Look closely at the human body with compassion, draw, repeat

“They say” that repetition is a sign of insanity, and yet other theys say it is only through repetition (of positive action) that we can learn to move beyond the things that keep us stuck.

I couldn’t find the quote I was looking for, but I clearly remember reading that the words we use to express love we repeat constantly to keep love alive. Which made me think about how many times I’ve told my kids that I love them, and will continue to do so for their entire lives…nude self-portraitAs a person who dares call myself an artist, I am not pretentious enough to imagine that by drawing the body, particularly my own body, I am inventing anything new. My drawings are not original or outstanding or mindblowing in any way. They are not made for the result, nor are they made to impress or to sell. They are the end product of a process, sometimes extremely satisfying and peaceful, other times frustrating and boring. They come from a process undertaken repeatedly to rewire the way I see myself. And it’s working.

And yet the very proposition of looking closely at the human body, my own, your own, any body and every body – from a perspective of compassion, acceptance and tenderness – in this day and age, is absolutely original, outstanding and mindblowing.

self-portrait from photograph

Photographing and drawing myself again and again have often brought up feelings of self-rejection, distress, and disgust. Yet the practice has also brought up life-changing discoveries, like seeing the innocence, beauty, and the inestimable value of a human body; mine, and everyone else’s. It has cut through the bullshit I heard my mind say over and over again, to help me learn to see beauty where there was only criticism, and the power in vulnerability where I only wanted to see strength.

In spite of my two-decades long practice, I have also gone weeks, months, years, without drawing, but I always come back to it. I have gone even longer without accepting to take photos of myself, or others, but every time I take the leap, I find again what a gift it is to allow or to be allowed to approach the core of our humanity, not in an intellectual way, but in a deeply embodied way that goes beyond personal desire or pleasure to simply observe and accept what is there. Sometimes naked and afraid, and also naked and proud.

“I no longer look for the good in people, I search for the real… because while good is often dressed in fake clothing, real is naked and proud no matter the scars”.  – Chishala Lishomwa

A rough draft of myself

The art of self-portraiture is a brave endeavour. Finding balance between making it look genuine without falling into complacency or self-denigration is not an easy task.

Publishing a work of art and making it visible to others’ eyes is always a courageous act, but even more so when it is a self-portrait. And when a self-portrait is nude, it can feel like the equivalent of undressing in public.

I want to acknowledge everyone who has dared to do so, artists and non-artists. In one way or another, they have contributed to the evolution of the way the human body is perceived.

To pay tribute to those who have dared, I will publish a series of articles to showcase self-portrait works that have particularly touched me.

painting nude womanTo begin, this painting by artist Chantal Joffe. I find it so easy to identify with this image! Looking at this self-portrait, it appears to me like a reflection, a mirror of my own feelings towards my body.

She has her head hanging down, which is exactly how I feel. There is too much discomfort and uncertainty in me to be able to lift my head and look straight forward with confidence.

My inner reality is cramped. I do not have the impression that I have much space in which to breathe.

The pale body seems to sway, adding a sense of instability. I recognize myself in the barely sketched features, as I’ve often felt like I’m only a rough draft of myself; an awkward outline that I have not yet managed to complete.

Nothing in this image seeks to please or seduce, and yet in the vulnerability of this nude self-portrait, there is an appeal for tenderness and caring, and a deep sense of humanity. Thank you, Chantal Joffe, for clearly expressing the emotions of so many women who are uncomfortable with their bodies!

Chantal Joffe undertook a year-long series of self-portraits of her face in 2018 which is well worth the visit. Sometimes sharing our face, in any state, is just as vulnerable as showing our bodies.

Transforming beliefs about creativity and body image

I can’t draw, even my stick figures are disproportionate!

Topic - Stick Figure | ShowMe Online Learning

The messages bombarded on us all day, every day, on repeat, say: “You must be/look your best”, “You have to stay young, at all costs”, “You need do/buy this to succeed/shine/live your best life…” blah-blah-blah.  It gets discouraging if you’re not feeling at the top of your game every minute, which nobody is, ever.

I’ve often heard, “Arts and crafts are for kids…” “Don’t become an artist, so few ever get known or manage to sell anything”, “Ya, but, you can’t make a living off it…”.

nude woman, self-portrait, body image

The truth is, art and creative activities are accessible to everyone. Most people are already creative on a daily basis, simply by thinking outside the box or taking risks to try new things and see what happens.

When people suffer, they find ways to cope. Some face their struggles with positive behaviours that lead to growth, while others compensate in negative ways that keep them down. Often, in the case of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, the innate coping mechanisms are rigid and leave little room for creativity.

We’ve discovered that the visual arts, in this case self-portrait photography and figurative drawing, are positive coping mechanisms for negative body image. As a small women’s art collective, we don’t feel we need to be art therapists to share or teach what we’ve learned, since it’s more about practice than about psychological analysis.

It’s through active seeing (using photography and drawing the body) that our perceptions have changed.

The subtle shifts in viewpoint that happen during a photo shoot or a drawing session are the result of focusing on seeing ourselves as we are, rather than projecting how we should be. We need distance from thinking, judging and our mental projections to reveal ourselves to ourselves in more honest ways.

Perhaps this was a long-winded invitation, but it really is an invitation to move beyond your comfort zone, especially if it’s uncomfortable! Here’s more info on how to practice this process and we are always happy to accompany people online. Let us know how it’s going or how we can support your process at madaboutmybody@gmail.com.

Self-image and false identification

We all want to look our best, all the time. It is human nature to want to be seen and appreciated. But if we don’t even know that we have been brainwashed by our visual culture into constantly evaluating our appearance against completely unattainable norms, how can we do anything other than follow the crowd?

nude drawing, self-portrait

In the history of humanity, has personal appearance has ever held as much importance? Didn’t there use to be groups, tribes, whose energies focused on activities to ensure survival for all, for the common good?  Today, more than ever, it seems like it’s all about me, my wants, my needs, my success; a bunch of competing me’s rather than groups of caring humans working together, motivated by mutual growth and support.

Many people fall into a form of slavery to their self-image, trying to be original and be noticed, yet at the same time not wanting to stray too far from accepted norms.

Others fall into a roller-coaster ride of seeking outside validation for their looks or their personal value, then suffering from devaluation when their self-judgement kicks in and makes them doubt not only their beauty, but their worth.

I have danced all of these dances intimately, and have heard many other women and men echo the pain and difficulties I’ve experienced. Ultimately, we are dealing with false images of ourselves that we build and destroy constantly, without recognizing who we really are.

How can we change these false images? We can blame  advertising or social media, but to really change the way we see, we have to change what we look at. We need to regularly see a variety of diverse bodies, not only in flattering clothing, but also, just  bodies, just the way are. Exposure to “regular people” nude really helps to normalize our perception of different body shapes, sizes and conditions.

Berlin artist Sophia Vogel offers an interesting take on people in their everyday lives doing things they love to do; first dressed, then nude. Notice if you find these images  amusing, shocking, ordinary or boring, or if they make you feel uncomfortable!

Reclaiming convictions over criticism

I remember this photoshoot well.  A safe space to dare with a kind, supportive friend behind the camera.

I hadn’t been photographed in many years. I had of course aged, and gained weight and I didn’t even want to look at myself, let alone be photographed or draw myself anymore. Inside, I felt pushed down, boxed in, folded over, unacceptable and left out of “the game” (whatever that means!). Uncomfortable with myself. I’d stopped caring. I’d stopped fighting. I’d stopped really paying attention to, or taking care of my body because it didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t live up to my own unrealistic standards. Again.

nude woman squatting during photo shoot to accept her body

But the photoshoot opened something in me, again. And the drawings, done much later, brought acceptance, again. And so we start over, again. What’s true is sometimes so far from our day-to-day thinking and knee-jerk self-judgements that it slips away and we start believing the negative mind chatter, that rattles out lies, over and over until we believe it. And so we have to correct that distorted vision and come back to reality, again and again.

I am convinced that we can change the way we see our bodies, and all bodies. I am convinced that a change in perspective changes our happiness, our health, and our vitality. I am convinced that none of us need plastic surgery or a makeover or a new wardrobe to “look” better. I am convinced that we can change the way we “look” and see, and learn to perceive our bodies differently, to recognize and embrace a simple beauty that was always right there.

I am convinced that the invisible suffering of many, many people who are unhappy with how their body looks is as insidious as a pandemic and as destructive as wildfires. The suffering is too often silent and it has ruined too many lives.

We can change our perspectives and be freed from self-loathing. It is like waking up from a nightmare of devastation and discovering that you are okay, just the way you are. It can be done, and, once you touch this truth, you will never want to go back.

Nude does not have to be lewd or prude

Nude woman, kneeling on bed with hands in hair, smiling shylyThere has been so much abuse towards women’s bodies, directly, and indirectly, using images, that it is totally understandable how protective and defensive we are about our hiding our nudity.  Too many unthinkable  things have happened when people’s privacy was breached and their vulnerability disrespected. Horrible things that can take a lifetime to heal.

It is not a given in our society that sharing a nude image, whether it be a photograph or an illustration, does NOT consent to its sexualisation. I did not take this photo or draw this self-portrait to attract or impress anyone.

I did so to dare to really see myself when I didn’t even want to see myself, to learn to perceive myself in a different light. Today, I see a soft image of a lovely woman, but at the time the photo was taken, I was working through shame about aging and having gained a few pounds, and that was all I could see then. The truth is, I was working through my shit, and it was an act of bravery.

Of course nobody needs to see my naked body, or anyone else’s for that matter, and yet, I’ve discovered that there is freedom in facing this intense fear of being seen and judged.  The more nude bodies I saw, in figure drawing classes, in photo sessions, and during my rare visits to a nude beach, the more comfortable I became with the raw vulnerability of humanity, including my own! And nobody could possibly judge me as severely as I have judged myself.

I don’t share my self-portraits because I’m an exhibitionist, in fact on a sliding scale I am way closer to “prude” than to “daring”.  I reluctantly started this practice almost 20 years ago, and I continue this practice with conviction because it has helped me make peace with my body. I share it because I want to go forward loving myself and sharing the simple tools I have discovered with others.

I remain forever grateful to the models in my figure-drawing classes. By attending and organizing figure-drawing sessions, it allowed me to see a variety of different body types, which led to both a detachment from, and an appreciation for every nude body we were given the privilege to draw.

It is truly a privilege to see a person nude. It’s not a right, or an embarassment, but rather a gift. It is a tender reminder that we are all vulnerable creatures underneath the costumes we wear, no better or worse than anyone else. May we all learn to treat our bodies with all the big respect that they deserve.

Who would you be?

“Who would you be without your self-judgements?”

Another favourite quote, this one by author Byron Katie. This simple question blows my mind wide open. It makes me want to stop judging myself right now, and forever. And it makes me wish I had done so a long, long time ago!

Who would we be without the self-judgements that feed our struggles, obsessions, addictions, disordered eating, negative  body image and self-loathing? We would be free! We deserve to be free. We all truly do, and it is only our own mind that holds the power over this freedom. We need to decide we are worthy and useful and lovable and valuable, and live like that is true, and it will become our truth. The path may be long, but in freeing ourselves we open doors for others.

self-portrait nude

This drawing is based on an image from a recent photoshoot with a friend (a socially distanced one!) where I was acting out my frustrations, mostly with myself, and this pose reminded me of that fed up, “fuck it” feeling I sometimes have before doing something unhelpful like overeating or self-isolating. I am getting much, much better at taking care of myself, but I can’t let it slide. I won’t let myself slide anymore…

I still find it much easier to take care of others than to take care of myself. And there is some sanity in that, since isolation seems to be the single worst symptom of the mental health fragility that so many are having to face while learning to live through a pandemic. When we’re encouraged to isolate, we have to get better at making connections, both inside and out.

How has it been for you?

Dragon slaying in confinement

drawing of nude woman

Have lockdown, confinement and now, social and physical distancing brought out the best in you too, or just the worst? Watching the rising numbers of people falling ill, fearing for loved ones and living with the ongoing threat of contracting this virus has certainly shaken us all up, even if we have not yet been directly affected.

It’s pushing us to simplify, accept, embrace, and reject parts of ourselves that we perhaps weren’t even aware of. Whether it be the empty pain of solitude or the overwhelm of intense family interaction, it’s hard to escape like we used to.  Everything seems to be in our face.

We can kiss the dragon or run from it. But we can’t run from ourselves, because sometime we ARE the dragon. Peacemaking becomes vital, inevitable, urgent and consistently the only sane choice. We can only embrace the practice and accept the process. One daring move at a time.

This self-portrait is more disarming than most; I see myself at 50 and as an innocent 5 year-old in the same posture. I am older, I have learned so many things, and I want to continue to grow, but I never want to lose the curiosity and joy of a child. And to do that, I must continue to accept the insecurities, the discomforts and the fears that come up in order to access the spontaneous moments of sweetly, simply being me.

Virus or no virus.

Vulnerability reconnects us

Vulnerability is not weakness; it brings us closer to ourselves and to each other.

If you have not yet discovered the writings of Brené Brown, please do! The short description is that she is a university professor, author and mother, who has done years of research on shame. At first discovery, I thought:  someone actually studies shame? She did and she does, and the discoveries she shares are ground-breaking. Google her name and you will find a list of her books, podcasts, lectures, and many quotes that resonate with many people.

One of my favourite Brené Brown quotes is:  “Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you“.

woman bent over crying

Early on, I learned to act like everything was cool and to make the best of things, even if I was falling apart. To never show weakness or fear; to just push on through with a smile. I’m getting better at being more authentic, which means I cannot always hide my distress anymore. It’s uncomfortable, but rather than sharing and trusting that it will pass, I tend to beat myself up and be angry with myself.  Which ends up pushing people away, because ultimately I come off as snobby or rude when refusing to show my true state.

And yet, when I’m not feeling my best, that’s when I most need to feel close to people!

Years ago I ran into a friend of a friend, someone whose path I crossed often, but who I wasn’t really sure I liked. Every time I saw her, her demeanor was light and bubbly and happy and it put me off, I guess because it felt like a show. Her behaviour mirrored my own, and irritated me because I felt like I never got to see her true self.

This time, when I asked how she was doing, she admitted she was having a rough day, and went on to share concerns about things happening in her life. My heart immediately grew twently times bigger in my chest and I just wanted to hug her! The mask had fallen, and she’d let me in by sharing her truth. A truth that I could relate to empathetically.  I think of her and this meeting often when I’m feeling down and not wanting to admit it or show my darker side to anyone.

Observing, photographing and drawing the body, your own or a diversity of different human forms, is another way to access this vulnerability and compassion, and it makes us stronger and more caring towards ourselves and towards others. As many have often said before, “in our vulnerability lies our strength”. And in our vulnerability lies the gentleness of our souls.

Bonding over body image distress in confinement

Nobody needs to be reminded that we’re swimming through a pandemic since the onset of the coronavirus. As of mid-June in Canada, we are more focused on re-opening and getting out than we were two months ago, but our usual liberties and activities remain limited. The mental toll of “watching and waiting”, being without work, or doubled down working from home either alone, with kids or teenagers, or watching your business fall apart creates all kinds of anxieties, even if there are some positives. It’s safe to say that for everyone, life is challenging in new ways.

On the outside, first, the toilet paper drama, then, talk of the “quarantine-15”, an assumption that with people at home doing more cooking and baking, we’re going to gain weight. Studies say that isn’t really the case, but the fear is real. For people with disordered eating, severe food allergies and other health challenges, being at home around food all day is uncomfortable… only an abundance of self-love and self-care can protect us from these issues. Easy to say…

drawing, nude woman in distress

On the inside, the distress comes in many forms, often in waves. Some are living with grief for what or whom they’ve lost or may lose, for others, panic in the midst of illness or despair in the isolation of lockdown. We’re all having our down days, and all of this takes a toll on our bodies as well as our minds. We see you, we hear you, we feel you!!!

If you have the time and the energy to move more, exercise longer, build strength and resilience in your body, I’m convinced it helps. If that’s possible for you under the circumstances.

Being among those who find it REALLY difficult to self-motivate and excercise, I share your pain… the pain of not moving enough, slowing down and feeling disgruntled with yourself and your physique. That’s when the mind games begin, the daily sigh standing on the scale (even if the numbers aren’t moving!), the conviction of unattractiveness, the sinking realization that your clothes feel tighter. These disappointments can quickly lead to self-judgement and self-disgust.

You may also feel angry or despondent… like, why bother? Our lives have changed, and more now that ever, the only thing under our control is our thoughts, and that’s where the negativity and the “self-bashing” comes from.

As hard as we may try, we can’t fix ourselves, or learn to change our thoughts, completely on our own. In spite of social distancing, we have to reach out. Telling a friend about your fear of gaining weight or that you’re bingeing on sugar, drinking too much, or feeling desperate always helps. Together, we have to call out our minds and all the negative thoughts that pull us towards self-hate and self-destructive actions. Because the truth is we’re fine, in fact we’re awesome, just the way we are.

We need our bodies to carry us through this pandemic and the rest of our lives. Together, we can honour our bodies for their beauty and their strength.  How else can we better support each other in taking on this new perspective, not just for ourselves, but for everyone who suffers?

If walking and jogging and yoga and light meals aren’t happening, there are other ways… we can start with our thoughts. Call out the BS and feed the gentleness, but do it with a friend.

When your body can’t move because your mind has been too cruel, listen to Lizzo’s music, she’ll tell you where it’s at with unconditional body love, and dancing does wonders for body acceptance.

How are you feeling in your own skin lately?