Beauty and Wisdom, The Last Generation

After four years of photographing and interviewing women in beauty parlors all over the country, the book of Beauty and Wisdom was released on at the end of this past year.


The reception has been wonderful and while I had hoped and expected women to relate to it I have experienced a surprisingly overwhelming response from men.  I have given two talks so far this year and it has touched me deeply that when it came time for the Q & A section of those talks, it was mostly men asking questions and at the end of those talks they approached me to convey their gratitude and were pleased that someone was covering or rather, uncovering, this topic of agelessness in a culture that concentrates mainly on its youth. In fact, it was mostly men that bought the books!


I was introduced as the photojournalist who traveled around the country photographing women at their weekly hair appointments. They didn’t know what to expect but I sensed that they thought this was going to be a whimsical talk about older women in salons and it reminded me that it was just like that for me before I walked into the first salon to photograph for the Beauty and Wisdom project. It was interesting to see the transformation which took place for me, also occurred for them.
I started the talks with a short movie I created for the presentation:
It presented many of the photos from the book and exhibit set to the music of Joe Cocker’s “You are So Beautiful.”  There were chuckles at some of the photos, but I could tell these chuckles were filled with love, respect and sensitivity. They weren’t making fun of the photos, they were enjoying, as I did, being voyeurs into what was considered a sacred ritual of sorts for many women of that generation and realizing that it was anything but frivolity.
In most cases, these women attended the salon as a necessity since at the time they could not reproduce their hairstyles by themselves.  In fact, many of the styles from the past are no longer taught in salon schools. Attending their weekly appointments provided connection and relaxation while beautifying.  And, as one of the women who shared at my talk noted, the salon was also a place where ‘underground’ information was shared at a time where certain circumstances were to be kept secret or thought of as taboo. This was a special time, women helping women at a time of need and sharing in elation as well as sorrow.
This generation of women (and hairstyles) is fading.  I have lost three of my models in the last four years.  Perhaps someday in the not too distant future, these salons that cater to the patrons of the once-a-week beauty parlor ritual, will be obsolete, but the wisdom and paths that they paved for future generations will not be. I hope they know how much they contributed and continue to contribute to so many of us.
If I had to do it over again, I would spend more time talking with the women about their lives, more in depth. I wanted to honor their time at the salon as they set it aside and I didn’t want to invade on their privacy. They agreed to let me take their photo and I didn’t want to take up too much of their appointment asking them questions. Some were more conversational than others, but they all had beautiful and wise insight to share as well as the women who contributed to the book in writing, also had beautiful and wise insights to share.
What I learned was that when I get the opportunity to speak with an elder, to ask questions about their lives, I will.  I once heard that a good question you can ask your elder is, “what was one difficult time of your life and what did you learn from it?”  This is where the wisdom gets juicy and the gap between generations lessens.  We start realizing that even though this person is older, they experience their own trials and tribulations, just as a teen or twenty-something…or fifty-something…. and they have the uncanny ability to offer some kind of gem of wisdom that will remind us that we are all connected and valuable, no matter what age.  The gems of wisdom shared are invisible reminders for difficult times.  Our elders have more wisdom than most and our culture would greatly benefit from giving them visibility and a platform to hear their wise voices. I offer an alternative to how aging and beauty is perceived and hope that you will take the cue from the women in my project and choose to age fearlessly and gracefully, with no regrets, all at the same time.

I’ll close with this quote from Debbie J. Johnson, contributing author to Beauty and Wisdom:


“I am so grateful to be reminded of the true beauty of age and wisdom and of a time-honored tradition that shaped our world more than we will probably ever know. It has reminded me that nature demonstrates beauty in so many ways. The firm, tight petals of the rose bud are indeed beautiful, but we all await the real beauty, as time unfolds, when the petals reveal the fullness of the bloom.”


This article was written for and featured on the Changing Aging blog with Dr. Bill Thomas. Read the original article here –>  The Last Generation


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