I always felt ugly when I was growing up.

I remember in middle school when a Korean American friend of mine, who had all the “right” features I longed for with double eyelids and a thin nose, asked me why I looked the way I did. I don’t think she was trying to be mean to me but I still remember it today decades later. I remember the feeling of the hallway we were sitting in at school, the dim fluorescent lights, the rusty orange tiles and her face as she uttered those words to me. I remember my silence.

Later during my college years, I remember being in a trendy part of NYC. I saw an Asian American woman at a boutique who I thought was stunningly beautiful and I remember thinking to myself that her life must be perfect. I didn’t feel like I belonged in that part of the city but she did. Oh how I longed to be beautiful and to belong in a different body…

When I first started doing portrait work, I only wanted to show women when they were at their most beautiful. Beautiful to me at that time meant only showing light. It meant showing the sides that smiled, felt warm and were easy to look at. So when I would sit down to cull photos after a session, I’d look only for those photos even though I would capture so much more. I ignored the photos showing those other sides because I didn’t want to look at them. I couldn’t even face those parts in myself so how could I show them to others? I was too afraid.

So much of feeling beautiful comes from inside of us. Of course we’ve all struggled (and maybe still do) with messages about our exterior existence that are out of our control. We’re not the right shape, the right height, have the right features, a desirable skin color, the list is endless… While our feelings about our physical selves may seem superficial and insignificant, they aren’t because these messages teach us that we don’t belong to us. But the truth is, we can only exist in the bodies we’re born in and for that very reason, we do belong to us because there is no wrong way to exist in our bodies. Feeling like we don’t belong to ourselves teaches us that something is wrong with us, that we need to be fixed, not just on the outside but inside of us too. 

I’ve come a long way from feeling ugly because beautiful means something very different to me today. Beautiful doesn’t live in the “right” features or even what we look like. It lives in our humanity. It lives in our whole selves―not just in our light but in our shadows too. It lives in those parts of us that embrace fully the complexity of who we are…the wholeness of our entire lived experience.

I recently had a Transformative Portrait Experience Session with a woman and shared my favorite portrait with her during the Reveal. The Reveal is when she finally gets to see all of her images, all of her sides from light to shadow, and we process the portraits together. I chose the following picture because in this image I see the complex whole of who she is. I couldn’t stop looking into her eyes and seeing all of the pain and loneliness she’s experienced but also the tenderness, grace, hope and love. What I find the most beautiful about this portrait is that she fully accepts who she is. In this portrait is a woman who doesn’t think there is anything wrong with her and doesn’t need to be changed or fixed. She just is. Her interior beauty is reflected in her exterior beauty. She is fully embodied and she is stunning.  

I was so moved and inspired by her that I wrote a poem.


Tenderness lives
in the shadows of your being
in your loneliness and pain,
simultaneously cloaked
in softness and grace
and an endless capacity to love
and be loved

A testament to a life lived
in all of its complexity
of vulnerable lights and shadows
dancing in the moonlight
of your soulful eyes
forever willing
to be still yet to keep moving
with the rhythm of the waves
of life
where nothing is promised
but everything is gained

I hope you realize too that you embody the complexity and wholeness of the human experience and that that is what makes you beautiful. We may not feel like it or even recognize this in ourselves but that part of us, the part that accepts and loves ourselves as who we already are, exists inside of ALL of us. There is so much truth in that part of us and truth is always beautiful. Always.