Boosting women's self-image

After having baby No. 2, Kim Brooks didn’t feel pretty.

Looking in a mirror, she could only see a “plain Jane” who desperately needed to lose 20 pounds.

She shuddered at the thought of being photographed, and was particularly self-conscious about her arms and back.

But then a photo shoot — in which the photographer zoomed in on her body — changed the way she saw herself.

“It was a beautiful photo,” said Brooks, who gave her husband a “little black book” of the images from her session. “I would have thought there would be that extra fat we women try to get rid of, especially around the bra line. But I guess I see it and no one else does.”

Brooks’ change of heart came via a “Red Velvet” photo session at The Memory Cottage photo studio in Fayetteville. Every few weeks, Debbie McFarland transforms her rustic photo studio, usually reserved for family and kids’ photography, into an enticing oasis of heart-shaped pillows, chocolate-covered strawberries and red velvet silk. A trail of rose petals lead to a private studio inside.

There McFarland snaps dramatic photos of women —some in jeans and T-shirts, some in evening dresses, others wearing only a wrap or red velvet bra. She photographs them at various stages of life, often capturing women passing through stages of vulnerability or times when they may not feel their best — new moms, women turning 50, women going through chemotherapy.

“Our internal thoughts are our biggest obstacles,” McFarland said. “I want to help ladies find their own kind of beautiful however they can feel beautiful.”

Facing insecurities

Women today are bombarded with images of perfection in pop culture — youthfulness, flawlessness and women in seemingly perfect shape even after just having a baby.

At the same time, images like Jessica Simpson’s fuller figure are splashed across the covers of tabloids when she appeared to have put on some weight. Blogs lend themselves to catty comments and a hyper-focus on appearance.

Many women find themselves in a lifelong struggle to accept themselves for who they are — whether they are tall and muscular or small and busty.

McFarland’s “photo therapy” is just one way women in Atlanta are challenging rigid definitions of beauty and taking steps to come to peace with their looks.

Elsewhere in the city, an astrologer is holding “Beautiful You” seminars in her living room. The Anxiety & Stress Management Institute in Atlanta holds self-esteem-boosting workshops for teens encouraging girls to stop associating beauty with only supermodels.

And Dina Zeckhausen, an Atlanta psychologist, will lead a “Love Your Body Week” curriculum at 10 metro Atlanta area elementary schools this year, encouraging youngsters to refrain from saying mean things about their own bodies — or anyone else’s.

Only 3 percent of American women consider themselves beautiful, according to a 2004 Harvard University study, “The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report.” More recent surveys, commissioned by Dove, and focusing on girls 8 to 17, found youngsters are also hard on themselves. A 2007 Dove/Seventeen Magazine survey found about 4 in 10 girls and young women said when they look in the mirror, they only see their flaws.

Jess Weiner, author of “Life Doesn’t Begin 5 Pounds from Now,” said girls and women have been so hard on themselves for so long, but she’s beginning to see a shift.

“Girls and women have this pressure to be beautiful, and it can be an unnecessary source of anxiety,” she said. “They have spent a lot of time focused on their thighs instead of their passions, and I think women want to break through that criticism. I think girls and women are tired of feeling bad about themselves.”

Changing attitudes

Hilary Delman, a therapist at The Anxiety and Stress Management Institute in Atlanta, works with girls struggling with eating disorders and body image issues. She said girls and women are deeply influenced by airbrushed images of beauty.

“They see women in movies, and there’s airbrushing and personal trainers and fake tanning, and they manipulate their bodies, yet this is portrayed in the media as beautiful,” she said.

She also said too many women fall victim to “fat talk.”

Delman advises women to talk positively to themselves, even if they don’t believe in it at first.

“Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, ‘I can’t stand this outfit. It makes me look big,’ you can say, ‘I look nice and professional.’ The more you say it, the more you believe it.”

She also suggested women try to shift their focus away from appearance.

“Give yourself credit for doing good things. It can be feeling good about a project you did at work, or for doing something nice for someone, or that you are a good mother,” she said.

Avoiding negative influences is also important, she said. If you find yourself feeling low after reading women’s magazines, stop looking at them.

And, she said, surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself.

Discarding old habits

Delman said mothers play an important role in shaping how their daughters perceive themselves. A mom who is highly critical of herself and always complaining about her weight, for example, is likely to pass on that behavior.

Maxine Taylor, an astrologer, recently started holding “Beautiful You” workshops for women in her Marietta home to help women work through childhood influences.

“When I was growing up my mom would point at other girls and say, ‘Oh, look at how beautiful she is.’ And I would say, ‘What about me, mom?’ and she would say, ‘You are cute, but she is beautiful.’ ”

But when she got to college, she was a finalist in a beauty contest.

Now 66, Taylor encourages women in her workshops to write down things they heard about their appearances as children. She then has them discard it and make a commitment to accepting themselves for who they are.

‘You are pretty’

Back at The Memory Cottage in Fayetteville, burgundy velvet is hung and the windows go dark. Candles flicker. Debbie McFarland has prepared her studio for another of the sessions her subjects pay $250 or more to experience.

McFarland began offering the service a few years ago after experiencing an epiphany about her own insecurities at a church retreat.

“I had zero confidence. In my mind, I was ugly and fat. People would say, ‘You don’t need to lose weight,’ and I really didn’t. But it didn’t matter. It was how I felt,” said McFarland.

“But then it hit me: God made me this way because he wanted me to look this way and to not respect myself was a slap in the face to [him],” she said.

Another realization: how much time she wasted fretting about her appearance. Over time, being more at ease has helped her enjoy life more.

On this afternoon, Cheryl McGinty, 49, arrives dressed in jeans and a sparkly red tank top. Before any photos are taken, she jots down notes about what she doesn’t like about her appearance: My small eyes. My nose. The list goes on.

McFarland and the petite brunette walk outside and burn the slip of paper. Back in the studio, McGinty leans forward on a red couch and kicks off her strappy heels.

McFarland’s assistant uses a leaf blower to blow her hair for a glamorous effect — and to make McGinty laugh.

“You make me feel pretty,” McGinty says.

“You are pretty,” McFarland assures her. “You just need to see it.”

Recently divorced after 26 years of marriage, McGinty said she’ll soon have a birthday bash to celebrate the big 5-0.

She’s thinking about turning one of her photos into a poster, and setting it up in the foyer as guests arrive.