Helen Tansey, photographer, mom, podcast host, extraordinary person.
Helen is a photographer of the rich and famous. She’s known for her photos of some of the most famous actors and celebrities. Her style is identifiable. As an artist, Helen produced a coffee table book called Sundari (Sanskrit for beautiful) Women. She set out to challenge our concept of aging by capturing the raw and natural beauty of women over 40. Participants, including some famous faces, were shot as stripped-down black and white portraits. Each woman also provided her thoughts on aging. And (to quote Leanne Delap from the Toronto Star) 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,” Helen says. “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. She shyly (with pride) said the book has sold out.
PLAYING SMALL DOES NOT SERVE THE WORLD
“We need representation!”
“I want to inspire women to feel good about themselves as they age,” says Helen. “As women, we need to be seen. We need to be more visible. We need to have a voice.”
SOCIOLOGIST AND PHYCOLOGISTS HAVE BEEN SAYING WE NEED REPRESENTATION FOR A LONG WHILE.
Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and pop culture expert in the US, “Minorities realize—supported by research—that the media influence not only how others view them, but even how they view themselves.”
Carlos Cortes, a historian who wrote the book The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity. “First, whether intentionally or unintentionally, both the news and the entertainment media 'teach' the public about minorities, other ethnic groups, and societal groups, such as women, gays, and the elderly. Second, this mass media curriculum has a particularly powerful educational impact on people who have little or no direct contact with members of the groups being treated.”
Don’t think representation is important, research from the Pew Research Center reported that the general US population significantly changed their views of same-sex marriages in just 15 years—with 60% of the population being opposed in 2004 to 61% in favor in 2019. While there are many other factors that likely influenced these perspective shifts, studies suggest that positive LGBTQ media depictions played a significant role.
RESEARCH SHOWS THAT REPRESENTATION ISN’T JUST A MATTER OF AFFIRMATION–IT CAN HAVE CONCRETE IMPACTS ON OUR BIASES, ASPIRATIONS AND MENTAL HEALTH.
“The norm is what we grow up with and if we don’t see ourselves, we must not be important. It’s what researchers call “symbolic annihilation.” Helen went on to say, “I don’t want aging to mean our world will get smaller. Yet without positive role models, we limit our beliefs. If all we have are older, senile, or infirm role models, we will not see aging for the miraculous stage in life it is. We will fear, not embrace our changes.”
Helen went on to say "I follow Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. “Aging isn’t a problem to be solved. Or a disease to be cured. Or something icky that old people do. It’s how we move through life and more of us are doing more of it than ever before in human history. What stands between us and making the most of our longer lives? Ageism: judging, stereotyping, and discriminating against people based on how old we think they are. Solve for ageism and we all address sexism (aging is gendered, ableism (disability is stigmatized) and racism (which denies multitudes the chance to age at all.)”
“What I find most intriguing,” says Helen. “Is how our fear of aging is directly related to fears of physical or cognitive impairment, being anti-ageist means being anti-ableist.”
“I’ve found aging freeing,” says Helen. “When I was younger, I would curb my enthusiasm out of fear. If you delved deeply enough, it would really be fear of rejection. Now if I feel fear, I want to know what’s on the other side. Why won’t I do something, what is holding me back? Now I find, if I fear something, it’s even more reason to stretch myself. If I fear, I’m going to do it, I want to know what’s on the other side.”
EXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, YOU NEED TO HAVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE FROM ALL GENERATIONS.
One of the common threads through all our discussions is the need to remain connected and relevant. “The way to stay current is having friends from every generation,” says Helen. “I’m lucky in my work, I’m exposed daily to people from all different arenas, old and young. I also have my sons. They were at home the other day – somehow, I got referred to as OG. Which had me a little upset, I didn’t see myself as an “old goat”. That caused a few laughs – in today’s world of texting slang, it stands for original gangster – or someone who’s exceptional, authentic or “old school” – the ultimate compliment”.
This is fun and each generation develops their own lingo – remember when ‘groovy, cool, far out, dig it, or bummer’ were words the other generation didn’t understand.
SCARED OF AGING? FIND OUT WHY.
“There are many reasons why we are scared. And what you fear may depend on how old you are. In all cases you need to look deeper, find out what scares you, find the answers then heal that part and move on.”
“I’m finding aging to be freeing. Not only am I more likely to face my fears and move forward. I live my truth. I wear what I want, I do what I want. I’m not trying to fit in or to be relevant,” expounds Helen. “The gift of aging is focusing on the positive, not the negative.”
WHAT LIFE LESSON DO YOU WISH YOU HAD LEARNED EARLIER?
“To not play small. To paraphrase Marianne Williamson’s famous passage “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to let our own light shine.”
“It took me a long time and a lot of reflection to understand this. I didn’t stand up for myself, I didn’t want to cause waves. I had chosen a field that not many women ventured into. I thought if I played small, that I could slip by. Aging has taught me to be me, with my truths, my thoughts, and my words. I hope all women can understand this and become who they were meant to be.”