I’m no stranger to struggles with body-image, self-love, and confidence. Growing up with highly critical parents, weathering an unhealthy marriage, and facing the same social pressures that we all encounter in today’s culture, I entered my forties unsure of myself, my beauty, and my worth.

I’m not alone. Everyone I photograph (men included) struggles with their self-image. I see this firsthand as they prepare for their photoshoots, expressing their anxiety of being photographed, of seeing the images.

I’ve made loads of progress on my personal journey, but when I speak to middle schoolers about empowerment and self-love, I find that I am still talking to my younger self. Babies and young children don’t feel imperfect. In fact, they don’t care! When does that start to change? Three? Four? Five? These sixth graders that I speak with already believe they have flaws. It is ridiculous, and their bodies haven’t even begun the big changes toward adulthood. We are ALL hung up on how we look, and it is not our fault. Just as we’ve been conditioned to have manners, we’ve been conditioned to believe we have flaws. The issue is both widespread and pervasive.

It affects all demographics, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or financial status. However, it seems to me that females especially fall victim. While boys are often praised for being smart and strong, girls are praised for being beautiful, as if that is the highest compliment we could receive. So as girls and women, we are desperate to hold onto that “beauty” for dear life because we think our livelihoods depend on it. It is all a fallacy, and it is our responsibility to reverse this movement so that our children and grandchildren won’t be stunted by the same negative thinking patterns that have permeated our current culture.

What it comes down to after this consciousness is that we have a choice. We can truly decide how we are going to relate to our bodies and our looks. Some people are at constant war with their bodies – the same bodies that work hard for them every day. I feel strongly that we should be grateful for them as they continue to carry us through life.

We may have come up in a time and a culture that has wanted to knock us down, to convince us that we are not “enough” — pretty enough, tall enough, thin enough — but we have the power to reclaim our confidence and our self-worth. We have the power to reverse these pressures for the girls and boys, women and men, who come after us. I’ve made it my life’s work to show people how beautiful they actually are, independent of what society deems beautiful, and to lead by example by continuing my own journey of realizing my own beauty and value. I will continue this work, both personally and in the community, and invite anyone and everyone to join me!

* Both of these images are self-portraits. I regularly take images of myself to, not only document myself since I went “undocumented” for so long, but also to appreciate myself. Just as I work to provide this service to others, I remember to give this gift to myself.