After I gave birth to my second child I began to suffer with postnatal depression (read more about my experiences here). I used social media to keep connected to the world and I enjoyed posting photos of my life and kids. It was my little piece of normality.
Nothing I posted was inherently a lie but I knew I didn’t represent the truth of my situation. I felt safe behind the pictures of my children playing, home cooking and the beautiful surroundings of the city I live in. I suppose I didn’t realise that I was also making a rod for my own back. I was struggling to cope and yet I was painting a picture of health and happiness where no one would ever guess I needed help. And so, I began to consider why I felt this need to carefully curate my life.
As a woman I feel the need to be many things, for myself and for my family. However, I also feel scrutinised and want to be seen to be those things by others too. I want to be a good mother but also to be seen as a good mother. I want to feel attractive but also to be seen as attractive too. I realised there was an element of performance in most of what I did.
Are there specific factors (positive or negative) that have influenced how you feel about how you look?
‘Oh yes. Funnily enough I wasn’t at all bothered about losing my hair last year during treatment but I hated losing my eyebrows and eyelashes. I wanted to hide then. The hypothyroidism gave me a swollen face and eyes which I struggled to cope with — avoided mirrors at all costs. Maybe before diagnosis I was also bothered by wrinkly eyelids but getting through treatment changed my perspective and I see them as just part of me now and a sign of getting older (for which I am so grateful!)’ — Lynne
So, I decided to begin a portrait series, something I had wanted to do for a long time. I would explore the idea of ‘performance’ and the pressures women feel. I needed a concept that was simple in both concept and execution as my time and energy were in short supply. I imagined many other women were in the same position.
Makeup features in most women’s life and there is an element of performance and pressure in most women’s relationship with how they look. I love to wear makeup and take pleasure in the art of applying it. I didn’t want to make a statement for or against makeup but simply explore this pressure on women to perform in a straightforward way.
In daily life what are the pressures you feel most exposed to specifically as a woman?
‘That I have to do everything! Wrangling the kids, cooking, looking after the house, meal planning, bedtimes, baths while also feeling completely alone and having to appear to be on top of everything and people commenting you look tired and not having the chance to get a shower. It’s endless, and it will never be good enough.’ — Rowan
Female volunteers would be asked to wear no makeup and would be photographed in natural light. There would also be a set of questions and answers included with each portrait. I wanted to get an idea of how, or even if, other women were experiencing these pressures that I felt so profoundly.
Many generous women volunteered their precious time and beautiful faces to be part of this project which I titled ‘As Others See Us’ after a line in ‘To a Louse’ by Robert Burns. ‘O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us’ (And would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us).
A lot of women initially hated their portraits but without exception after a few days I received another message from them telling me how empowered they felt and how much they had grown to love the image.
I remember how nervous Abi was to have her portrait taken on the day, so, I was thrilled to receive the most wonderful message from her recently. I really think she summed up how we can all feel when we enjoy makeup but don’t depend on it.
‘Since taking part in this project I am a changed person. I feel empowered when someone smiles at me and I’m bare faced. I know they are smiling at me and not a version of me. It’s the real me and they still smile! I actually enjoyed the last few sunny days for the first time since I was young. I didn’t worry about sweating or that my makeup had slid off in the heat. It was fabulous. I can splash about with my kids at swimming, I can run, cycle, walk and sweat all I want to, I feel carefree. It’s just me and I love this feeling!’ — Abi
I photographed more than 60 women over the course of this series and I felt such a connection with them all. There was a real sense of empowerment and solidarity and we shared a lot with one another during each session. I realised just how good women are at putting on a face, getting on with things and presenting an acceptable front for the world.
Whether it’s makeup or hiding how we really feel the faces we ‘put on’ in public are diverse and powerful. Most of us don’t recognise ourselves without them.
What made you want to participate in this portrait series?
‘I want to draw a line under the old me and start coming to terms with who I am now. I desperately miss the person I once was. The me who had no need for foundation or mascara! I’ve become a little invisible since having kids. Post natal depression has played a part and in the midst of it I seem to have lost who I really am and the feeling of confidence I used to have about myself. So while I love the concept of the project and the shared experiences it has created among the women taking part who all look amazing — I am doing it for me. It’s a reality check — to remind me who I am now — flaws and all.’
If there was one piece of advice for the future you could give your younger self, what would it be?
‘Stop caring about what others think of you! I invested way too much time in making myself something I wasn’t, to keep people or impress them, I hid the real me but as I grew older my confidence grew. I am now happy with the me everyone sees actually being real.’
To see the rest of this series please visit my website.