CNN Photos

‘Love Me,’ not the Western idea of beauty

After traveling the world for five years, photographer Zed Nelson learned that modern human behavior is extreme – extraordinary, even – and we aren’t aware that anything is wrong.

“I am fascinated and appalled at the commercially driven export of a Western beauty idea,” he said, that amounts to what he calls “cultural brainwashing.”

Nelson’s project and book “Love Me” is a collection of portraits from 17 countries on five continents. The people he photographed are all in pursuit of body improvement, a “new religion” that cultivates an obsession with the validity of appearance, Nelson said.

“Like it or not, we are judged - and judge - by appearance,” he said. “Can any of us honestly say, ‘I don’t want to be attractive’?”

As he made his way around the world, Nelson learned how different cultures accepted the modern Caucasian beauty ideal – through eye surgery, skin-lightening, hair-straightening, breast augmentation and tummy tucks – and turned it into a prescriptive standard.

“If you can sell the idea of one prescriptive look,” he said, “then you can sell people the products and services to help them attempt to achieve this idea.”

It’s an enticing proposal, especially because Nelson finds the basic human need to be noticed and loved is tied into competitiveness and vanity.

“In ‘Love Me’ I show the purveyors of this industry, the practitioners and salespeople as us, their hapless victims locked into an insatiable craving for approval,” he said. As a result of their work, we are no longer accustomed to seeing natural human bodies.

He finds men to be increasingly vulnerable to the beauty industry worldwide.

“I was in my mid-30s when I began work on ‘Love Me’, and I think at that age you begin to realize that you will not be young forever, that your body is not fully under your control,” he said.

The images of men he sees on television, in magazines and advertisements are younger and more idealized. “I could see and feel this creeping influence all around me,” making men more vain, more self-conscious and more dissatisfied with themselves, he said.

As insecure and image-obsessed as humanity seems to be growing, can anyone ever truly feel beautiful? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or even in front of Nelson’s lens?

“My motto is, you just have to find the right eye,” he said. “The one that thinks you’re beautiful.”

- Ann Hoevel, CNN