This is a special blog post - it is written entirely in my client's own words. Her story is powerful and moving, and she agreed to help me share it with all of you, in the hope that it would encourage other women to overcome their fear of getting in front of the camera, and perhaps even loving themselves a little more.
Watch the Video
Read Ari's Story
I'm thinking about all of the ways I could tell this story, about how best to frame it up so you understand me. I'm not looking for pity or sorrow or sympathy- I want you to walk away with an understanding of how difficult it was for me to open myself to this experience and why I value it so highly.
I was born with a cleft lip and palate, with my nose and hearing impacted as well. From the tender age of three months to seventeen years, I underwent a double handful of surgeries to deal with the effects with varying degrees of success (and I've been told one or two more probably wouldn't be a terrible idea even now). I've woken up from anesthesia and had people hide mirrors from me so I wouldn't freak out at what my face looked like. I had a speech impediment until about a month before I graduated high school that made peer acceptance pretty much impossible.
I learned to avoid mirrors - I pretended it didn't matter what I looked like.
I learned to avoid mirrors, to avoid looking at my features that didn't match or make sense. I pretended that I didn't care, that it didn't matter what I looked like and I was so good at it, sometimes I almost believed it. And everything was fine until someone made me remember I was telling myself a lie. It could be something little, like eyes lingering on the scars a little too intently, or asking what cultural stock I come from, because my facial features didn't make sense. It could be the double take from someone I'd worked with over the phone for years meeting me in person for the first time, and watching them mentally adjust their preconceptions to match the reality.
Now, it's all well and good to remind me (as I frequently remind myself!) that beauty goes beyond a face; it's the strength of your heart, the depth of your understanding for others, your willingness to reach out a helping hand, and lend a caring ear... and I'm not being at all flippant, I do believe those things.
Companion to those beliefs is the damning hard facts that due to quirk of fate, I was put through a battery of surgery before I could talk so I could be accepted by the society I live in. The balance between those beliefs and that knowledge has been a larger part of my world view than I would really care to admit.
I was put through a battery of surgery before I could talk, so I could be accepted by society.
Earlier this year, a dear friend invited me to take part in a conversation about the true meaning of what it is to feel beautiful. I took part in a challenge to find something every day for a month that I liked about myself, which sent me back to that old nemesis, the mirror. This time, it wasn't to focus on what wasn't symmetrical or didn't look like everyone else, but just to find something about myself that I could objectively call beautiful.
It was Jodi that inspired that exercise, and looking at her work showcasing all types of people, all types of women was mesmerizing. I've avoided cameras almost as studiously as I had avoided mirrors, to the point that when I was married, I didn't bother to hire a photographer. I told myself it was my memories of the day that were precious, that I didn't need to see myself to hold them dear.
See, after awhile, you get good at lying to yourself if you do it often enough.
The more I looked at Jodi's amazing portraits, the more I began to realize that I wanted that for myself. I wanted it with an intensity that scared me, because what would I feel if it didn't work out? What if I was making a fool of myself, of reaching for something that I could never, ever have?
I told myself, 'Well, Ari, you'll take all of your fun Star Wars cosplay gear, and have fun with it. And if you hate all the pictures, you can just order a few to say you did it, and put them away and never think about it again."
And I called Jodi, and I made her laugh and she made me laugh, and before you knew it, I had booked a session for a few months down the road.
The night before the session, I reached for the phone a half a dozen times to cancel it.
That was an extremely long couple of months. I did a lot to put it out of my mind, but the calendar date kept popping up and startling me when I least expected it. The night before, I hardly slept, and nearly picked up the phone to cancel the session a half a dozen times. I was so afraid of being disappointed, afraid of even WANTING to want this as badly as I clearly did.
Then I arrived at the studio and met Jodi, who instantly did everything she could to put me at ease, including pouring the champagne (which definitely didn't hurt). Over the next few hours, I laughed more than I could have dreamed of the night before, and learned a small part of just how challenging standing around while someone creates the perfect picture can be.
Jodi was incredibly kind and patient, always intent on getting just what she needed, explaining as she worked why this angle was better than that angle. Watching her slip into the absorption of the work was soothing and something I found easy to understand and relate to.
Finally, it was time for me to look over the proofs and see what I had cheated myself of out of fear.
You see, the second set of shots Jodi took was with me in my wedding gown. Nearly ten years after my husband and I said the vows, there I was in my dress, and what Jodi had captured was undeniably and radiantly me. It was like watching the internal me that I always knew come out and join the external me that I'd always avoided, perfectly melded together to create someone new.
I'll never forget it - Jodi had emailed me the first portrait and I was sitting alone in an airport bar after a long trip away from home. All I could do was stare at this regal, poised, and confident version of myself as a bride and cry.
I saw myself and was able to love myself.
It was one of the most powerful moments of realization of my life.
That is the talent Jodi has... she saw me long before she picked up the camera, and she used her skill and devotion to her work to show me who I am, who always have been under all the layers of fear and denial. That's something money can't buy, words can't enforce, and thanks to Jodi and her gift, it's mine forever.
I think there's a lot of us that, for thousands of reasons, don't think we get to feel we are beautiful. Maybe we don't fit the fashionable mold or we've just had the images and dictates of what society tells us a woman is supposed to be imprinted on us for too long. I understand, truly I do. And you can have all the doubts you want- but if you have been tempted to get in front of that camera, I hope that you will.
I hope you can be brave and give yourself the chance to see who you are.
You don't know who you could be missing.
~ Ari Wellman