When I was growing up, my parents worried about the shape of my nose. It was too bulbous, not feminine enough and it looked too much like my father’s which looked fine on his face but not on mine. They also worried about the shape of my eyes which were monolid and not double lidded, which is the standard of Korean beauty. In order to address these concerns, my parents suggested that I use a clothespin on the tip of my nose so it would force the shape into a more acceptable, slim profile. For my eyes, my mom taught me how to use the blunt tip of a mechanical pencil or pen with a pointy cap to outline a second lid. I remember doing these things and the times I sat on the toilet with a clothespin on my nose, as my parents had suggested. Or the times I repeatedly drew outlines on my lids and the excitement I would feel when the impression would remain but then being disappointed as it faded away several seconds later. It makes me laugh to think about these times but also sad too because I don’t think I ever felt beautiful growing up.

I had a conversation about this topic with a friend and fellow Korean American Linda Yoon on the Korean standard of beauty and the deep impression and scars it left on both of us on a Coffee with Intention podcast episode.* During the conversation, I asked Linda, “Do you think you’re beautiful?” In her response, she couldn’t even say the word “beautiful.”

I’ve spent most of my life not feeling beautiful. I struggled with my looks, disliking my appearance, always wanting to be thinner and wishing I were white. But going on my journey has taught me that beauty isn’t about what we look like. It isn’t about perfection, being flawless or only showing our light. Beauty comes from experiencing life, both lightness and darkness, from accepting and loving yourself. It comes from being flawed and human and trusting that you are whole. It comes from living with raw openness that leaves you vulnerable to pain but also to joy and gratitude. It means you feel fully, experiencing all of life’s richest pleasures and deepest pains. You stand in it with open arms, showing up unapologetically as your most authentic self. Beauty isn’t skin deep. It lives in the soul and wholeness of our most vulnerable selves.

In honor of this journey, I’ve started a photography project that is incredibly meaningful to me. I decided to call the project RAW because of the rawness with which I now live my life. I remember when I first started my journey through this newsletter and started sharing all of the ugly feelings and shame I was hiding behind the facade of a perfect life. I had spent a lifetime of chasing happiness, running away from myself and all the painful feelings I had been harboring since childhood. Once I finally faced myself and allowed myself to feel all of the pain, I felt so raw. It was as if someone had ripped off all my skin, exposing my insides to all the elements of life. But with that rawness came surrender, grace and healing.

My photography project is about capturing women who live RAW. The women have walked through darkness to emerge with scars and through that journey are discovering their wholeness. It is a study in shadows and light, of black and white, and the many complex layers of the stories they have to tell. The women don’t wear makeup or style their hair in their portraits. The project is about redefining beauty.

I recently shared a quote by Selma Hayek on social media that said, “People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing that you are the beholder.” I am the beholder of my beauty. Are you? I am beautiful because I am not beautiful like you. I am beautiful like me.

Please visit the RAW site to learn more about the project and to look into the eyes of the women I’ve had the privilege of photographing. Read the stories they have to tell in their eyes, their faces and in their words about what makes them raw.**

*Episode 3: “Beauty Standards & Body Image” available wherever you get your podcast.
**This is an active project and photographs will be added regularly. You can also see them as they are posted by following me on Instagram or Facebook @judyleephotography.

This is from a personal journal writing shared in the newsletter and typically not shared on the blog. To read these, subscribe to the “I Matter” newsletter below.