Beauty Within: Student photo project challenges ageist beauty standards

Headshots of Marfy Abousifein, left and Rhea Varghese, against a backdrop of trees.

What does beauty mean to you? What does aging mean to you?  

The two questions are at the heart of a thought-provoking student-led project that tackles ageist stereotypes and traditional beauty standards, created by the McMaster Student Connection to the Canadian Association on Gerontology (CAG-MSC).  

The community-engaged Beauty Within campaign, which “highlights and seeks to normalize the beauty within the process of aging and display diversity,” aims to bridge the gap between generations, amplify the voices of older adults and combat ageist ideologies.  

Co-leads and Bachelor of Health Sciences students Marfy Abousifein and Rhea Varghese interviewed older adults and McMaster students, asking them to reflect on what beauty and aging mean to them.  

The responses are paired with striking photo portraits, taken by fourth-year BHSc student Sachi Chen. 

“I was amazed at how these two questions captured the influence of culture, the media, and relationships on individual and community preventives on aging and beauty,” says Abousifein. “Students and older adults were eager to share vulnerably, speaking of fears, losses, and personal experiences.” 

Abousifein, who works with older adults in research and volunteer work, says she often encounters a hesitancy to be photographed. “There’s a common sentiment of self-consciousness and feeling like you’re not beautiful any more, and it was sad for me to see,” she says.

“I see it not just in older adults, but in so many populations that are not aligning with the kind of appearance that western media protrays as beautiful.”

The two  decided to develop a project to understand how mcmaster students and older adults in the community think of aging and beauty. 

The photo project develops themes from the interviews and quotes, showcasing heterogeneity among students and older adults, and highlighting perspectives on aging and beauty.  

The campaign draws on the community-engaged principles of collaboration, reflection and dialogue that the pair say are an integral part of the BHSc program. 

And as part of that ongoing dialogue and engagement, Abousifein and Varghese want more students to engage with the campaign and to think about what aging and beauty mean to them. They have shared the campaign on CAG-MSC’s Instagram, where more students are likely to find it, and even created a giveaway, which runs until the middle of next week.

“We want to give people in the community the opportunity to reflect that our participants had,” Abousifein says. “We hope that students will think about aging.”  

Click here for the photos and reflections from the Beauty Within campaign by CAG-MSC.