The romance of the human body

One of the most impressive self-portrait artists I have discovered is Joan Semmel, whose very realistic and “unromantic” paintings of her own body as she ages are such a departure from the sleek female nudes we are typically exposed to. While some have called her work stark, as an aging woman  myself (aren’t we all aging?), I find her paintings bring a refreshingly honest perspective on the human body.

painting self-portrait nude woman Joan Semmel

In this image, I see vulnerability juxtaposed with immense courage. The pinks and yellows that form the skin tone, as well as the cushion and the background, seem to present an equal mix of softness and firmness; a good description of any human body. The veiny arms and hands, the not-always gentle curves,  the volume of the breasts as well as the fleshy form at the back of the thigh appear more lifelike and relatable than the wispy-limbed models preferred for fashion shoots.

Although her bareness can be surprising at first, I quickly felt that the woman in the painting projected a familiar figure.

To me, this woman half hidden by the camera and yet so very exposed, could well be my grandmother, my aunt, my next door neighbour. She could even represent me several years down the road. Above all, the woman I see is human in the purest of ways, and I admire her for bringing these images into the world.

Seeing an older body is almost a relief compared to the idealized perfection we are exposed to. I am grateful to you, Joan Semmel for daring to show the beauty of the female body in the forms your own body has taken over the years. Your artwork is soothing, like advice from an elder, giving us permission to be fully ourselves, as graceful or as “stark” some aspects of nudity, vulnerability and aging may appear.

To learn more about Joan Semmel’s self-portraits over 40 years, follow the link to this article for more info and more images.

A shadow of what we could be

Accepting this body did not mean convincing myself that it was beautiful, it meant giving myself permission to exist regardless . – trista mateer

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Rustling through drawers full of drawings looking for one in particular (that I still haven’t found), I always come across some forgotten ones. Some gems and some that are painful to look at.

This image conjured up more compassion than rejection, but also a little sadness. I remember photographing myself that day.

drawing of overweight woman in underwear

I didn’t realize how much extra weight I was carrying around my middle. I was going through hormonal upheavals and turning to comfort foods to soothe myself. And I was not looking in the mirror on purpose, nor photographing or drawing myself. I was in denial, and this photo popped the safety of my bubble of unconsciousness.

I drew this on tracing paper, which is why the photo on the left comes through so strong. It’s an easy way to copy an image, and to see, while you’re drawing, that your body is not as horrid as your knee-jerk negative reaction and instant jugement said it was.

In hindsight, there was a reason for this heavy-bodied season in my life. For the first time, I weighed more than when fully pregnant, and I was learning to accept my body while carrying around fifty extra pounds.

I had started to buy plus-size clothing and was paying closer attention to what bigger women wore, how they held themselves, how they lived their lives with confidence and pride, and how they suffered, because I could relate. I started to follow different movements – from Fit Fatties and Health At Every Size to The Militant Baker and The Body is Not an Apology. I discovered and learned. I experienced first-hand inner thigh chafing and gave up on jeans, but more importantly, my attitudes towards bigger bodies changed and became more compassionate and accepting.

What strikes me the most me about this image is the shadow effect and the head hanging in shame. I never again want to apologize to the camera or the mirror, in fact not to anyone, not even to myself, for how my body looks. It is my own perception and jugement of my body that has hurt me the most. And for far too long.

I do, however, want to apologize to my body. I am sorry for hating you, for shaming you, for not recognizing your worth and your beauty, no matter what size and shape you’ve been. I am sorry for perpetuating so much self-loathing that kept me from truly being myself and from fully shining my light for so, so long. Enough of that sh**.

Your body is your home

The best kind of home can be found wherever you are.

When we are at peace with the body we live in, and not at war with it in our minds, we are free from the inside out, and wherever we are, it is possible to feel safe and loved.

While this does not come naturally to someone suffering from negative body image, addictions, or an eating disorder, it can be learned. Too often we are separated from our own bodies by excessive jugements inflicted on ourselves by our own minds.

Imagine sinking into a warm bathtub, or wrapping yourself in a cosy blanket on a chilly Fall day. Now imagine that living in a body you love can feel that good, all day every day!nude woman, body image

When I look at this self-portrait, I see the inner distress I was feeling, but the positive is that it was being expressed. As my friend photographed me, I told her about my fears and frustrations, and because I was vulnerable in my nudity, what came through seemed less filtered than usual, more raw, more true. Naked and liberating.

These photos were taken during the early months of the pandemic, when we were getting a taste of complete lock-downs. It was hard, and I was struggling with being alone so much, not being able to see my closest family members because they were out-of-town. It was in the weeks leading up to my birthday, which I was about to spend alone, the only human contact possible through video calls. My friend was also suffering from isolation during the lock-down, and by being in the same room together for an hour or so for the photoshoot, we were breaking the rules. And yet it did us both a world of good.

I continue to learn, discover and affirm that my body is my home. I have abused this home with disordered eating for many years. My fears and insecurities have long pushed me to seek comfort in food, but now I am getting closer to finding comfort in the only vessel I have to take me through this life, and to be increasingly grateful for all the wonderful life experiences it continues to allow me to have, pandemic or no pandemic.

It’s time to come home to stay.

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?