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Photography Project Defies Ageism and Youth Beauty Ideals for Women

Beauty standards have changed over the decades, continuously shaping the expectations that society has for women. In the 1910s, the hourglass figure with a cinched waist was de rigueur. In the 1960s, being ultra thin with no curves was all the rage. From the ‘60s to the present, beauty norms have continued to shift. However, the most enduring standard of all has been the focus on youth. In a society where being a “woman of a certain age” has a less than positive connotation, women in their 40s and beyond grapple with what it means to be aging in our youth obsessed culture. 

Keyonna Renea, photographer and storyteller at Copper Keys Studios, recently opened a citywide dialogue on this subject. With her photography project, 40 Over 40, Keyonna invited women of all backgrounds and experiences to lean into their stories, share their wisdom, and honor themselves in the process. The prevalence of young women in pop culture, and the scarcity of women over the age of 40 in the limelight, have inadvertently communicated that a woman’s value lies singularly in her youthful beauty. 

Keyonna Renea

Keyonna noted how television shows and movies portray women as the butt of jokes because of their age, and this has been internalized by women and men. “It subconsciously makes a woman feel a certain way and encourages treatment from the people around us,” she said. “They’ll be treated less than in the workplace, they’re looked over for promotion, or they’re looked at as not having as much value or as much intelligence as men.”

As part of her project, Keyonna interviewed each woman to capture her wisdom and perspective. “My clients were accepting themselves after 40, and grounded in who they were, or they were challenged by some of the things they internalized throughout their lives about being over a certain age,” she said.

Keyonna sat on an InnovateHER KC panel discussion in September of 2023. The conversation addressed systemic perspectives of aging among women, shed light on the inequalities of how aging women are treated, and addressed the psychological impact. In Keyonna’s view, the exchanges the 40 Over 40 project has fostered have had a ripple effect in the community. Her clients have reported having wine night discussions on aging with their girlfriends, which has shifted their perspectives. “The conversation is happening in households, it’s happening publicly in panel discussions, and sometimes very quietly from one girlfriend to another,” she said. “It’s affecting how women are showing up differently in their lives, and therefore everybody else in their life is going to feel that impact as well.”

Lauren Conaway, founder and CEO of InnovateHER KC, not only participated in Keyonna’s photography series but is also a community leader who champions women’s empowerment. Lauren acknowledged the pervasive beauty standards imposed on women. At InnovateHer KC events, she regularly sees the effects of these internalized guidelines. “I take a lot of pictures of people,” she said. “When I bust out my camera, it is almost always women who are hesitant to step in front of my camera.”

Lauren Conaway

That hesitance, Lauren noted, stems from concerns about their level of presentability. “It’s always, ‘Is my hair okay? Let me fix it,’ ” she said. “Because I’ve been so conditioned by the idle expectations of beauty and what that means, I think a lot of women are paralyzed in that arena.”

While some women struggle to embrace themselves as they age, Kimberly Weaver has accepted what others might perceive as flaws. The 47-year-old cancer survivor has recently become increasingly disabled by fibromyalgia and relies on a walking cane. As a result, she now sees beauty in a person’s joy and authenticity. “In a space where people are looking for perfection, I have decided that I am going to be who I am,” she said. “I’m going to laugh out loud and you’re going to see these crooked teeth. I’m going to celebrate my body just the way it is.”

Kimberly Weaver

In her 40 Over 40 photos, Kimberly is pictured with her canes and she has one for every outfit. “One of the things that I’ve been trying to do as a disabled body is to make disability something that is normalized,” she said. “I was intentional about taking pictures with my cane because it’s part of who I am.” 

As a catalog of her photography project, Keyonna pulled together a photo book of the 40 Over 40 participants and their stories. Within these stories, she noticed a few recurring themes. Many of the women want to be more accepting of themselves and to encourage others to do the same. They want to slow down sometimes and also take more chances. 

From Lauren’s perspective, “… women should be able to celebrate themselves, and feel empowered to control their narrative.” While she was initially uncomfortable to be in front of the camera lens for something other than a headshot, she embraced it as an opportunity to model her beliefs and engage the InnovateHER KC community. “I wish we lived in a world where beauty didn’t matter and beauty had nothing to do with confidence,” she said. “I firmly believe that women are beautiful, complicated, dynamic, brilliant creatures with a lot of complexity.”

In Kimberly’s view, life doesn’t end after 40. “There’s life to live after 40 – even as a disabled person and even in an unconventional body – because that’s who I am. There’s still life to be lived, so live it.” Kimberly is currently learning to play the banjo, which she says is an enjoyable challenge. She relishes simple pleasures like a solo movie date or taking herself out for ice cream. Kimberly also enjoys her community and is looking forward to a local music night that her son has spearheaded. 

As the page has been turned on her two-year-long photography series, Keyonna believes finding peace in aging stems from taking time to develop a relationship with ourselves. “The days feel long sometimes, but the years go by so fast,” she said. “One thing I have learned from photographing people for as long as I have is that your relationship to yourself should be a priority over everything else, and that’s not selfish. That’s the most important thing that you can do as a living, breathing person.” 

Featured in the March 23, 2024 issue of The Independent.
By Monica V. Reynolds

Monica V. Reynolds is an award-winning former reporter who honed her skills at a daily newspaper in Northeast Louisiana. After spending more than a decade in Austin, Texas, she recently moved to Our Town. Monica’s passion for journalism extends to documentary short filmmaking and photography. She is the founder of Vox Pop Marketing, an online marketing and web design firm that helps small businesses develop an authentic, magnetic message and online presence.


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