed through — to the point that my initial fears of looking badly were slowly replaced by a startled realization that I really didn't have anything to worry about… even in the handful of "empowered" photos where I did not feel I looked my best. People were reacting to my clearly visible emotional state — not to my self-perceived flaws.

Fascinatingly, in the photos which I found disempowering, several folks also said they thought I looked "regal" or like a "lovely, proper Victorian lady"! I was quite startled by this, since I was sure my unhappiness with that mode of dress would surely show through. However, upon my puzzledly asking about this, friends usually said (if they could see my emotional state in the photo at that moment) that they still thought I looked very nice, even if I was unhappy for some unknown reason in the photo.

I found these curious comments oddly empowering! If people thought I looked great not just when I was happy, but also when I was feeling dis-empowered… then why should I let my feelings of personal strength flag whatsoever — despite whatever I was wearing? After this strange but fascinating experience with friends and the photos, I think I will be more able to feel powerful inside now, should I ever be wearing such clothing again.

Interestingly, as I was discussing this project with a dear friend, Misty, she blinked at me in startlement, then told me she'd never seen me as having a weak or receding chin! I also was startled, then pleased at hearing that… and then I immediately thought, 'Maybe it's the birthmark over my eyebrow that she's seen and disliked instead- Wait. Why am I searching desperately for something new to stress over as being physically unpleasant about myself?!' When I laughingly mentioned this to her, she nodded and said she understood — she considered herself unpleasantly overweight, even though people always told her she looked fine.

Incidentally, Misty is built like an elf: about 5'4", little heart-shaped face, slender and willowy, with long blonde hair down to her hips. She looks great, and I told her so — and she laughed and admitted looks have nothing to do with it. It's constantly feeling like you aren't good enough that really drags you down — no matter how gorgeous (or not) you are.

In conclusion, I have always prided myself on trying my best to face my fears. It's been both enlightening to do this project with you — in that I'd not realized this was a fear, so it could be faced — and empowering, in realizing (unsurprisingly) that once more, my worst enemy wasn't anything terrible outside of me; it was simply my own unfounded fear.

Thank you, Jasmine. This was a wonderful and revelatory experience for me, and I'm grateful you insisted on my participation. Without that insistence, I wouldn't have done so; I find myself richer for the experience. I'm really looking forward to seeing the paper now, too. Cheers! :)

Modern US society (the one I'm most familiar with) is far too harsh on women, if they end up so uniformly hating their looks. Perhaps my experience can help a few others as well, besides myself, in realizing their own true personal beauty.

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