Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and new business owner Riley Blanks is holding the camera.
Story by Namrata Prakash
Photos by Maya Coplin
Woke Beauty, a business created by Blanks, aims to empower women through photography and bringing out the essence of an individual, creating a definition of beauty that isn’t exterior and superficial.
She hosted a panel called “Woke Beauty: An Intimate Discussion with Celebrated Austin Women” on Oct. 21, in order to spread her message and invoke the different ways beauty can manifest in various people across different walks of life. The panelists included a herbalist, an alchemist, a dietician, an activist, and a Paralympian. Together, they shared their own ways of finding beauty in the small moments and what an unconventional and holistic view of beauty can look like for the world.
Cultivating beauty becomes an ongoing process in the work that these women do for their communities. A lot of it also has to do with self care and self-healing, which is something all too familiar for herbalist Cassie Courtney. Feeling a connection to the earth, her apothecary work centers around organic, handmade products.
After giving birth to her son and having symptoms of postpartum depression, these tender remedies rooted in the natural world became a solace and a driving force in her life. She manages her shop High Sun, Low Moon herself as an independent way of creating art.“I make things from herbs and the earth to ground myself,” she says. “Whenever I am making products, I am intentional about where I’m at. If I’ve had a bad day, I just don't make anything because I know that touches the products and transcends onwards.”
As an activist and author, Virginia ‘Ginny’ Cumberbatch organizes in order to offer beauty to communities who have long been told they are not up to the standards or are simply excluded from mainstream narratives. She created Rebel and Rest, a retreat for black activists who serve on the frontlines of racial injustice and through her work finds way to be effective in the spaces she navigates.
“I sometimes struggle with maintaining poise when I’m talking to someone with a different perspective and in this political climate it can get especially tumultuous,” Cumberbatch said in reference to Blanks’ question about how she maintains control in the work that she does. She thinks it’s all about creating a sense of self. “I think poise is an interesting word, it’s seen as the external sense of you but it’s about the internal condition and what you bring to the conversation. Often, you’re told you are not being valued, your story doesn't matter, you're being penalized for who you are which is traumatic. You have to have your own personal ethos that you align yourself with so when you are in rough spaces where you are being threatened or challenged without love, you can use those creative energies to create platforms.”
However, always being challenged and having your identity debated can be taxing and it is very important to take care of yourself when things get difficult. “Routines and rituals help you find things that bring you comfort, it’s easy to remove yourself and realize that you have control over certain things you have implemented yourself,” said motivational speaker and Paralympic record holder Lacey J. Henderson. She reminds herself that progress isn’t linear and that she does not have to compare her athletic journey to others’. If she’s feeling overwhelmed or antsy in her off season, she knows going back to the track will balance out her heavy feelings. “I’ve been doing the same track warm-up for 5 years and sometimes I will just go and do my warm-up if I’ve had a jolting day. My brain can just go on autopilot for a while.”
Looking inwards for beauty can also mean looking at the food we consume on an everyday basis. Dietician and Whole 30 master Claire Siegel notes that food intake is important, but we should also not be policing people’s methods of eating and lifestyle choices.“We say everything in moderation, and I thought I sucked at my profession because I’m either all for it or binging. I’m always stuck in that battle, and I don’t want to demonize foods for the sake of it,” she said. “I ask myself if I’m actually hungry and if it is just a craving, and only eat foods that make a difference to my health. However, it doesn’t look the same for everyone.”
Stepping out of yourself and looking in is an important aspect of recognizing inner beauty, and helping others to do this gives great satisfaction to psychologist and alchemist Alana Cooklin. A crisis of self-esteem and need for validation pushed her towards her current career to resist the commodification of beauty. When asked about the future of women and how the status of beauty could change, she offers a simple solution and answer.“It is esoteric and amorphous, not practical but I believe the only reason we are here is to love,” she said..That is my hope as we empower ourselves and rebalance the power dynamic between masculine and feminine, cycling between matriarchy and patriarchy. I came in with a lot of mental faculty and learned to settle into my body and to know that my mind isn't the master, but the servant. The heart is the master.”
Through Blanks’ photography projects, these women have come together and developed a friendship through mutual recognition and understanding of the beauty they hold. Though there is no one definition, we can deconstruct ideas we have been fed and socialized with and realize it takes all shapes and forms and is reproduced in every action we make. There is no one way to be beautiful, but we should all recognize we have the unwavering capacity for it.