Life-changing program inspired by photographer’s take on true beauty

As the saying goes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder – something Mandy Brown of Richfield really took to heart during a special photo shoot/therapy session called Breaking Beauty conducted by photographer Nicole Benner, also of Richfield.

“At the beginning of the photo shoot, it was difficult to look in the mirror. I didn’t see beauty when I looked at myself. It was uncomfortable to just stare into the mirror at myself,” Brown said. “Nicole had me hold a picture of my daughter as I looked in the mirror. At that moment, my thought was that my daughter absolutely adores me and I want to see me through her eyes. She thinks I am beautiful just the way I am and for that I need to love me just the way I am as well.”

That realization has been lost for many people in a society obsessed with appearance and body-image. Statistics highlight just how big of an issue poor body-image has become. According to various studies, 80 percent of women say that images of women on television, movies, fashion magazines and advertisements make them feel insecure. The average American woman is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds while the average American model stands 5 feet, 11 inches and weighs 117 pounds. Most fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women.

And those trends unfortunately trickle down to young girls. Studies show that 42 percent of girls through third grade want to be thinner and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.

“Young girls growing up look to family members and friends as their first real role models. If a young girl’s mom keeps obsessing about the extra 10 pounds she’d like to lose or keeps talking about not liking how she looks or feeling inadequate, it teaches the child that appearance is a big part of self-worth,” said Mackenzie Kelly, a psychology resident in behavioral health services at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. “That is a dangerous message for young people, especially in today’s society.”

The growing trend in body-image concerns is what prompted Benner to start her Breaking Beauty program after struggling with such issues herself. She has 10-year-old twin daughters and a son in second grade. Her stomach has elasticity that it did not have when she was in her early 20s.

“So many of us are trying to fit a mold. That was my burden over a year ago,” she said. During that period of time, Benner heard a song by Christian artist Johnny Diaz named “There Will Never Be a More Beautiful You.” She met the artist at a concert and was encouraged by his message to young women. Benner said she told herself, “OK, we have to do something for these women ages 5 to 75.”

Which led to the first Breaking Beauty photo shoot just more than a year ago. Seven women and one 12-year-old girl got involved, and ultimately shared in an amazing experience of self-discovery and developed a better concept of true beauty.

“For much of my life I always found my identity in the things I could do and how I appeared to other people and the successes I was able to achieve — until  I was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) and my life as I knew it was shattered,” said Jana Snyder of Richfield. “I know many people struggle with the same things I did and I thought if I could tell my story, maybe it would encourage a young girl or an adult that is struggling with the same thing.”

Confronting the definition society has created for the term “beauty” is what brought Autumn Banks, of Liverpool, to the program.

“Whenever I had heard about the photo shoot and its agenda, I knew I had to do it because I feel so strongly about this topic,” she said. “Women and men of all ages struggle with the idea put out by society and the beauty industry that we have to fit into this very slim and rather unrealistic range of what is considered to be perfection. In especially women, every factor is broken down to be analyzed: Your nose can’t be too wide, but not too thin; you must be tall, but not too tall; you just have to be thin, but too thin is bad, too. Programs like Breaking Beauty can help people realize the reality of what a beautiful and healthy female is.”

The first program ended with some humbling revelations from the participants.

“The biggest lesson I took away from Breaking Beauty is that we aren’t born with our flaws,” said Banks. “We turn our features into flaws through our negative thoughts. True beauty is in the art of the mind. I believe that true beauty is working towards who you want to be every single day, and trying your absolute hardest to realize that we are all beautiful.”

Snyder said her breakthrough moment came when she was sharing her past visually on a mirror.

“I learned that our whole story put together is what shapes who we are,” she said. “When I was writing, I realized that without all that I wouldn’t be where I was today. True beauty is defined by the scripture that says: ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ My beauty is not defined by who I am and what I look like – my beauty is defined by whose I am – a child of God.

“I think in general our society paints a picture of what we are to look like, how we need to act and it is destroying the lives of many people as they seek to look or be like something that is unattainable and extremely unhealthy. To me, if a program like this gives one or two people a new perspective on their value and their worth, it could change the lives of many. As one person steps up to redefine beauty, it can spread and change the lives of many others just by telling your story.”

Brown took it one step further.

“I want girls and women to know that you are beautiful and perfect in God’s eyes just the way you are,” she said. “We put so much pressure on ourselves as women that we miss out on the great things about being a woman. The world is cruel and we need to equip ourselves with enough confidence to not listen to the negativity. We need to band together as women and stand up for each other instead of tearing each other down. Love yourself like God loves you and you can take on the world!”

What Is Breaking Beauty?

The Breaking Beauty photo shoot program will be held monthly by photographer Nicole Benner, of Richfield. She has held a number of photo shoots handling all sorts of emotional issues including her most recent initiative: Empty Arms highlighting moms who have lost a child.

She is also planning a shoot called “Beauty after Bullying” and is considering another program called “Beauty after the Battle” for those suffering with an illness.

For more information about her programs, follow the Breaking Beauty page on Facebook, or contact Nicole Benner at nicolebennerphotography@hotmail.com or call 570-541-8448.

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