Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Do You Say to the Girl Who's Not Pretty?

"The photos are nice, I just think they made you look so masculine... You're just so pretty. I wish they would've captured that."
Photographer: Steve Squall, Stylist: Megan Wilde, Set Design: Gunnar Deathrage, Make Up: Isidro Valencia

The afore mentioned comment was made in reference to my photos in STORY Magazine. As the comment was made, everything in me wanted to roll my eyes, puff my chest out and give a piece of my curiously progressive mind. Instead, I took a moment to pause and think...deep breath in and out...and I responded, "The photos are exactly what I wanted."

When I initially met up with Julie (editor and publisher of STORY Magazine) to discuss the story and visual concepts for the feature, I'd mentioned to her that I had a special interest in androgyny. I wasn't sure of how open she would be to the idea of an androgynous photo shoot, because I knew how it could come across given the nature of the story.  However, our meeting had been so open and organic, I felt that we were on the same page when it came to creativity and  freedom of expression. A few weeks later, she told me she'd taken the androgynous concept to her visual team and they liked it! I was ecstatic! Before we moved forward with anything, the visual team and I had a chat about the concept and what it might look like and what we wanted it to mean. We were all on the same page. The point of the photo shoot was not to necessarily defy my femininity or the traditional type of "pretty" that I'd done so many times before. The point of the androgynous concept was to embody something that was limitless, boundless, unconventional, challenging, creative, artistic and natural. When the team asked me, "Why androgyny?" I don't remember what my exact reply was, but I know my thoughts went a little something like this:
"Who is to say what is feminine and what is masculine? Who is to say that boys are handsome and girls are pretty? Who is to say that girls wear dresses and boys wear suits? Or girls wear pink and boys where blue? Who's to say??? I would love to see what it would look like for a child to be raised in a world free of gender-influence. If you could lay out an allotment of clothes on the bed every morning and allow that child to wear whatever appealed to them, with no one telling them what color or style they should choose... If they could play whatever sports or participate in whatever art they wanted, with no influence of who or what they should be. If they could develop a truly organic personality and sense of self, with no outside influence of how they should or should not feel... What would that look like? What kind of people would we be? What would society look like?"
The other day, I was scrolling through my Instagram, when I came across a picture of a young lady whom I found to be very attractive...stunning actually. However, I was beside myself in trying to find a word to describe her. I didn't want to call her "pretty" or "gorgeous" because she was not those things...not by the conventional definition anyway.  She was intriguing, attractive... aesthetically pleasing, for sure. She had the kind of eyes that spoke to you and shared a glimpse of her beautiful, slightly guarded, yet gentle soul. She appeared to be very comfortable and very confident...content with who she was. This young woman was made beautiful by something much deeper than skin, but still, "pretty" was not a word that described her. And then I thought to myself, "Why does she have to be limited to 'pretty'? And what does that mean anyway?" Would it be such a crime to compliment someone in a way that speaks to their being rather than their outward appearance alone?  In a way that possibly reaches past expectation and into personal expression? I understand that our physical appearance is generally anyone's first impression of us... I understand that. But, would it be so hard to gather something more than "pretty" or "handsome"?

Maybe I'm reaching with this, but honestly, think about the many influences that we have around us everyday...telling us what we should and should not be? My fascination with androgyny is because it embraces an openness and an ambiguity that many of us are taught to work against. I know most people's thoughts, when they think of androgyny, is something along the lines of masculine women and feminine men; but I think it is more than that, much more than that. We are taught to embrace definition, because anything else is too confusing for the world to understand. We are put in a box just as soon as we come out of the womb and we don't even know it. I've seen people look at babies and say, "Oh my, she is such a pretty girl/handsome boy." But really folks, how could we know that? They haven't even developed enough for us to know if this tiny little flesh colored raisin-like human thing is a pretty girl or handsome boy. But now, this little baby child will grow up with the subconscious pressure and expectation that she is supposed to be pretty or he is supposed to be handsome; and the product of those expectations can sometimes result in some very awkward and uncomfortable years. This happens, and eventually we "find" ourselves and begin to redevelop who we are based on everything that feels right from the inside out rather than the outside in- and that's a beautiful thing. But what if we could skip the process of finding and redeveloping ourselves because we never subscribed to outside expectations in the first place???

The point I'm trying to make is this:
I think androgyny is a true embodiment of the phrase, "I woke up like this." Androgyny says, "This is me. This is how I look and this is how I choose to embrace and express myself, regardless of what I'm 'supposed' to be." Next time you give a compliment, say something about their being and not just their face. And the next time you get dressed, ask yourself why this and not that? Don't be afraid to push the limits and bounds of who you are and what you could be. We have so many options...definition does not have to be one of them.
And in the girl who's not "pretty", but much more than that, I say this:
"I don't know you, but I'm drawn to you. I'm intrigued, initially by your physical appearance, but further by your personal expression and light. I acknowledge that you are more than just a face. Your whole being is beautiful...and I appreciate the freedom you embody."


  1. I believe we are twins separated at birth, Djuan:) When my husband and I speak each semester to a psychology class about being parents of a lesbian (label), I always make a point of stressing the importance of not raising a boy or girl, but raising a wonderful, kind, caring human being who is free to pursue the life they wish regardless of society's stereotypes. Thank you for your words which foster deep discussions in life changing ways.

    1. Thank you, Jo Ellen! I am glad to hear that. I am glad to see/hear more and more conversations like this happening!

  2. Nice post. I've often thought about how nice it would be if people weren't forced to conform to rigid gender roles. Instead of becoming the people society thinks they should be, they could become who they really are. Honestly, would as many girls like pink, playing with makeup and dolls, and painting their nails, if they weren't taught they should do and like those things? The same goes for boys. Would all of them who play with wrestling figures and toy guns, like blue, and shun pink do so, if they weren't taught to? I don't think they would. I think it's sad that so many children's true interests and personalities are suppressed, just because they don't fall in line with what a lot of people think is normal and acceptable.

    1. Krissy, I know I'm late on this reply, but I could not agree with you more. I find myself questioning almost everything these days because of lot of the things that we say/do/like are a result of the societal norms impressed upon us at birth. I would never want to raise my child in an actual box, BUT IF I COULD...what would that look like? If they had no outside influence to tell them what to wear/like/say/do. I find a lot of my more progressive friends doing the same and it's pretty neat. By no means should you force your son to wear a tutu, but if that's what he likes...what's the big deal? Let people be...let us figure it out for's totally okay.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts :)