A Look in the Mirror

the light within and without.jpg

Recently, I’ve been wearing a lot less makeup to my photo shoots.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s still some. The camera doesn’t see the world as it is, and I need to compensate for that. Nor do I have a moral stance against makeup. Part of my motivation is that, now that I’m only shooting part-time, I can experiment. Makeup is one of my tools of expression: it helps me create an image. I want to know what I can make with more of it, and with less, now that my livelihood doesn’t depend on me presenting a consistent image.

But why the interest in changing that image in the first place?

Nude modeling has been one of the most positive forces in my life. It has taught me to love my body as it is. It has taught me not to just accept my physical imperfections, but to value them. And it’s given me a space to create art with my body in a non-sexualized way.

So you can imagine my surprise when I looked in the mirror and noticed that I didn’t recognize my own face.

I started thinking about it, and I realized this has been going on for quite a while. I don’t remember the first time I looked at my reflection or a candid snapshot or a selfie and didn’t get a thrill of recognition, but it’s pretty constant now. I wouldn’t know myself if we met on the street.

It’s not just the face in the mirror. It’s my modeling images too—or should I say, especially.  Let me tell you a little secret: no model looks like their images. And it’s not just the makeup. Or Photoshop. Or lighting—although certainly all those things contribute.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again (and again and again): posing is a skill set. And that skill set includes the expressions a model uses, or the angle of face and body we choose to present to the camera. I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a “professional pretty person,” but I don’t mean that I’m naturally gorgeous all the time. Quite the opposite, in fact. Models are artists, and it is our job to create moments of beauty. These moments are so perfect and fragile that they can’t exist in anything but the time it takes for a camera’s shutter to click—and are often only visible from that one angle. Just like any piece of art, these moments aren’t natural or real.

All we models have to create these moments is ourselves—our faces and our bodies—and some basic tools like hair, makeup, lighting, and post-processing. It’s actually pretty cool. But it also means that, to be successful at this creation, I’ve had to develop a repertoire. When I walk into a studio, I’m not Kat. I’m Katja. And Katja has a completely different set of mannerisms and postures than Kat. Katja holds herself differently, from the way that she angles her hips to the way that she cranes her neck. And she also has different emotions and expressions. They are not inherently better or worse than Kat’s, but they are inherently more photogenic.

All this leads to images where I don’t always recognize myself in the finished product. Yes it’s my face, but at such a strange angle. And that’s an expression I would never use—I rarely smolder in real life. Or look wide-eyed and innocent, for that matter. As any of my friends or lovers could tell you, I suck at playing innocent.

It’s gotten so bad that I will often look for the bridge of my nose in images. I sat for a portrait painting class once, where the instructor took measurements of my face with a pair of calipers. It turns out that the bridge of my nose is exceptionally high, and I can’t change that with my angle or expression. So now whenever I see it, I feel more grounded. But when I noticed I was also checking for it in the mirror, I knew I had to change something.

I’ll admit that I blamed Photoshop and makeup at first, since they are both external ways to alter my appearance. I know several art models that refuse to wear makeup to their shoots or be post-processed. Previously, I had thought this was a bit silly—why would I give up a tool of artistic expression? But now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe they knew something that I didn’t.

The evils of post-processing models is particularly in the public eye right now. Mostly the debate is concentrating on editing models to appear thinner, and how this contributes to negative body image. But we’re also seeing blemishes like stretch marks erased, and skin tones lightened on models of color. The argument is that we’re creating a beauty ideal that does not exist in the real world. It seemed reasonable that the same problem would also affect how I viewed my face. Maybe, with a combination of editing and makeup, I was creating an image of beauty that I just couldn’t live up to in real life.

There isn’t a lot of discussion about how we edit models’ faces, so I looked deeper into how we edit models’ bodies, hoping there’d be something in common. I found out that we’re to the point with post-processing that fashion models are editing even their snapshots on Instagram to look skinnier, which is horrible and frankly unhealthy. But I’m not sure that’s a good reason to ban editing fashion photos, like some are arguing for. Would believing that how a model looks in an image is “real” because they aren’t edited make me feel better about myself?

I think it might make it worse. There will always be women younger and skinnier than I am modeling. Plus, even if they banned post-processing, they would still be posing. They’re models. They’re professionals at creating an image that isn’t actually real, so they’re still going to look unnaturally thin, even if we take away one tool.

On the other side of the same coin, I’ve had women see my modeling and contact me more times than I care to count. They tell me they wish they were as skinny as I am, and ask how much weight they need to lose. I am usually fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than these women. I am not post-processed to look thinner in my artistic photos. It’s how I pose, how I angle myself, even how I breathe. It’s just a skill set.  

So maybe editing models to look thinner is only a symptom of the problem. Maybe the problem is, in these moments of beauty we’re creating, we’re only allowing skinny to be beautiful—and even I as an art model am falling prey to this belief! Maybe the problem is we have a terrible, unhealthy social norm that we need to look at deeply and work to change.

And maybe it’s the same thing with my face in photographs. I could go into a shoot with no makeup on at all and request that the photographer not post-process the image, but I still wouldn’t look like “me.” I would still be posing. I’d still be creating a moment of beauty. Maybe my idea of beauty is too restrictive as well.

So as a model, what can I do? I don’t want to perpetuate bad norms with my images, and I want to recognize myself in the mirror.  Like I said, I really don’t think vilifying the tools is going to help. But I do think I need to be very conscious about what I’m using these tools to depict. I’m trying to create moments of beauty. Now I think we need to expand what our definition of beauty encompasses, for all our sakes.

We need to start hiring and showing more models of different ages and weights, and different races and genders too. If we only show beauty as young, white, and skinny, we’re going to have a lot of people looking in photos and mirrors and not liking what they see—even people who are all of those things. We need diversity in our beauty. We need options. We need to be allowed to grow old or have belly folds or have melanin and still be considered desirable.

Who gets to be considered beautiful is incredibly important. But so is what we get to do with it. Remember those “photogenic” expressions? The smolder? The wide-eyed innocence? Why the fuck did I think those were beautiful expressions on my face, and not a wider range of emotions? Why is Katja “inherently” more photogenic than Kat?

I hadn’t seen anybody else do it, so I never dreamed of the possibility.

Because that’s basically all I’ve seen. Those are the expressions a “beautiful” woman is allowed to have in media. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody pulled me aside and said “don’t wrinkle your nose and do that goofy squint-eyed smile of yours in front of the camera.” Nobody had to. I hadn’t seen anybody else do it, so I never dreamed of the possibility. And now I don’t recognize my face when it’s not expressing a pre-approved feeling, feelings I as a human being rarely have.

So why am I actually wearing less makeup to my photo shoots? Because it’s a cue to myself. My face looks and feels different, which is a subtle reminder to use a wider range of emotions and expressions, even when they’re not traditionally “photogenic.” Yes, makeup is one of my tools of expression. But it’s not really about the makeup. It’s about my face when I’m wearing it, and what I chose to do with it.

The results have been almost universally positive, which honestly surprised me. I assumed that the people I’m posing for would be frustrated that I wasn’t as “pretty” as my portfolio. I was wrong. Instead, the photographers I’ve been working with recently have been thrilled, and I’ve gotten far more bookings interested in emotive portraiture. It’s made me incredibly hopeful that we can do a lot to change these norms.

Plus I see more of Kat in my images—you know, that person in the mirror. And she gets to be beautiful now too.