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Of the Beast

Updated: Apr 16

There’s a reason that the story of Beauty and the Beast got so popular. The shock of something so seemingly lovely, meant to be preserved and protected from the mangling of something so ugly, CHOOSING to give that ugliness a chance?! The world reeled in wonder, moved to tears, as Beauty was rewarded for her willingness to stoop so low with–surprise–more beauty


A woman in a black dress holding a white flower

Beauty is only possible because of the beasts of this world, be they physical or metaphorical: how would you even be able to recognize or understand beauty without something so clearly contrasting it? This leads us to believe the “other” is the definition of beauty.


I think I’ve experienced beauty in many different contexts, through the phases of my life: as a girl, desperately hoping I fell under the definition of it, as a photographer, seeing it in every shadow, every person, and, finally, now, as a woman, becoming a mom, hoping to impart a healthy understanding of it to my daughter.





As a concept, beauty is pure, potent, and pervasive in all that exists. But within a society of flawed humans, it can be so terribly hurtful.


A woman with trees in the background

 I think to understand the most immature, shallow concept of pulchritude, we must acknowledge the consuming and powerful emotion of envy. Do you remember that moment, looking at something gorgeous and dazzling that wasn’t yours, wishing desperately that you had it for yourself? Or worse, wishing it simply didn’t exist so you wouldn’t have to look at it? Oh man, do I remember that sick, burning feeling in my gut, staring at her long, blond hair, her new dress, her confident smile, simultaneously thinking, “Wow, she’s beautiful,” but then hearing the shameful words whisper through my mind, “I really really really wish she weren’t.” It wasn’t beauty that made me feel ugly, it was envy; beauty was simply the reminder that I was filled with that green monster, and this made me a lonely, ugly girl.


It’s sometimes hard to look into the face of beauty when you haven’t found it within yourself just yet.


I don’t think I was capable of finding it in myself until I became a professional photographer in my 20s. I was always a dabbler, as both my father and stepfather were photography hobbyists, one wielding a film camera, the other, digital. I used to borrow their cameras and take photos of everything and anything. In college, I brought my stepdad's old Canon camera to school and continued taking photos. Suddenly, gorgeous girls, who normally would not have befriended me, asked me to help them take headshots for their aspiring acting, dance, or modeling portfolios, or just for their Instagrams. I knew the interaction was transactional, but I was curious about these confident beauty queens and decided to get to know them in the process. 


What I found was that these girls were almost as insecure as I was, and my mind was blown. Every photo was met with scrutiny, as they lamented over their weight gains, their crooked smiles, their pimples, and I found myself shocked as I passionately assured them over and over again that they were so stunning, so perfect… all to deaf ears. In these moments, that envy that used to twist me up inside slowly relaxed its grip and faded away as I understood their fears and insecurities.


A woman modeling with Nike symbols in the background

I stopped defining beauty and beast with a rigid line, stopped believing I could only reach that definition if I looked one way or another.


That is to say, it wasn’t a linear journey, I still had (and have) moments of doubt as I struggle with bouts of body dysmorphia, bad skin days, and just general insecurities… but as I get older, the bad days affect me less and less.


In 2018, I was in a car accident that fractured my spine, and lacerated and ruptured several organs. After two life-saving abdominal surgeries, one spinal fusion, and a month and a few days in the hospital, I was miraculously saved with manageable complications. A few months later, they removed my abdominal bandages, revealing a huge post-surgical wound spanning from the bottom of my sternum to the top of my pelvic bone, around one inch thick and dark, reddish brown. I also had a four to five-inch dark scar down my spine, and a few scars here and there all over my body. My first time really seeing it, I felt like I should have been horrified, but instead, I found myself smiling. 


I remember looking at my stomach in the mirror and making a stupid joke about how it looked like a slice of bacon. Somehow, to me, these scars were beautiful, a map of my survival, a complex storyline of life. Immediately, without a thought, I went back to rocking crop tops and bikinis. Several strangers and acquaintances have come up to me, telling me I was so brave for being unafraid to show such scars, and I felt confused and slightly taken aback by the “compliment”, muttering a wry “thank you”. But, I get it, it’s not traditionally beautiful: we spend our lives trying to keep our skin as smooth and flawless as the day we were born, so, of course, many wouldn’t understand that I had adjusted my definition of beauty to include any and all scars. 



A woman modeling wearing white

A year later, a surgeon friend of mine informed me that my scar was actually this mangled because the surgical team didn’t “properly '' close it, in case they would need to go back in for another surgery. He reconstructed my one-inch wide scar to barely half a centimeter. And as much as I appreciated his gesture (and appreciated no longer having random strangers constantly and audaciously asking me “So, what happened to you anyway?”), I didn’t feel any more or less beautiful. And, in that moment, I realized that this terrible, painful accident taught me so much more in a few months than I had been able to learn in years: the true meaning of beauty, a meaning that was deeper and fuller than I had ever understood it to be. 


It’s 2024 now, and I am sitting here writing this while thirty weeks pregnant with a baby girl. I think about the journey she will have to go through to define beauty and build confidence for herself. I think about the fact she will have access to so many different screens and platforms and influential people, all screaming their own definitions of beauty to her.


And I know that no matter what I say to her, no matter how beautiful I find her, or even how beautiful the world will find her, she’s gonna have to go through discovering it and believing it for herself. 


A pregnant woman wearing black

They say “beauty is pain”, and I know they’re referring to the plucking, bleaching, poking, and prodding we go through to achieve beauty. For me, though, pain taught me how to appreciate beauty. Envy forced me to dive deep within and make peace with myself. And everything deemed ugly has surprised me by showing me something unexpectedly beautiful. 


To my daughter: I promise not to just shove my definition of beauty onto you, I promise to let you discover it, be hurt by it, hate it, yearn for it, cry about it, experience it, fall in love with it, and cherish it. But most of all, I promise never to shield you from the “ugly” – without ugliness, you wouldn’t know what beauty was if it was standing there in the mirror, staring you in the eye. 


 

Photography courtesy of and written by Tiffanie Chow.


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