“When did we start agreeing that growing to be an elder is shameful? That our bodies become “disgusting”? When did we become obsessed with the idea that as an elder one should strive to be younger, to be anything but… an elder… When did we forget that these bodies are not for others but are our own divine creation to manifest the dreams of our hearts?” —Jade Beall, Instagram
Photographer Jade Beall’s mission is simple: She wants to show us our beauty—women of all sizes, shapes and ages—and she wants everyone around us to see it, too, even in the face of the wrinkle-free, svelte image of female beauty that we are continuously exposed to.
“As a photographer, all I saw was the perfect body, and everything else was considered offensive,” she says.
Beall is best known for her photographs of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. The photos have been widely shared on social media, and in 2014 she gathered them into a book, “The Bodies of Mothers: A Beautiful Body Project,” which earned her global attention. Now Beall is working on a series of equally truthful photographs, “Beautiful Bodies of Elders.” Like her “mother” photographs, she posts these images to Instagram along with her subjects’ stories and, occasionally, her furious take on how we define “beauty.”
As Beall says, showing pictures of older bodies is revolutionary—especially the bodies of older women who are naked and proud. “Photographing elder men is more acceptable—leathery is OK,” she says. “But women are expected to be photoshopped to look like they really aren’t old.”
Beall chatted with us by phone from Tucson, Arizona, where she lives and works.
How did you get interested in photographing elder bodies?
My passion for elders happened organically as a result of my project photographing pregnant women. The mothers of the women I photographed told me they felt unseen. I grew up in Mexico, I love Africa and I photographed the demonstrations at Standing Rock. I’m aware that there’s a tradition of honoring elders in other cultures. I liked that. I see elders as a source of wisdom, and I think it’s shameful and offensive that their bodies are not appreciated. I love celebrating humans who are not celebrated. The single body type is so boring—the diversity of bodies is so much more interesting. When we put them together, we have rainbow of gorgeous bodies.
I’m infatuated with aging skin, with wrinkles around the eyes. They’re so much more interesting than smooth skin. I see my photos as a way for young people to see growing older as a privilege. My dad just died at 65, so making it to your 70s and 80s is a great achievement for me. The fact that we don’t celebrate it is a travesty.
It’s a divine privilege to be an elder in these incredible bodies, but it’s really hard when for 70 years you’ve been told you should be 20. It’s hard to see the beauty.
Was it hard to find older people who were willing to pose?
I had friends here in Tucson who are in their 70s and I asked if I could photograph them. They’re an interracial older couple who are very much in love. They came over and had a blast doing the photo shoot. She walks with a cane, and it was one of the most special shoots I’ve ever done. When I posted the photos, people went crazy despite the fact that we’ve been trained to find older bodies gross. The vast majority of comments were supportive—people found the photos inspirational, because these people look in love and proud. That photo has been seen by 5 million people. After I posted it, other elders started reaching out to be photographed.
Gerry, 75, and Darwin, 70, beloveds for over 20 years. I refuse to accept the wide spread (mostly western) human belief system in regards to what is beautiful, especially when it comes to the sacred vessel we call our bodies. Why do we accept to believe that one thing must be more beautiful than another? Why cannot we embrace a million-billion definitions of beautiful? The divine: skin that drapes, stretches, sags, wrinkles, burns and rebuilds like spiraling Fibonacci across our fragile and strong bones made from the same stuff as the stars all combining to create this phenomenon that comes to life for a short amount of times that we call… bodies. Many from my human tribe and other humans who wish to sell me things “that will hide the evidence that I am growing older” tell me that as I grow older, I am worth less and less and that elder bodies are anything but beautiful. These elder bodies: the temples to decades of wisdom, heartbreak, strength, failure, triumph, THRIVING. How, I wonder, could they be anything but beautiful? I am starting a new series on beloveds over 60 because I wish to be free from the imposed beliefs. Gerry: I love my body. I use a cane, i am having vision problems and my breasts reach to my waist, but you know what? I like me! Darwin: I still have body issues. I would love to loose some weight. *censored for IG
A photo posted by Jade Beall Photograpy (@jadebeallphotography) on
Have there been any surprises for you as you’ve photographed older bodies?
Weirdly, I’ve discovered that people don’t want their hands in the shot. They think elder hands are offensive. How can hands be offensive?
You made a book of your pictures of pregnant and nursing women. Are you planning to do the same with this project?
I hope so. So far I only have photos of about 10 elders. I’d like hundreds—a huge collection of elder bodies photographed as their actual age. I want massive diversity. Once I figure out the funding, I look forward to traveling and doing portraits and turning them into a book. I’d love for my son to see those bodies. He’s five and already surrounded by breastfeeding photos. I want him to say. “Oh yeah, this is normal, these are beautiful bodies as they grow older.”
How do you feel about your own body?
I’m pretty normal looking in a curvaceous way. I’ve changed since I gave birth. I gained 50 pounds, but my body fluctuates. Most of our bodies fluctuate. Our bodies are like the ocean, and it’s OK.
- Visit “Beautiful Bodies of Elders” on Jade Beall’s website
- Follow Jade Beall Photography on Instagram
- See Jade Beall’s book, “The Bodies of Mothers: A Beautiful Body Project”
All photos: © Jade Beall Photography
Recognizing that not all folks believe in God or a higher power, much of my context is shaped by my embrace of the Great Spirit. In the Old Testament of the Bible it says “we were made in the image of God.” It didn’t say that image or truth changes with age. So it is my belief that God “don’t make no junk.” Now, we do “junky” stuff throughout our lives that is separate from what God did, but that does not denigrate God’s work in creating us and treating us with “sacred worth” throughout our lives. Beauty in my opinion, is strictly a contextual word and how wonderful it would be if we would start to see pure beauty in the aged eyes and and body of a respected elder, our “Wisdom folk,” as our Native American sisters and brothers would say. Kudo’s to you, Jade.
You can come to southern Illinois to photograph me and anyone else I can round up. I am not shy about my body. After my husband’s first affair, I gained 100# of protection. I spent 20 years that way. Then in 2008, I decided I was sick and tired of being fat and sick and tired. By the end of 2009 I had lost 80#. Guess what, I then had a body lift in 2012 because all I could see was the loose skin. Many were against it. Few were pro surgery. But I did it. I felt better but still had an issue. My husband. He then had another affair and within 2 mo I lost 25#. I still have wrinkling skin and worn out hands even though I am 62 yrs old. I have worked hard all my life and my body shows it. I think the pics you posted were beautiful. If you ever come to Newton Il (I don’t know why you would. It’s a dying town with too many old generational views) you can stay at my house.
Linda Michl — as we say here in the South, “Bless your heart,” (and, yes, many of us use that phrase sincerely). Sounds as though you could lose an additional 180 +/- lbs by getting rid of that cheating husband! When men cheat, it says more about them (for example, it can be a sign of deep-seated insecurities) than it does about us. As someone who knows, I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that.
Getting more and more comfortable with it!