Photographer Celebrates Herself And Others Done Conforming To Rigid Beauty Standards

“I think too often, women underestimate the power that is within them."

When photographer Leni Kei was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), her body changed in ways that affected her confidence and self-esteem. Now, in an effort to reclaim her beauty, and help inspire other women to do the same, Kei created Breaking Beauty Standards, a photo series and social media campaign that promotes body positivity and proves beauty and confidence know no size.

The six-week photo series, which launched in November,  features sexy and empowering snapshots of plus-size women.  Every Tuesday, Kei posts a photo of one woman who has a story, and includes her name, age, height, and pant size. 

The series aims to highlight the fact that 67 percent of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 or higher, yet only 8 percent of that population is represented in mainstream media. "We have failed to represent the majority, and that has resulted in women, amazingly gorgeous women, looking at themselves so harshly, believing that they are flawed, thinking that they are what's wrong with society, when, in reality, we are lovely, stunning and spectacular, just the way we are,"  Kei wrote in her Instagram post introducing the series. 


The series was inspired by Kei's own journey who struggled with her weight over the last three years due to the effects of PCOS, a very common hormonal disorder that can cause weight gain, infertility, and depression. 

The 26-year-old has always led a healthy lifestyle and was frustrated when her body stopped acting accordingly. "I found a new doctor, who took the time to listen and run some tests, and that was when she found multiple complex cysts on my ovaries," Kei explained to A Plus. "She immediately had me start on a medication that caused my hair to thin out pretty badly and made me sick. In total, I had gained about 60 pounds in three years, and just assumed I was just getting older and my metabolism must have been slowing down, not knowing that weight gain was apart of PCOS. My confidence was plummeting, especially being half Japanese, there is such an unspoken standard to be thin. It was so difficult because my body was changing, my hair was falling out, and I had a hard time facing myself in the mirror."

But even before her weight gain, Kei says she faced the pressures of trying to fit rigid beauty standards. "When I was a size 8, I was told how pretty I would be if I lost weight," Kei shared. "Thinking back on that opened my eyes to see that this isn't just a 'big girl' problem. Women of all shapes and sizes get body shamed. We should all be able to look in the mirror and see a sexy, powerful, amazing queen looking back at them."

"The standards need to change and I hope that this project can spark something in women and society to show that size doesn't define someone.”

It was Kei's journey of self-acceptance that led to her latest project. Back in June, Kei's husband Deonta Williams suggested taking portrait shots of his wife to help regain her confidence, Yahoo Lifestyle reported. That pivotal moment, paired with Kei's desire to help other women see their own beauty, inspired her to create a space for women to share their stories. 

"I asked the women to be transparent when they shared their story so what you get is unfiltered truth," Kei explained to A Plus. 

“It’s so important to me that people see these women are real people, with real struggles they have dealt with, to show other women it is possible to overcome and see themselves as beautiful.”

Kei hopes women of all sizes will find empowerment with the campaign.. "If #BreakingBeautyStandards could make just one woman see herself in a new light, I would feel accomplished," she said. "Women have shared stories with me about how their size has caused them to have suicidal thoughts, how they wouldn't leave their house, and how they cried themselves to sleep because they couldn't find anything over a size 12 when they were shopping. [...]  I want everyone to feel represented, and I hope that every story told can bring positivity and encouragement so everyone can feel the freedom to be themselves."

This isn't the first time the photographer has used her craft to uplift women. Kei says she enjoys intertwining who she is and what she does. "I once photographed a woman who had not been photographed in 20 years because of insecurities," Kei recounts.  "After our session, she couldn't stop thanking me, telling me how beautiful she felt. These kinds of testimonies have given me motivation to continue my craft and have given me a feeling of purpose. And in the same light, I am able to use my camera to allow people to see themselves in a new way. It's a win-win."

The photographer continued, "I think too often, women underestimate the power that is within them. I know that if I have a story to tell, other women do too. Sometimes it's just about finding their voice. Society will tell you what you should wear, what you should look like, what colors you should avoid when getting dressed, what size pants you should wear to be considered pretty. and it's so easy to just conform and keep your mouth closed. I got sick of it. I want to know who made these rules and why we have to keep them." 


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