May 17, 2013
Categories: Culture, Self

Since living in Tulum, I have happened upon at least half a dozen photo shoots, some rather curious…

neon wonder

…and others, a truly fascinating glimpse into just how natural the “natural beauty” presented to us in “blemish”-free, “sun”-kissed, and “wind”-swept advertisements really is. The common thread through each encounter? I was never once struck by the attractiveness or sex appeal of the supermodel, but each time amused by the fumbling and adjusting and wiggling that had to happen in order to capture that stranded-on-a-tropical-island-without-a-toothbrush-but-still-kissable-as-ever look that marketers pay millions to pull off and consumers pay billions in (mostly futile) attempts to obtain.

A few weeks back, I decided to ditch the laptop and write on the beach. Notebook, pencil and camera (always) at the ready, I rode my cruiser the twenty-five minutes to the shore, parked myself in the shade of a palapa and opened myself to inspiration. Little did I know it was to appear in the form of a 6’2″ copper-toned teen, her gear-laden entourage of photographers and makeup artists and a florescent assortment of Brazilian bikinis.

For the next two hours, the four of them put on quite a show, not only for me, but for the rest of the suddenly-less-sleepy beach goers, the mildly-interested wait staff and a displaced Chiapan purse peddler


Averaging about forty “sexy” stances per minute (heck yeah, I counted), the gangly youth (the model, not the peddler) thrust her hips, pursed her lips, flung her hair and caressed her cleavage like some kind of spastic, egomaniacal wind-up toy whose inventor loved porn second only to caffeine.

{I’m choosing not to show you the model as making fun of her is not my point.}

But try as I did to see the sex appeal she was clearly attempting to convey, all I saw was a young woman freaked out by seaweed, worried over the unruly way of the wind with her hair, concerned that her boobs were only mostly revealed by the orange sherbet push up and three diligent devotees fighting physics in order to keep her upright in heals on sand.

And though “ridiculous” is more the adjective that comes to mind when I think of how she looked, I did see beauty that afternoon. In fact, there was plenty of it, all around her:

  • In the way her trusty attendant admired the sandpipers while she held the girl’s towel during a swimsuit change.
  • In the way the woman holding the sail-like light reflector was able to laugh at herself as she attempted to tame the wind.
  • In the playfulness of a mother making sandcastles with her kid.
  • In the indiscriminate and obvious love for children by their nannies, however underpaid.
  • And in the relief on the face of the Chiapan girl when I knew where she was from based on the embroidery on her blouse.

Can you imagine the shift in cultural consciousness if we all simply defined beauty for ourselves?

But I see an even larger dilemma in the making than the millions spent by marketers to train our eyes away from the beauty all around us and toward the deceptive promises of their products — and that is that we’re now selling the same fallacy to each other without even realizing it.

Take my current Facebook profile pic, for example, cause I’m guilty, too:

Me and My Man
Not bad, huh? Good light, gorgeous backdrop, comfortable expressions and decent tans. So what’s the big deal? It is real, right? I mean we really live near the beach and our hair is really messy from ocean breezes and those highlights are really there thanks to the Caribbean sun.

Except that if you were to look at this photo without knowing much about us and create a story about our lives based on what you imagine, you would likely miss the mark entirely.

For one, even though I don’t “touch up” my photos (as a matter of principle), cropping alone reduces reality:

Me and My Man Uncropped

By zooming in on our faces in order to accentuate beauty as our culture defines it, you miss parts of our story that have made our lives TRULY beautiful, like Hunter’s love for good times, the nine years I nursed my babies and the fact that we are decreasingly self conscious as we age.

Two, you would have no idea how many unflattering shots it took to get one good one…

another weird photo


Three, you’d never guess that my sly smile was due to the likelihood of cilantro in my teeth from the ceviche I had just eaten…

"you've got cilantro in your teeth"

And last but definitely not least, you’d have no idea who was behind the camera…

me and my girl

So, let’s try this little exercise again. Here’s a photo of me with my first born that got a lot of attention as her FB profile pic (post editing).

But again, zoom out a little, add the “blemishes” back in and remove the Instagram filter and suddenly, we’re back on planet earth as mother and daughter on a beach…

Sigorni and I, Unfiltered

*A Quick Tangent: As fun as I know Instagram to be (as well as all other instantaneous photo enhancement tools), it concerns me that my kids will all grow up filtering reality to this degree, then presenting their lives to each other slightly enhanced. I mean, I realize I’m coming from a generation raised on film cameras, but I simply can’t see how it would have served me to enhance that period of my life…

me in 7th grade

Anyway, scroll through the dozens of other shots we took that day…

no idea

she's going to kill me when she sees this

And you’ll see what a couple of dorks we really are when you get us together. Even still, you would have no idea of the depth of our story:

Like the fact that I only get to see my baby girl a handful of weeks a year. Or that she rips off a chunk of my heart and takes it with her every time she returns to Pennsylvania. That she has overcome all kinds of obstacles in order to be able to laugh like that again, and that my parents were not only right behind us eating ceviche when these pictures were taken, but that they are my biggest heros ever for letting her live with them and loving her as she’s healed.

By focusing so heavily as a culture on images and photos and the partial truths of other peoples’ lives, we detract from the real beauty of our own stories, which can only be experienced firsthand.

So, I encourage you — the next time you find yourself longing for what someone else has deemed a “beach body”…

You can’t roll around like that on the beach without getting sand in your crotch. Just sayin’.

or coveting a friend’s recent camping trip…

beach camping

Gritty, uncooked stew anyone?

or wishing you could actually live at Anthropologie…

Bedding from Anthropologie

Where would you actually SLEEP on a bed so covered in cushions?

…zoom out a little, add the blemishes back in, imagine that supermodel hurling rice cakes into the toilet and then ask yourself:

  • What is my brand of beautiful?
  • What is the unique version of stunning only I can offer the world?
  • What is beautiful in my immediate proximity right now?

For THIS is where the ultimate beauty lies — in the truest expression of you, unfiltered. 

no filter needed

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  1. I am blown away by your way with words and the depth of your messages. This is exquisite and I will be carrying your eloquent words with me to the pool this summer. I pray I can follow your lead and see my own definition of beauty because I see it everyday in my children’s imperfect, but oh so beautiful, selves.


  2. So beautiful! Thank you for sharing this. I’ve really been struggling lately to see myself as my family and friends see me rather than how popular media sees me. Posts like this really help.

    I LOVE the pic of you and your daughter making faces at each other. Best wishes,


  3. I love this post! Such honesty. Well put – hope this message gets spread far and wide!


  4. Happy Mother’s Day! What an amazingly insightful post and one I will share with my daughters who are into keeping it real as well :)


  5. I am so impressed by your depth. Keep keepin’ it real and unedited and we’ll all try to be as honest! : )


  6. I like the last shot the best! What a great entry….


  7. Lovely thoughts, and well expressed. Loved all the pics, and the glimpses into your life.


  8. Lovely and brave.


  9. You and your family are lovely edited and unedited. Thanks for the beautiful reminder to cultivate your own peculiar brand of beauty and wonder wherever you are! And to love all those flaws that enhance us. Wabi-Sabi.


  10. Wow your images and message are incredible.

    Recently, I had my 5 year old daughter take pictures of us playing in the backyard. It was amazing to see how she saw us and captured the real beauty of our family in the everyday.


  11. Wow, beautiful ,real and amazing. thank You!!


  12. Thank you.


  13. Love this. And will share on facebook, as I know many women who will read this and love it as much as i did!! You are awesome and I love reading your stuff -although I wish I had time to read more. Thank you!


  14. Peg Runnels

    Terrific essay on what is beauty, Beth.

    My husband loves your profile shadow on Hunter’s chest in the first photograph.


  15. Loving life Unfiltered with blemishes and mussed hair right along with you!


  16. I truly loved all the photos. Makes me miss all of you and Tulum. No one gets through life with out a story of ups and downs. Life is hard, not always fair, but if you just open your eyes and heart and let the beauty in life will be beautiful. Thanks for sharing part of your story. love Barbara


  17. Beautiful post! I love your choice of words and the photos: perfectly put :o)))
    The descriptions of the shoots made me think of Victoria´s Secret/Chanel-model Cameron Russell´s TED-talk…


  18. You are beautiful. In the best and most important way.


  19. I’m sorry Beth, but if you’re trying to convince me that you are not actually as beautiful as your facebook profile pic suggests, you have failed miserably. And while filters are cool, it was not the filter that made you and your daughter look stunning. And I’m not just trying to imply that you’re lucky because you’re pretty people. (you are.) You’re really real, too, and that shines through every one of those pictures.


  20. Nailed it beth, like you always do. You are a blessing to those who seek truth


  21. Beth, I salute your enlightenment. You may also be interested in examining the “editorial photoshopping” that occurs not in photos, but in the text of blogs and articles. Highlighting a piece with phrases like, “Since living in Tulum” and colorizing with “I decided to ditch the laptop and write on the beach (because I can)” displays a manipulation of words similar to that done with pictures of models, in that it displays the writer as a stereotype of 1% elitism rather than a rough-edged, natural human being. Namaste.


    • BJ – what an interesting comment. I’m not quite sure how to take it. It sounds tinged with sarcasm and judgement (as you know nothing of the circumstances under which I live where I do, nor the degree of sensitivity with which I attempt to write). I do, however, appreciate knowing how it came across to you, and will examine the ideas you mentioned, as I am always looking to grow. Beth


    • I really don’t think that is the same at all. A writer’s intention (usually) is to paint a picture using descriptive sentences. I think it’s relevant to know that this blogger was not sitting on a crowded street in Chicago observing frenzied people, but in a setting surrounded by serenity, beauty, and circumstances where this is being highlighted (a model in alluring poses wearing next to nothing). The contrast then of “normal” things & people STILL conveying true beauty, vs. what we are “supposed” to label as such stands out more.



  22. Beth, I love both your post and responses to comments. As a fellow blogger, I learn from you on a regular basis. I have to tell you that I’ve thought about this post multiple times since I read it– not only am I amazed by your beautiful writing and ability to so succinctly nail HUGE issues, I also admire your honesty. AND as a fellow blogger, I think that you can be thoroughly authentic without sharing every single detail of your life. You can also write very effective posts with highlighted segments that direct your reader’s attention to your main point (the reason we write these things, right?) without sacrificing your humanness. Keep up the good work– it’s a pleasure reading your words.


  23. I just love this post!


  24. so very true. We have a culture where only beauty is acceptable. With the internet, we can see so much beauty, so many pretty faces, pretty spaces, we forget what makes our own lives beautiful. We spend too much time wishing for what others have.


  25. Daniel Fryar

    My boys really like skater videos and I remind them as often as I can that they do 100 attempts for every 2 that make it on youtube (the best and the worst usually make it). There’s an interesting TED talk from a model, also, that you might be interested to watch.


  26. simply perfect and beautiful, thank you!


  27. You will have to thank your sister, or perhaps I am the one who owes her the thanks, as she directed me here from her comment on PaleOMGs blog….anyway! Great read. I get sooooooo sick of the superficial “beauty” that is shoved down our throats every single day by the media. I used to have a very self-conscious friend who always commented negatively on the appearance of others to make her own insecurities seem less, and when our friendship fizzled, I vowed to try to see at least ONE “beautiful” thing about the people I took time to observe in a day; eyes that sparkle, a beautiful effortless smile (crooked teeth and all!) or whatever, because we ALL have beauty, and it is NOT what the marketing gurus have honed in on. (P.S. I think ALL the photos of you and your daughter are gorgeous)


  28. Beth, I admire and so relate to your quest for “realness”. . . funny how being raised in a home where Dad wanted to portray things as “perfect” which made me nauseous as a kid. . . and made me determined to be anything but “perfect”.. .somehow I’ve found a balance and decided to just be who God made me. . .that’s what’s real. . . thank you for being candid and real and painfully introspective. . .and please just ignore the people who can’t seem to share in your joy. . .You are awesome. . . wish I had your gift with words. . . luckily I enjoy reading more than writing! LOL


  29. Beth, gracias. De corazon.


  30. I can’t tell you how validating, reliving, and heart-opening I find this piece. Thank you for revealing the unrevealed and for your willingness to show your own humanity and perfect imperfectness. What a gift! Truly. A deep bow of thank you!


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