Are you happy with what you see when you look in the mirror?
It's a challenge for most of us to love our bodies and fully embrace our appearances. Kate Fox, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, England, claims: "Among women over 18 looking at themselves in the mirror, research indicates that at least 80 percent are unhappy with what they see."
I will admit that prior to being diagnosed with alopecia universalis, I had a pretty strong self-esteem and was satisfied with my physical appearance. When I lost all of my hair, it was difficult to adjust to being bald, but what proved to threaten my confidence even more was the loss of my eyebrows and eyelashes. These features add contrast to our faces, and without them, I suddenly looked drastically different.
I learned how to use eye makeup so that my face would appear more "normal," and to this day, I never leave my house without wearing it. When I'm alone with my family or very dear friends, I'm willing to go makeup-free, but when I'm out in public, I simply can't go without it.
I can't help but think that without makeup, I look sick, almost as if I'm a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. But the fact is, I'm not sick, and I don't want the outside world to assume that I am. So day after day, I throw on my makeup and walk around bald, with pride.
Why I Want To Take It All Off
I feel somewhat hypocritical for blogging and preaching about finding the inner strength to embrace who we are, when I myself am unwilling to show my face without makeup. Although I'm not ashamed of how I look without it, I've just never felt ready to wash it all off and let it all go.
Six months ago, I was cleaning out an old external hard drive and I came across several photos that I almost forgot existed. They are professional photographs that were taken of me when I wasn't wearing a stitch of makeup. I haven't shared these photos with anyone (besides my husband and my mom). I've never printed them, and I rarely look at them. They've lived on my drive and have been tucked away in my office for years.
It's taken me six months to muster up the courage to write this post, but I'm finally ready to share these photos and I hope that in doing so, I'll be able to inspire others to let go of their own personal insecurities.
Where Did These Photos Come From?
About seven years ago, I was on a train heading to New York City for a voiceover audition. I sensed that someone was watching me, and when I looked up, I saw a scruffy, long-haired, middle-aged man checking me out. Unnerved, I turned back to my newspaper, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this stranger was studying me intensely.
When we arrived in Manhattan, the man caught up with me on the exit ramp. He introduced himself as Len Irish, explained that he was a portrait photographer and asked if he might have the opportunity to photograph me sometime. Initially, I wasn't so sure, but he dug into his pocket and presented a small, folded up version of his portfolio. When I saw that he had been responsible for stunning photos of Jennifer Aniston, Anthony Hopkins and Muhammad Ali, I realized I was dealing with a brilliant photographer and it had been a mistake to judge him so quickly.
I was also intrigued by his offer. I have always wanted a photographer to take creative liberties and use my baldness as if it were a blank canvas for an art project or an advertising campaign. Suddenly, I had my opportunity.
Two weeks later, I found myself in Len's photography studio in downtown New York City. Len informed me that he was looking to capture a particularly androgynous look for a project, so he wanted to photograph me without makeup. When I heard this, my nerves kicked into high gear, but I decided to go through with it because it seemed like an interesting opportunity that just felt right.
The shoot was an experience I will never forget and one that I sincerely enjoyed. As Len and I got to know each other, he snapped away on his camera, commanding me to look in different directions and express an array of emotions.
When I first saw the photos a few weeks later, I felt conflicted. On one hand, I thought that the photos were beautiful in their quality and style. At the same time, I was uncomfortable seeing myself portrayed in such an androgynous manner. I often worry that I look overtly masculine, and these photos didn't help to alleviate that particular insecurity.
After I shared the photos with a select few and continued to feel torn about my appearance in them, I saved them to my external hard drive and erased them from my computer. And there they've remained for years.
Why I'm Sharing Them Now
A great deal has happened in my life since these photos were taken. I've battled a major illness, endured several surgeries, suffered through the pain of losing loved ones, experienced a healthy pregnancy and gave birth to my first child. All of the ups and downs have helped me to gain a unique perspective on life, and I now know how truly precious life is and what really matters.
The way I look without makeup is not something I need to hide forever. Although everyone may not be able to relate, sharing these photos represents my willingness to take the next step in accepting myself, as well as the way I look since I lost my hair.
I'm aware that these are professional shots and not exactly post-wake-up iPhone selfies, but it still feels like a good step forward, and one that I hope will inspire others to take steps forward in their own journeys towards self-acceptance.
So without further ado, here are the photographs that Len Irish captured of me in his studio seven years ago. Although I was fully clothed, there wasn't a stitch of makeup on my face, and I felt completely naked.
Raise Your Glass
I want to thank the incredibly talented Len Irish for noticing me on the train that day, and for helping me to see myself in a new light.
I hope that this post encourages you to love yourself despite your flaws, and if possible, to find a way to celebrate them. I'll cheers to that!
Are you happy with what you see when you look in the mirror? Are you too hard on yourself when it comes to your appearance? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.This post originally appeared on Ali's health blog, No Colon, No Worries, for EverydayHealth.com.