The perception of beauty

What is beauty? Why are some people considered beautiful and others aren’t? Why does this perception change over time? We all have that friend who looked very handsome when you met, but the better you got to know him, the more you realised that he wasn’t all that good looking. And we all know a girl that was kinda plain Jane looking, but as you spent time with her you realised that she had pretty eyes, and when she smiled, her whole face lit up, and she looked incredible. Her beauty grew on you. 

I think beauty and attractiveness have more to do with the nature, character and behaviour of the person, than with their appearance.

There are any number of examples to support this. The Indian actors Om Puri, Naseerudin Shah, and Irfaan Khan, are not handsome by any traditional yardstick, but are charismatic and have character that shines through clearly in their movies and photographs. They look incredible in photographs.

I had never thought Anil Kapoor, the Bollywood actor, was particularly handsome, until I met him in person one time. He’s tall, taller than you think, has expressive eyes, and gives you his complete attention when you speak with him. When he smiles, his eyes twinkle. He’s very charismatic, and since that one meeting, I find myself thinking he’s better looking than I did before.

I think it also has a lot to do with how invested in the person we are.

In college, there was a friend of mine that had a steady girlfriend, and every time the guys were hanging out and would see a pretty girl and nudge one another, he would be like “She’s ok, what are you guys getting so excited about?” To him, the most beautiful girl in the world was his. No-one else came close. We find attractive, that which resonates with us – whether we like them, admire them, respect them, or aspire to be like them. 

There is one exclusion. There is no-one that any of us are more invested in, than ourselves. Yet, we tend to be our own worst critics, and many of us are filled with the conviction that we’re not attractive. 

Any photographer that works with models, knows that the person in real life and their image on a magazine cover, rarely look the same. Our perception of beauty is skewed by airbrushed and photoshopped images that are bombarded at us by tv, magazines, advertisements and social media. 

But it’s not real. People don’t really look like that.

Almost all the images you see in fashion magazines and advertisements have been retouched to such an extreme level that the ‘person’ you see, is, in all honesty, fictional. 

And this has become a problem. Because no matter how much you try to look like that, no matter what products you purchase in an attempt to reach that level of beauty, it is impossible. In today’s increasingly online world, our kids are up to their necks in unrealistic perfection. All day, they are exposed to photos and videos of ‘beautiful’ people, which gives them an unattainable standard to measure themselves and their self worth by. Teen suicides in most of the world are higher than ever, eating disorders, self harm, body shaming and teenage depression are all higher than they ever have been.

It has been happening for a while. Some 15 years ago, Dove released this clip, titled Evolution. In 60 seconds, it opens our eyes to the hours of make-up and hairstyling that go into a beauty shoot, and then the hours of digital editing in Photoshop, that morph and resize the model's features to look more 'beautiful'. The clip ends with the line 'No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.'

No wonder, indeed.

It resonated so strongly with people, that it inspired Dove to make a campaign out of it.

There is a movement of sorts underway. 

In 2015, Annie Leibovitz, one of the world’s greatest portrait photographers, shot the annual Pirelli calendar in a completely new way. Hitherto, the calendar was racy and sexy, featuring retouched models in various stages of undress. Annie made it real. Read about it here.

In 2017, France passed a law requiring images of models that had be retouched to make the models look thinner or thicker to be accompanied by a disclaimer saying ‘Retouched photograph”.

Earlier this year, the giant advertising firm, Ogilvy and Mather, announced they would no longer work with influencers that had retouched their photographs.

As a photographer, people come to me all the time and say they want me to make them look beautiful. My counter is that they already are beautiful. And I truly mean that. There isn’t a face in the world, that when beaming with a genuine smile, eyes twinkling and full of mirth, doesn’t inspire comfort and goodness and decency. These things are beautiful.

So no, I can't make you beautiful, you already are. But what I can do, is make beautiful photographs of you, so you can see yourself, the way I see you. Attractiveness, beauty, grace and elegance have everything to do with who you are, how you carry yourself, how you behave, than about how you look. Looking glamorous is a different thing altogether. That’s a lifestyle choice. To be high maintenance or not. Glamour is about make-up, clothes and lighting. Anyone can look glamorous. I’ve built a photography business around that idea. Want to know what you’d look like as a model? Book a glamour shoot with me, I’ll show you!