The beauty myth, the wedding industrial complex, and why you should stop caring too much what you look like on your wedding day & party instead…
There are a few things you hear a lot in this job.
“It must be nice to only work Saturdays” (yes, yes it is. I, however work six days a week so I have no idea what that’d be like)
“You can’t shoot into the sun” (You can if you know what you are doing, bud)
“Well, I used to shoot film of course, I guess you wouldn’t know about that” (I make tintypes guv, that trumps your roll of Fuji by 11 nerd points)
“I am really unphotogenic”.
What? That isn’t actually a thing, you know. Either you’ve had bad photos taken, or decent photos with a bad lens, or you are just seeing what the black wolf wants you to see. Usually its the latter.
This pressure of needing to meet an arbitrary set of rules is particularly intensified when a wedding is coming up. Mums feel it, guests feel it, the not stick-thin bridesmaid really feels it, and often the bride can become quite overwhelmed by it. You hear all the time of pre-wedding diets, pre-wedding shreds, and even pre-wedding plastics.
Now, I am not dissing your right to go get bits of your body toned, prepped & trimmed. Go for your life, no judgement here. I am big fan of NOT telling women what they can & can’t do with their bodies. But where I do take issue, is when it’s about torturing yourself over the fear that you don’t measure up, and you will look bad in your pictures forever more.
My personal spirit animal Tina Fey puts it better than I:
And let’s face it, the Wedding Industrial Complex doesn’t help. We are surrounded by images of traditionally perfect-looking brides (who decides what this is?!), wearing two-piece gowns unachievable for most women if we want to adhere to those rules. We place such an unhealthy emphasis on what you will look like on your day, like it actually means something. It doesn’t! You will hopefully look like you. The you that the person waiting anxiously at the end of the aisle fell in love with, and are the moon & the stars to. Often I will let my couples sneak a look at the back of my camera, and it’s not unusual to hear the cry “OMG WE LOOK LIKE THE PEOPLE ON YOUR WEBSITE!”. The thing is, all those people looked like themselves. And many of them worried they didn’t look good enough. And yeah, sure, they were gussied up & had great make up & an amazing frock/suit/ghostbusters costume, but when they were surprised by what they saw in my camera it was because they saw themselves as flipping beautifully as I did. Exactly, heartbreakingly, as beautiful as you don’t feel allowed to see yourself. Not because of their features, but because of their smiles and their joy and their hearts being rooted in this unrepeatable, defining moment.
So why do we feel this way? Sometimes it feels like an inalienable part of being female. Some people will uncharitably say that its because other women judge you – please feel free to contact me & we can go for a coffee whilst I explain why this is framed wrongly. I can bring a powerpoint & everything. I mean, it will just have pictures of Morten Harket on it because I like to look at Morten Harket, but safe to say its a pet subject of mine. So I guess its just comes from a history of finding our validation, our value, even our social safety in how we look. How we conform. Weddings put this under a giant great magnifying glass – there is no other sane reason why we find ourselves obsessing over cellulite that no one can even see under that amazing frock…
A few years ago I looked at a wee book I had put together about my kids’ first decade. It was really cool. There were iPhone snaps, SLR shots, digital images of varying levels of quality as I learned to use my camera, and no pictures of me. I was obese, I disliked the way I looked (although I should note I have always liked myself), and I hated that that is how my precious girls might remember me at that time if I was in those shots. How absurd and sad and destructive an idea is that?! It struck me that they looked like a family that didn’t have a mum; so many families have to deal with that awful reality, so why on earth would I want to give that idea, for something as silly as looks? So I made a decision. I would contact one of my many talented friends and book in a family photoshoot.
Enter the brilliant Helen Lisk, who knew I felt anxious & knew that I didn’t want to be made out to look like I am not, either. I have a pet hate of photographers hiding & minimising larger women – they are trying to be kind, but are actually reinforcing all those shameful ideas. Part of this process was not hiding myself, or disguising those things I felt unhappy with, but just making a little capsule of our lives, right then, in all its perceived flaws. So we went to Mudeford, found a fish whom Evie called Fudge, pretended we owned a striped beach hut, and generally tried to feel okay about being vulnerable. Helen was amazing – I never doubted this – and her light touch made the whole morning so much fun. These images are the most precious things I own. They caught the girls just before they hit adolescence, and all the changes that came with that. They were a last hurrah of tinydom, and I well up just thinking about it. (Seriously, make her shoot your family, you won’t regret it). And yeah, I looked fat in the images, because I was fat. And that was okay. Because I looked nice too. And because what I see in those images was not the lady Hagrid that I dismissively saw in the mirror, but relationship, and the fiercest of loves, and a connection between me & my girls that has gone now, to be replaced by one just as lovely & important, but different, and never to be regained. Your wedding will be the same, if you feel able to loosen the grip of that pernicious self-judgement. Now significant weight loss later, I am less anxious of seeing myself in pictures, because it means less to me – I know that impact won’t be there. Pictures with my family & friends now represent what they are – perfect pearls of memory. What they always should have meant. Here are a couple of Helen’s pictures.
I know right? Im a total babe, try to remain calm, I am taken, Norweigan popstrels aside.
So, what about your self perception? What about your anxieties of how you will look on your wedding day? Let me take you to church, as the cool kids say. (Oh wait, if I have said it that inevitably means no cool kids do, or possibly ever have, said it).
You will look amazing – because you will be marrying the person of your dreams (or at least not of your nightmares), and you are living in that bubble of love & support from all those people whom are important to you. You will SHINE, baby. And everyone will go around saying so. And you won’t really believe it because that is how we have been taught to feel, but it won’t make it any less true. And then maybe, as time goes on, and your breathtakingly talented & achingly beautiful photographer shows you enough images of yourself looking killer, you might believe it a little bit, and relax. Or even better, you will choose to stop caring what the black wolf says, and let the white wolf come out & party (this feels like it might be a bit racist, not sure how it works with canines, apologies if the etomology has nasty undertones. I did once meet a racist dog once though…story for another day).
So let us stop trying to live up to the beauty myth. It’s not why we are loved. It stops us experiencing the freedom of our bodies & damages our hearts. Yes, maybe this is pointless saying it, it has been ingrained for ever, but it feels less wrong that not saying it. What you look like matters nothing to me as a photographer, and even less to the kind of images we will make. How you feel means everything.
So wax those legs, fashion your bikini line into the shape of New Zealand, do whatever you want in the spirit of fun & self care, just not in fear. And when you go to a wedding and you approach that overwhelmed woman or women in the big frock, don’t stop saying they look amazing. Because they do. And they might need to hear it. But also tell them they *are* amazing. Because they are. And they just did all this shizz in heels & control pants…
PS. I have focused on women in this article, not because I think men don’t feel physical & social pressures to be attractive, they absolutely might, but because of the very nature of a wedding being focused on how a woman looks. If you already feel like you don’t look the part, it can be pretty flippin’ difficult. You dudes get to deal with different pressures – the speech? Oh lord. I already wrote an article about that though, many moons ago… Also #notallwomen feel the way I have described. Some of them are body & soul-confident & waltz into their weddings like queens. GO YOU, you brilliant, sparkling women. More power to you.
Whatever your perspective, I would love to know your thoughts.