English Version | Self-acceptance: a love story

05 Dec 2023
By Ana Murcho

Love & Hope Issue

There's a new book that challenges conventional notions of beauty. Thank You For Playing With Me, by photographer Yolanda Y. Liou, is a cry of revolt in the name of personal self-acceptance.

Few things have such an impact on a woman's life as the ideal - clearly impossible to define properly, and yet historically seen as something that cuts across society - of beauty. From a very young age, knowing and feeling that you are "beautiful", "ugly", "fat", "thin", conditions your path in an overwhelming way. A woman's relationship with the mirror is not one of friendship, it's one of fear. Yolanda Y. Liou (Taiwan, 1990) lives in London and realized this early on. She fought these battles herself, having grown up in a place where thinness was glorified. When she found the photograph, she found herself. As her official website explains, her work focuses on the theme of connection, with the aim of offering a broader spectrum of representation and empowering people to embrace their uniqueness - by capturing the human form in ways that escape the status quo, Liou challenges social norms and emphasizes genuine authenticity, rather than promoting artificial beauty. Her second book, Thank You For Playing With Me, made "in collaboration" with Enam Ewura, Adjoa Asiama and Vanessa Russell, offers a disruptive reflection on concepts such as beauty, self-love and self-respect.

How did you get started in photography? Did you always want to take pictures or did you think it was a good way to deal with your own anxieties? My journey into photography began as an accident. I always wanted to be a writer. I came backpacking in Europe in 2011 to write a book. My mum gave me a digital camera before I left. I took some snapshots to go along with my writings. Somebody messaged me asking if I took photo commissions. That’s when I learned photography could be a career. I gradually fell deeply in love with it. Nothing gave me the same satisfaction and excitement. I initially centered around the pursuit of capturing what society defined as "beautiful" - models with conventional notions of beauty in terms of their faces and bodies. It was a reflection of my own struggle with low self-esteem regarding my own appearance. However, over time, I came to a profound realization about the underlying motivations driving this fixation. I began to question the origins of my perception of beauty, examining the sources that had shaped my ideals of beauty. This included the daily inundation of messages from mainstream media, advertising and social media. It was this critical self-reflection that led me to explore the concept of beauty in the modern context and what it meant to me personally.

In your opinion, why is body image anxiety such a universal issue today? Why is the predominant narrative still something like "look at her/him, so much prettier than you”? The pervasive influence of mainstream and social media constantly bombards us with preconceived notions of what is deemed “right.” While we might believe we have control over our choices and intake, the reality is that, subconsciously, we all become unwitting subjects to the content we consume. When this output is curated by a small group of decision-makers driven by the pursuit of maximum capitalist gains and a culture of consumption, we inevitably find ourselves in a passive victim position, lacking the power to discern what is genuinely beneficial for us.

How did Thank You For Playing With Me came together? Did you know, from the beginning, it would turn out to be a book? The expectation of being skinny as the standard is relentless in Asian beauty culture. I’ve experienced the stress of this since a very young age. I also realized more that body image anxiety is a universal issue. In 2019, when I was thinking about this body image topic again, I came across Enam’s Instagram profile. I was taken by her confidence and charisma. Suddenly it clicked; I’m a photographer, I create images. Images don’t create me. Originally, I had envisioned a book featuring a diverse range of bodies. However, after my initial shoot with Enam and Vanessa, we connected so well that I decided to stick with them. Over the next three years we went on the journey of transformation personally and collectively, finding our own foot in the world, career changes and moving cities, grieving the lost ones and celebrating the new life - sisterhood, womanhood and motherhood. On the first shoot, I told them that I didn't want any additional people such as stylists, hair and makeup artists. My intention was for them to authentically be themselves and freely express their creativity. Throughout the day, we captured a wide range of images both outdoors and indoors, experimenting with various styles and props, all without external assistance. When we wrapped, I didn't feel tired at all; instead, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of warmth and joy, as if I had spent the day playing with my sisters. I expressed my gratitude by saying, "Thank you for playing with me!" and that ultimately became the title of the book. Our collaboration was a continuous process, involving brainstorming creative ideas, planning and executing our vision together. It's a call for us all to play, to be human, and to celebrate the unique beauty that resides within each of us.

What are your main sources of inspiration? My main sources of inspiration are rooted in the realm of films, which significantly shapes my approach to photography. I am dedicated to infusing my images with narrative depth, both within the frame and extending beyond it. Additionally, self-reflection plays a crucial role in my creative process. I view creativity as a healing force, wherein the process of learning and understanding more about myself becomes an input that transforms into the output of realizing unique ideas.

Do you think photography, as art in general, has the power to effect some change in the environment around you and, eventually, the world? We face unfair and unjust situations in life all the time. I think creativity and art can contribute massively and also act as a healing tool whether to ourselves or to others. I love this phrase from Joan Baez: "Action is the antidote to despair.” I've always been a determined individual, and I don't accept "rejection" as no; to me, it's just a delayed "yes" that encourages us to think outside the box and find unconventional solutions. Growth often emerges from discomfort and challenges, and it's painful to reflect on the younger version of myself who experienced so much self-hatred due to a lack of awareness about alternative options.Embracing the unorthodox path is never easy, but it's an essential part of personal and artistic evolution. It's a continuous self-reflection on my intentions as a photographer. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be an image maker and to tell stories in a way that I wish I had seen more of in the world. Over recent years, I've observed gradual changes in the industry, even though trends play a part. But change has to begin somewhere. Being a photographer is a privilege, and I believe it's my responsibility to consider the messages I convey through my work. I often think about how my work would impact my teenage niece or viewers and whether it contributes to a greater cause. It's a constant reminder of the power and responsibility that come with being an artist, motivating me to make a positive difference through my photography.

What is the message you want to convey with your work? It's not how others view you that matters, but how you view yourself. You have the autonomy to make choices about your appearance, but it's essential to consider the intentions behind those choices. Are you doing certain things because you really enjoy it, or are you doing it to match the image of an influencer you follow on Instagram? Vulnerability is a strength. In a world where strength often equates to stoicism and emotional fortitude, it's important to acknowledge that opening up, expressing our fears and sharing our insecurities with trusted ones can lead to deeper connections and personal growth. Be kind. It's all too easy for people to hurl hurtful comments anonymously, often without considering the consequences. Words hold immense power, and what might appear glamorous on the surface can conceal hidden struggles. We never know what another person may be going through in their own life right now. We all need more compassion, not only toward others but also toward ourselves. We have the choice to lead the life we desire, and we should honor that by extending respect and understanding to one another.

This issue of Vogue Portugal is dedicated to “love.” What is, in your opinion, the best definition of self love — and how does it impact oneself’s life? When you truly love yourself, you’d always make the right choices that serve you well, because you know you’re worth it and you deserve all the best.

*Originally translated from the Love & Hope Issue, published December 2023. Full credits and stories in the print issue.

Ana Murcho By Ana Murcho


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