All of us practice easy beauty.

A beautiful landscape, colorful flowers in full bloom, a stunning sunset, a model perfect woman…

I was listening to the Ezra Klein podcast “The Subtle Art of Appreciating ‘Difficult Beauty’” interview with Chloe Cooper Jones who has a differently abled body and wrote a book titled Easy Beauty. She talks about the difference between easy and difficult beauty and her experience of the world with chronic pain and a “disabled body.” Chloe had spent most of her life trying to escape from and living outside of her body and it wasn’t until she decided to live in it that she was able to truly be herself and find more beauty in her life. She goes on to explain that difficult beauty requires challenging introspection and can be transformative. As I heard this, I couldn’t help but yell out, “that’s what I do with my portrait work!” and was excited to have new verbiage to explain what I do and why.

I grew up never fitting into either Korean or white standards of beauty. I remember my mom teaching me how to take the pointy end of a pen cap and drawing a line to transform my monolid eyes. She promised that if I did this regularly, I’d achieve the desirable double eyelid (쌍꺼풀, a specific Korean term everyone knows because it’s such a significant aspect of being a Korean woman). I remember my dad’s disapproval at inheriting his roundish “unfeminine” nose and telling me to wear a clothing pin on it when I was home, especially when I wasn’t doing anything special like sitting on the toilet. I complied. While I can look back at this with a sense of humor, getting the message that there was something wrong with the body I lived in as a young girl left a profound impact.

Beauty is so important to our lives because it has the power to move us and to help us feel joy, peace and pleasure. Beauty helps us be present.

My life has mostly been spent looking just at the surface and outer layer of things. I saw happiness as checking off everything I wanted to achieve on my list, success as what title I had or what things I owned, my value and worth as how I presented myself to the world and how others perceived me. It was a life spent practicing easy beauty, which can be seen with a simple glance. It’s not just how I saw the world but also how I saw myself.

Beauty is so important to our lives because it has the power to move us and to help us feel joy, peace and pleasure. Beauty helps us be present. When we see something beautiful, we don’t question its existence and believe in its value and belonging.

When a woman experiences a portrait experience with me, she gets to see a full range of who she is―not just her light but also her shadows and darkness and my hope is that she will see some portraits of herself that she either does not like or makes her feel uncomfortable (which can be either her shadow or her light). It is with these portraits that we practice difficult beauty together to look beyond the surface and dive deeper into where her feelings are coming from and eventually find compassion for those sides of her. I always tell my clients that when I’m selecting photos for her Reveal, I don’t seek out the most unflattering ones. I look for range and all the photos I select are beautiful to me. My role is to invite her to see the beauty in them too and it’s her job to accept the invitation.

Practicing difficult beauty within ourselves is important for feeling whole, practicing self-compassion and letting go of judgment. What if we could practice this on ourselves, on each other and the way we look at the world… a world which can sometimes feel so broken and full of pain? What if practicing difficult beauty means we can find more joy and meaning in the world even when there seems to be so much darkness?

Chloe explained how we can practice this,

“I think one of the really powerful things that one can do to experience more beauty in the world is to be self-reflective and attentive to those moments in which we might be blocking ourselves from really getting to experience something of such beauty that it challenges us to higher consciousness or a better version of ourselves. So that’s kind of the type of beauty that’s truly transformative.”

I have spent the most of my life practicing easy beauty and I suspect most of us have too. It’s been a life spent feeling unworthy, seeing my flaws as ugly (both inside and out), and feeling my life was without purpose. But what could change if we all started practicing difficult beauty more? How could that change us and, more importantly, change how we see each other and eventually, the world?