For years I was burdened with a stereotype of Russian women. Perhaps “burdened” isn’t the correct word since I didn’t think about it all that much. Still, I had this vision of Russian women that didn’t compare favorably with images I had of women from other parts of the world.
Its funny how stereotypes are so hard to ignore. I used to imagine French women as fashionably slender, chic, sophisticates; Italian women as lusty, earthy goddesses and Asian women as comely, demur, inscrutable enchantresses. By contrast, my vision of Russian women was … well, not great.
I derived those visions from images I had seen in propaganda while growing up in the 1950’s. Anti-Russian propaganda from the West tended to characterize Soviet women as forlorn, babushka-wearing peasants; matronly and thread-bare. Even the images projected by Soviet propaganda seemed to depict their women as more masculine than feminine – solemn and abundant superwomen.
My Russian stereotypes.
Fortunately, stereotypes disappear when you actually have to interact with the subjects of your simplified conceptions. That day came for me several years ago when I had my first photoshoot with a Russian model.
Diana sailed into my studio on a fall afternoon like the epitome of an autumn breeze – light and bubbly with vibrant red hair that echoed the falling leaves outside. Her looks were like no one I had photographed before; high cheek bones set on a triangular face, bright blue eyes and pursed lips that matched her curly Crayola red hair. Her beauty was alarming; a sleek fit body with china-clear skin as smooth as the proverbial baby’s butt.
A half-hour into the shoot, while making small talk, I asked her about her ethnicity.
“Russian” she said.
“Huh?” How can that be? “You’re Russian?”
I was shocked! She looked nothing like the Russian women I had seen. Then I realized that I had never actually seen a Russian woman, much less, to my knowledge, been in the same room with one.
I expressed my surprise, and related my preconceptions of dowdy Russian “beauty”, and that she must be an exception.
“No”, she said, “Russian women are beautiful.” It was an appraisement that I would hear repeated over and over again from other Russian models.
At the end of the shoot I thanked her and again confessed my misconceptions of Russian women. “You should shoot my sister”, she advised. “Why”, I asked. “’Cause she’s better looking than I am”, she replied, in an almost casual manner. Of course, my stereotype had not completely given way and, persistent in my belief that she was indeed an exception, in spite of her insistence, I declined.
Several months later, after numerous suggestions that I shoot her older sister, I agreed. Again, I was shocked! Except for the same fine, translucent skin and winsome body, Nellie looked almost nothing like Diana. Instead of Diana’s fiery tresses, Nelli was a Marilyn Monroe blonde. Whereas Diana’s eyes were a deep Carolina blue, Nellie saw the world through soft green and hazel peepers of an unusual brilliance. We talked, and laughed, about my previous conversation with Diana. Expressing puzzlement at my now wavering illusion, she repeated Diana’s remark; “Russian women are beautiful”.
After that shoot with Nellie, four of the next eight models I shot were Russian. I went from knowing no Russian women to the point that it seemed that all of my models were Russian. Of these models, one or two were born in the US of Russian immigrants, but most were born and spent either parts or their entire childhoods in nations which were parts of the old Soviet Union. In fact, a high percentage are actually Ukrainian rather than true “Russians”, but they all refer to themselves as “Russian”. Although they admit to being overjoyed with the lifestyle and experience of living in the USA, they are surprisingly (at least to me) fiercely proud of their Russian heritage. When I was discussing this point with Nelli (not to be confused with Nellie!) she expressed some nostalgia for the old country.
“When are you going back?”, I asked.
“Going back?!” she responded incredulously. “I’m not going back!”
We both howled with laughter at the irony.
Over the following years, I’ve had the pleasure to shoot numerous Russian models. All have been a delight. So much so, that I’ve formed a new stereotype of Russian women; Russian women are beautiful.