We’ve all heard the bitching and moaning, and it isn’t pretty. Most of us females over 40 have indulged in this bad habit ourselves: “I look old! I look fat! I hate pictures of myself!” Well, artist Helen Tansey got tired of all the negative self-talk going around, and she decided to do something about it.

Her new book, Sundari Women, published earlier this month, is her artistic and political statement, an effort to reclaim the narrative around women and aging. Sundari means beautiful in Sanskrit. And it comes in the form of a coffee-table book, a shiny Trojan Horse to disguise a serious message. “We women need to embrace the gift of aging and feel gratitude for the opportunity to do so.”

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She put out a call to arms, got friends to ask friends, and made a few cold calls to people whose strength she admired. The casting snowballed, and she ultimately gathered together 42 Canadian women — between the ages of 40 to 96 — who were more than just pretty faces.

There are a few familiar names in the mix, including actors Jennifer Dale, 65, and Wendy Crewson, 63, and skin-care guru Elizabeth Grant, 96. “But we are all regular gals,” says Tansey, who appears on the cover, “all dealing with the same thing.”

The black-and-white portraits are stripped down, so each woman’s personality shines through. More importantly, they are accompanied by each sitter’s thoughts on aging. And even if they were outside their comfort zone going into the project, by the time they wrote their thoughts afterward, there was only collective enthusiasm for the cause. “When we listen to women speak, it empowers us,” she says.

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Tansey’s method involved hair and makeup, but the looks were kept minimal; it was more of a quiet time to talk and warm up. “I wanted the photos to have a natural feel and a rawness and edge to them. They are shot on black background with natural light and no retouching,” she says.

Of the results, she says, “When their walls come down, you get a true sense of who they are. The place between confidence and vulnerability. To be vulnerable takes great strength.”

Tansey, who is 53, started out as a model, working the European fashion circuit from the time she was 17. When she moved back home after a loss in her family, she began working as a receptionist for a photographer who shot a lot of actors. Her test shots got the attention of agents, and she began shooting. Today she does a blend of portraiture, corporate and individual. This book was her passion project.

She reflects on how aging can be harder on former models — “I know some who are struggling, because their identity is tied up in it and they have standards they have to maintain” — but she herself let go of that burden. “I gave myself permission to age, and I feel like I’m getting better, more confident. Maybe it is because when I look through the lens I see what is special about people underneath the surface.”

Kathy Imrie, 77, was one of the featured women. She was galvanized by the experience. “Helen is special, she has a way of communicating with people, it is almost as though she can read their spirit. You go quite deep together, it is almost as though you are naked.”

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Now retired, Imrie says she was working too hard her whole life to really worry about aging herself. “Growing up — I’m West Indian, from Trinidad — in Caribbean culture, aging is not as important as it is here, where we can’t age, and if we do, we can’t look it! Here, they put you out to pasture.”

Imrie hopes we all stop wasting our time on that worry. All that energy from the women in this project put together, she says, will have a liberating effect. “It is the power of collective energy.”

Writer Elizabeth Mitchell, 58, agrees. “I know for a fact that Helen has made every woman in the book feel better about themselves. It’s the start of something inclusive, and reciprocates outwards. Nice.”

Mitchell consciously chose to let her hair go grey from the time her kids were in kindergarten. Today she wears it long and lustrous. Still, despite looking so confident about aging, she says, she “had all these negative connotations about getting my picture taken. This project was definitely outside my comfort zone.”

Society has a notion when women age, she says, “we get put on a shelf. People pick you up and have a look sometimes. That has to change, the notion of shame around women and aging. Helen showed me that getting a picture taken — especially in this youthful Selfie culture — is not silly and not selfish.” Also, if we are afraid of how we look as we age, she says, “What is it we are showing our kids?”

Kate Drummond, who is 40, talks about realizing we all are here to tell different stories. And as an actor who came to her craft later in the game, she was told right off the bat that she was too old to be a movie star. “People in my business make a direct relation between your success and how you look. We literally have to crash down that belief system!”

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She decided it was her “mission to try to fight that pressure to be a certain way, and to instead be as authentically herself” as she could be. “I’m always awkward getting my photo taken, standing on a red carpet, so I decided to own it, and make that my brand.”

Drummond says she “jumped at the chance” to work on this project with Tansey, to be a part of the change in how we view beauty and women and aging in our society. Especially in her judgy vocation, she says: “I don’t know where this sense of competition between women came from. It is deep and hurtful and disempowering to us all. We can all tell different stories, and we can tell our own stories.”

Helen Tansey, the artist and creator of Sundari Women, as she appears on her own book cover.

Of the Sundari project, she says, “We are stronger together and we need to life each other up, not put ourselves down. We need to create a world where we can all thrive as ourselves.”

And that world is where a coffee-table book becomes much more than a collection of pretty pictures.

Copies of the book are available at SundariWomen.com, $99; T-shirts are $35. Helen Tansey is now continuing her project and individuals ($275 for a sitting) or groups of 3 to 5 women ($500) can book to have their own portraits taken in the same style.


https://www.thestar.com/life/2019/07/05/artist-helen-tansey-challenges-aging-myths-by-capturing-the-raw-and-natural-beauty-of-women-over-40.html

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