What is your definition of the word beautiful? Filmmaker Rebecca Friedlander took to the streets with this question, asking women and men on West Coast beaches, downtown London, on the sidewalk in Madrid—various places across the United States and Europe.
“Sometimes people would say ‘I don’t know.’ Sometimes people would say it’s being confident or comfortable in your own skin,” Friedlander said. She would also ask whether they felt the culture did a good job of defining “beautiful.” Across the board, the answer was no.
Then, she asked people: Who is the most beautiful person in the world?
“The biggest answer that I got was ‘My mother,'” Friedlander said. “That tells me that kindness and caring and nurturing are a huge part of beauty.”
What if we could tap into that as a culture?
Friedlander is a lifelong creative, and the producer of “Radical Makeovers,” a TV program featuring the transformations of 30 young women from all around the world.
Our culture often gets beauty all wrong, but Friedlander wanted to delve deeper, telling stories of transformation from the inside out. Recently, the program has been adapted into book form, titled “Finding Beautiful,” which feature 12 of these women’s stories.
Mining for Gold
There’s just something about a big transformation, a dramatic reveal, that we love.
“We love seeing someone’s face transformed,” Friedlander said. “I love a good makeover story, whether it’s a house renovation or somebody who has a before-and-after makeover.”
“I think a lot of my works stems around that,” she said. In a way, being able to see a visual manifestation of change come about, can bring hope.
The seed for Friedlander’s makeover program came from a docudrama project she had been producing, “Girl Perfect,” which took viewers behind the scenes in the fashion industry.
The experience completely stripped away the glamorous veneer, and Friedlander realized she’d stumbled on a big, untold story.
“I remember I was shooting one day in Italy, in Florence, and we were overlooking what’s known as the Gold Bridge,” Friedlander said.
The Ponte Vecchio is still lined with souvenir vendors and jewelers today, but once it was a butcher’s district.
“It used to be, hundreds of years ago, a meat market,” she learned. “And they would throw the carcasses that they didn’t want over the side of the bridge into the river.”
“There was this huge stench because of the meat market,” she said. “So there was this one ruler who came in to Florence, and he decided to shut down all of the butcher shops, and instead, he started the trend of doing gold shops and jewelry shops that still to this day, hundreds of years later, still line this bridge.”
Friedlander realized the beauty industry had in fact become a sort of meat market, trading on a perishable commodity. She wanted to depict beauty as a lasting treasure, as gold.
Beauty and Courage
There is a very important aspect to these 30 women’s inside-out transformations: Every one of them discovered, reconnected, or had a moment of epiphany in their faith, bringing about an understanding of the true meaning of beautiful. After all, faith is one of the most transformative things a person can experience.
“I wanted to talk about the heart of transformation,” Friedlander said.
The stories she chose were unique and dramatic. From a pastor’s daughter, to a woman whose both parents worked in the porn industry, missionaries to models; these were women who battled crippling fear, anxiety, depression, bullying, or eating disorders, but somehow came out on the other side in with peace, beauty, grace, and hope.
Though these women came from all walks of life, from all over the world and both difficult and prosperous backgrounds, there was a common thread of insecurity.
“The common thread was having to do with their value and their worth, and overcoming those insecurities that kept them from really stepping into the next place of their life,” Friedlander said. “They just had something that challenged them to go a bit deeper in life.”
The behemoth of the beauty and fashion industries is proof enough that being beautiful matters to people, so it’s easy to see how image is tied to self-worth.
“I think your identity and your security really comes from how you see yourself in the mirror,” Friedlander said, whether you, or voices around you, are positive or negative. But “faith brings in the element of God’s mirror for us, and how he sees us.”
“I think all of these women begin to be changed when they realize that, you know, it’s not just about us discovering our own value in of ourselves, but it’s really how our Creator sees us,” Friedlander said. “And that we have an amazing Father in heaven, who is a good father. And he really does love us and wants to empower us. Having the Father and his mirror to the way that he sees his daughters played a huge part in helping these women overcome insecurities in life.”
Hearing these women’s stories moved Friedlander opened up her understanding even further. One big lesson she took from the experiences was honesty and courage.
These women were willing to be honest and vulnerable, and Friedlander saw this was key to their healing. Their willingness to share their stories, and their sometimes harrowing beginnings, was a sign that they have matured beyond what had happened to them in their past, and that they believed in what they were doing now enough to speak out about it.
“Often we tend to kind of hide, or put up masks, and really don’t want to be known. So I think for me, it was just a really beautiful time of getting to know some amazing women a little bit deeper level,” she said. “And I’m still really good friends, a lot of them today.”
“If we are hiding behind a mask, we’ll never actually face that mask and allow it to be removed,” she said. “But there’s so much joy and so much freedom and so much healing on the other side, if we’re willing to go there.”
Friedlander grew up as a tomboy, in a home where looks weren’t important. She said it wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s when she realized, well, it’s not a bad thing to dress up and look nice. But that’s not her transformation story.
“My story is that I grew up without a father in my life from about the age of 9,” she said.
On Christmas day, her entire family was in a car accident—she, her youngest brother, and her father were thrown from the car. She had fractures and needed plastic surgery, but her father sustained a brain injury and remained in a coma for two weeks. When he woke up, he was a completely different person. Soon after, Friedlander’s parents separated.
“I think that really left a hole,” she said. “Not only are you devastated to lose your father, but then there’s not really anything that comes along to fill that gap.”
Friedlander has been creative since she can remember; singing with the family, playing piano, crafting, and making clothes for her dolls.
Faith was always a part of her upbringing, but coming to that decision for herself and making a commitment to it a bit later in life led to not just healing, but was a boon to her creativity.
“I think part of my transformation and part of my story was not just encountering God as my Father but actually seeing him show up, and do some of the things that a father would do,” Friedlander said. A big part of her transformation was realizing that God didn’t cause any of these bad things to happen, that sometimes life just happens, but He is always there to help pick up the pieces on the other side.
“I think you’re born with certain strengths and certain gifts, and I was always very creative. But I think finding faith has opened up a whole new avenue of creativity, because I believe that the God of the universe is also very creative,” she said.
Along with being a successful film and TV producer and self-taught photographer, Friedlander is also a songwriter, speaker, and minister, with 300 albums—and almost all of her creative endeavors are a one-woman show.
Early on in her career, Friedlander had been trying to record a music video, and her cat kept walking past the camera and ruining her shot, and after nearly a day’s work she just considered how easy it would be to not do it. In fact, it would be crazy to continue pursuing a career as a creative, because the deck is stacked statistically against her.
She said this during a call where she had just returned from a month-long tour through Ireland and Scotland, and was two months from launching a conference for creatives seeking to launch their vision, while preparing to meet with her publisher about yet another book coming out, after one that will be released in December.
“A lot of my projects look impossible to people, not many people just travel the world and create their own TV shows by themselves,” she said. “But I think God gives us vision first of all, and then he empowers us to do it.”
“I don’t just appreciate God as an artist but like he actually wants to be close to us and partner with us and create beautiful things, that’s really the only way that I can describe it to people, because there’s not really any way else to describe it, and I’ve just watched so many really supernatural and miracles happen to be able to tell these stories, ” she said. “And I give Him credit for that.”
When Friedlander created the makeover show, she hadn’t thought of putting into a book, but a best-selling author friend of hers encouraged her to write one. Hearing her reader’s responses, it turned out to be the right decision.
“You know, we have so many resources in the world, they make us feel good for a moment, but then it doesn’t last, it just kind of lets us down,” she said. “‘Finding Beautiful’ really points to something that’s lasting—there’s something powerful about having a book that you can keep on your shelf, that you can go back to, or you can give to a friend, but just being able to hold that in your hands is another step in our process of discovering beauty.”
“I have heard from women from all over the world who are deeply touched, I have many letters from people who tell me that they just are crying as they watch the show,” she said.
“I have people who tell me that they sit down and watch them with their daughter, I have mothers telling me that they read the book with their daughter, I had one mother tell me that her 8-year-old is reading the book, and it’s bringing up some amazing questions that they can talk through together about beauty and growing up,” she said. “These girls are starting to ask those questions that are really early age. And so the feedback has been, not just positive, but has really resonated at a heart level with a lot of women.”