Redefining Beauty

Hannah Reyes Morales

Throughout history, beauty has played an integral role across human societies. Today, what Darwin once phrased ‘the taste for the beautiful’ remains ubiquitous in our lives.

I came into this story with my own preconceived notions of what beauty was. Compared to other stories I had ever worked on, beauty was the most universally personal. My own beauty story is not unique – growing up the pressures of beauty were something that I felt I had to push back against. Being dark skinned in Manila, I never felt beautiful, and so there was a period where I defined myself in opposition to beauty.

I had long outgrown that belief but like most women I felt the tensions of beauty in everyday life. When I was assigned this story I was asked by my peers in journalism: is this an important enough story? Will this dilute your body of serious work?

I took these questions into consideration and they only piqued my interest in the subject matter. Today I feel proud of having challenged my own assumptions through images – I spent last year traveling across five continents, exploring the culture of beauty, and how different movements are seeking to redefine our understanding of it.

Beauty culture is one that has persisted for centuries. The concept of beauty has been constant through the ages; paradoxically, the changes in how we define beauty is constant too.

I wanted to learn what beauty meant to those I photographed.

From transgender model Quay Tann, I learned that beauty is an armor. For her, beauty is something that keeps her safe from hate based violence. From 11 year old skateboarder Sky Brown I learned beauty is strength. From businesswoman and makeup guru Michelle Phan, I learned that beauty is transformative.

Beauty is an ideology that impacts women. Its power is double edged – one that can harm as well as empower. Beauty can be a manifestation of identity, a step towards healing, a way to manifest sisterhood, a form of play, a palette from which you create selfhood.

From all these women, I learned that when we take ownership of our beauty, we take ownership of our power.

Beyond those I met on the ground, I also learned a lot from research. In history, the Koine Greek word for beautiful was ‘horaios,’ which stems from ‘hora,’ meaning hour. This definition relates the idea of beauty to time. Beauty means ‘being of one’s hour.’ Of the words for beauty, this one stands out as most beautiful to me as horaios, when found in text, holds a breadth of meanings of beauty, where ‘youthful,’ and ‘ripe old age’ are encompassed in the same word.

The images I made for this story hopefully show us women who are of our time, and who are redefining beauty today. Here is what I learned from them: we are here, we deserve to be seen. We are the beautiful.

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