I try to hold a smile as the camera shutter clicks. Click. Click. I watch its metal eye close and open, refocus and close again.
I try not to blink. Not blinking hurts. And I am smiling so determinedly, I probably look a little unhinged.
"Don't be nervous," I tell myself.
Am I slouching? Did she say something about putting these pictures up on Facebook? Oh, dear god...
I'm sitting on the wooden planks of a floor in an ancient mill in Wakefield, Rhode Island, trying to look natural. I have never had a manicure in my life and I am not a model. My butt is going numb. What the heck am I doing here?
I'm here because I had agreed to take part in photographer Robyn Ivy's women.simply.beautiful project. I was curious about her creative process, and her conviction that seeing your "true, complete self" in photographs can be a life-changing event.
"Many of us no longer know who we are or how we feel about ourselves," Robyn says. "And most women don't have an accurate physical reflection of what they look like."
Although we're living in an age where everything from a phone to a keychain comes equipped with a camera, there's a difference between being photographed and being photographed well, she adds.
Her portrait sessions are long — a few hours, and she does this intentionally. Her goal, she says, is to arrive at an authentic, total portrayal of the woman in front of her.
For the first half-hour, her clients are "on," they are consciously posing.
"But then something interesting happens when you get tired," she says. "Women drop their guard. They stop trying to look a certain way, they stop worrying about how they will look."
And that is where the process of self-discovery kicks in.
Often, there are tears.
Robyn understands this. She says it's difficult to be looked at for a long time.
"Women in our culture really struggle with being seen and not wanting to be seen," she says.
"We're all dying to be the center of attention, but you want to feel that you've earned it just by being who you are," she says, which is a psychologically vulnerable place in a society that emphasizes youth and flawlessness.
"People are so afraid that others will see and confirm the bad things they think about themselves, that they fight tooth and nail not to have connection. We build these cages to protect ourselves and then we're unhappy because we're alone."
The intent of her project is to create a safe place she says, where a woman can let all the aspects of her personality rise to the surface.
"We all have these questions — 'if I fall apart in life, who is going to be there?' There is a sense of freedom that comes from giving yourself permission to let it all go."
But the moment Robyn cherishes, she says, is a client's reaction when she sees her photos for the first time.
"The images contradict all of the negative beliefs they hold about themselves," she says, "which offers a possibility to tell a new story."
As she talks, it strikes me that Robyn is beautiful, in a very unorchestrated way. There is no pretension with this woman. She is candidly herself.
She's had a few adventures. Robyn has lived in Africa and Germany. She's spent evenings in cocktail dresses and heels on the streets of Europe, and months in the same cargo pants in a hut with no running water. And like a mom who is raising two young boys, she has the "c'est la vie" air of someone who has surrendured to the happy messiness of life.
What else do I know?
I know that for all my doubt during the session, I love the finished photographs. They are lovely, and wonderfully lit. I actually cry when I see them — as does my mom. Robyn respected that I'm not coloring my hair. She didn't airbrush the grays. This was important to me. I had fewer external flaws when I was 21, but considerably more internal ones. So it is heartening to see my years reflected in the pictures. I also was surprised (and very moved) to see clearly and for the first time how much I resemble my sister.
But the strangest and truest part of the process is that standing in front of the mirror every morning, I see myself as I look in Robyn's photographs. The relentless, piping thoughts about my flat hair and bubble tummy have evaporated.
I am grateful for this, and for the the opportunity she afforded me during our session, to go wherever I wanted to go emotionally. At one point toward the end, she made a sincere observation: "Faye, I see a lot of sadness in your eyes."
I changed the subject. People have been telling me that my whole life, and it makes me feel 1000 years old. So I changed the subject.
I later wondered if this was a mistake.
I wondered because there are so few people who unabashedly stand at the edge of dark horizons and hold a light aloft for others. It's a very generous thing to offer to accompany someone on a journey when the outcome is unknown. But Robyn doesn't seem apprehensive about this or any other frontier. She wants to see you, so she can show you yourself as you truly are.
"It's like buying a ticket to nowhere," she says of her work. "We're asking women to explore themselves in a way they don't understand" until they're in the moment, she said.
"And it's an absolute honor to be part of that journey."
For details on pricing packages for women.simply.beautiful individual or group
sessions, visit www.robynivy.com, or call 401.527.9453. The sessions include
professional makeup with Spectrum Makeup Artistry by Jennifer Hodge,
www.spectrumri.com; or Katie Grace Bouchard, www.katiebouchard.com.