“Mom, you aren’t a size two, you aren’t light-skinned, and you’re beautiful. I won’t tell you that you have to do this (A Beautiful Body Project) if you feel you can’t, but I would love it if you did. Just promise me they’ll include your psoriasis. It’s a big part of you.” -Lupita’s Daughter
Lupita’s Story: My favorite family portrait doesn’t include me. It was taken before I was born, an image of my mom and dad, looking like movie stars, and my sister and brother, gorgeous little combinations of them. It has that perfection that only comes from old school black and white photography. You’re drawn by the beauty of my mother’s smile, the pride in my father’s gaze. My brother, just a baby at the time, is smiling and looks so much like my mother, and my sister looks like a little dark haired cherub with big doe eyes, chubby cheeks and a perfect little bob.
Later family portraits were photo-bombed by this goofy, curly haired, dark skinned little girl that bore a faint resemblance to them, but seemed to throw off the symmetry of perfection that she still saw in the others. She wiggled instead of sat, grinned instead of smiled, and sometimes she just cried.
I can finally smile at that little girl. She spent a good part of her childhood feeling like she was something that needed to be fixed. Improved. She was too dark, too round, too loud, too smart. As a girl born into an extremely poor family with ten brothers and sisters, my mother had learned that what you looked like could lead to you being saved or stuck. Of them all, I will selfishly say, she was probably the most beautiful, inside and out, and that beauty held true until her death, a likely result of her happiness and the ever present Oil of Olay that I think she would have injected if she could. So the corrections were mostly well meaning, intended to guide me into becoming a woman that men would want to marry and take care of, even while I asked “If I get someone by pretending to be a little less smart, a little more perfect, when do I get to be me?”
Don’t get me wrong, my childhood is overwhelmingly filled with happy memories, parents who would pull me out of school to go hiking because it was a beautiful day, barbecues at midnight when my dad got off the swing shift, lots of dancing and music and laughter. An embarrassing excess of love. I remember the day my high school principal stood and lectured my mother with her still very pronounced Mexican accent and my father with grease under his nails about the importance of school which is why a security guard had to chase their daughter across campus when she was caught ditching a pep rally. I remember my dad asking him if he was calling me a liar when he doubted the note my dad had written in advance giving me permission to skip class. That was followed by my mother questioning his intelligence for punishing a straight A student because she didn’t want to cheer for the football team. At this point, I knew they loved who I was. I figured it was because we’d all accepted I’d never meet the physical standards.
Who was I? A complete smart ass with a quick sense of humor and an easily triggered temper. Confident to the point of being called arrogant, quick to speak up for others or myself, able to make others laugh without batting an eyelash. Not always the easiest person to love, but pretty easy to like. And still sure that I was ugly. When men stared, I’d sneak into the restroom to check what was on my face. Compliments made me blush and stammer and walk away. I often assumed they were after something. It must be a trick. I finally realized that some men DID think I was beautiful, but I always assumed it was based on their feelings for me. I’d respond, “I’m glad you believe I am.”
And then came Cheyenne. My daughter. She not only fits the accepted standards of physical beauty, but almost defines them. Easily one of the most stunning women you could possibly imagine, it’s magnified by the beauty of her personality. She is smart, funny, open, kind, caring, and the epitome of awesome. She wears scars with pride, and wields her beauty with caution. She has rarely chosen a partner based on their looks, sex, or financial status, but on who they were and how they made her feel. She walked into my father’s old broken down mobile home filled with kitsch, dirt, and a herd of dogs, and told him she loved the coziness, complimented his 25 cent thrift store sweatshirt and then proudly wore it when he pulled it off and gave it to her. She walked into a cramped, crowded, cat-filled apartment, sat on the bed and drank good wine and asked for appetizer recipes, and complimented the artwork on the wall. As we left, told me how much she love the gentleness of the lady that lived there and was glad I chose to be her friend.
You see, my fear of the ugliness on the outside, sometimes made me ugly on the inside. Maybe feeling judged all of my life, made me believe I had permission to judge others. I loved with all of me, but if you weren’t in my circle of family and friends, you were fair game.
And then came Cheyenne. Who would point out that she didn’t like how I spoke about people sometimes. That I took on too much of the negativity of my more caustic and negative friends. She also refused to let me wear jeans with elastic waist bands and over sized shirts (ok… we’re still working on that one). She’s the reason there are any current photos of me, especially since I realized that as long as I was happy, I didn’t care what I looked like and could suddenly look at pictures of myself. She went through old photos and tried to show me that I was beautiful long before she was born, angry at everyone who never let me see the same.
She redefined beauty for me.
When I was told about A Beautiful Body , I called Cheyenne before I contacted Jade and Alok, and asked for her advice. She said, “Mom, you aren’t a size two, you aren’t light-skinned, and you’re beautiful. I won’t tell you that you have to do this if you feel you can’t, but I would love it if you did. Just promise me they’ll include your psoriasis. It’s a big part of you.”
Yesterday was my daughter’s 22nd birthday. When Jade suggested it as the date for our shoot, it seemed right. To reach a new level of accepting myself as I am on the date that I gave birth to the person who taught me how to love myself is nothing short of epic. To start that morning with Jade, someone who looked at me and saw beauty, who looked at the old family portraits and loved the photo-bomber’s smile, who looked at my skin and saw art? Well, I was my first true birthday gift that I was given on the day I gave birth. I floated for the rest of the day and I’m pretty sure I was glowing.
As Cheyenne redefined beauty for me, A Beautiful Body Project is redefining beauty for the world.
-Jade Beall is founder of A Beautiful Body Project, is a photographer of women in her studio and around the world, and is a proud mother.