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.

Seeing beneath the surface

First impression – what do you see?

A drawing; a photo; a young-ish woman, somewhat thin… nude. Why? What is going on here?

Simply put, a peacemaking process.

self-portrait:  art as therapy

The photograph was taken as a self-portrait during a  difficult time. I photographed myself daily, a process of allowing myself to be seen…

Allowing myself to exist when self-rejection was overwhelming.

Using a timer on a digital camera, I took 3 photos a day for nearly 3 years. While I have taken other photos since, this daily practice was instensely liberating. I have gone back and traced or sketched many of the photos over the years as part of a practice to change my negative perception of my body into a more realistic and accepting perspective of self.

We all have our battle scars; my war with bulimia shows up in visible ribs, and my belly in this photo shows sagging and stretch marks from four pregancies, which while not battles, were powerful events for my body, and some of the most beautiful moments in my life.

I have drawn many self-portraits, and I will continue to do so, inviting others to join me in this practice, because it truly brings me peace. There is no war in my body, the war is in my mind, and this gentle process of seeing myself vulnerable, unprotected and real, is the best way I know to recognize how false and destructive all the noises in my head can be.

Please contact me if you’d like to give this practice a try. You do not need to know how to draw; it can be done very simply with online accompaniment.

madaboutmybody@gmail.com

Stand back and behold your beauty

It is true that when we’re too close to something we can’t see it clearly.

Standing back, even taking a break from seeing something, can help change perceptions. Imagine if there were no mirrors in your home, and you no longer checked your appearance on a daily basis… how would you see yourself if you only saw yourself on rare occasions? You might actually like what you see, much more than you usually do.

Photographing our bodies can be very helpful in changing perceptions, because is gives us that “stand back” view, and it also allows us to see angles of our physique that we can’t normally see at all. Without the help of photos, we really do not know what we look like from the back! This practice also gives us a sense of time; growth; transformation and the inevitable changes that come as we age.

Photographs made into drawings add another layer of detachment and appreciation to this process of self observation and self knowledge.

nude women sitting with loose belly flesh

Too many people focus solely on the aspects of their bodies that they find unacceptable. I wish I could cure us all of these misperceptions by somehow bringing us all back to the simple wonder of a human life living in a flesh costume. No matter how much we may dislike our thighs, our breasts, our cellulite or our arm flaps, it really is urgent to understand that our lives are precious fleeting moments and no matter how we look, we are so very fortunate just to be alive in a human body.

When you look at these intimate drawings, what do you see?

 

Anastasia (series) – V – final

Playing the role of camera person for a person daring to pose nude, for me, is always a series of gentle, tender moments. I feel humbled to be invited into the vulnerable space of someone’s nudity, and because I have also experienced the model side of the equation, it is very important that I help them feel comfortable. I believe that by facing up to our fears and discomforts about our bodies, we can get past them. Sometimes facing our own judgments in front of a camera lens is what it takes to allow for a shift in perspective. Most people only undress in front of their lovers or maybe their family doctor, so to do so purposefully opens the door to seeing ourselves differently.

For me, drawing the nude body, whether it’s mine or someone else’s; man or woman, at any age or in any condition, is an act of respect towards the miracle that we are as human beings. We don’t always appreciate the complex intelligence of this envelope that allows us to experience life on earth. When we are unconscious and don’t take care of it, we may find ourselves at war with our own bodies; as many anorexics, bulimics, drug addicts and alcoholics know too well. Aside from these extremes, there are still too many people insulting themselves in front of the mirror daily. Drawing the nude body, no matter how basic our drawing skills may be, is a celebration of the body in every form it takes; a moment of contemplation in front of this miracle; a tender caress of a crayon upon paper translating the simple beauty of our humanity.

And I said to my body, softly, “I want to be your friend.”
It took a long breath and replied, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

— Nayyirah Waheed

Anastasia (series) – IV

We took at least a hundred photographs, then sat down together at my computer to go through them. We agreed that these images belonged to her, and would never be shared with anyone else, but she was okay with me making drawings based on some of them. We sorted through, and she left me about 30 images – those that did not clearly show her face – and the rest were copied onto a CD and erased from my camera’s memory card. 

Curvy woman posing nude to work on loving her body better

I finally drew this series 5 years later. I haven’t seen Anastasia since the photo shoot, but we’ve stayed in contact. I’m not sure where she’s at with her body image or her weight, but she has continued to work on herself and grow stronger. I know that life is not always easy for her, but she is tenacious. Drawing her was a wonderful process for me, mostly because I’d gained weight since I last saw her, and for the first time in my life I was able to identify with curvier women. I saw the beauty above and beyond the extra weight.

Curvy woman posing nude to learn to love her body

You can be sexy and feel confident in your skin, no matter what size you are.” – Ashley Graham

Anastasia (series) – III

This photo session with Anastasia taught me how uniquely each person reacts in front of the camera. We made a date, and she arrived mentally prepared for just about anything, but when the time came to undress, she started to feel uncomfortable and wasn’t sure if she could go on. I reminded her that it was totally her call and I left the room to give her a few moments to herself. When I came back, she was sitting on the floor wearing a camisole and underwear and still unsure about what she wanted to do. Since we were in a room with a camera set up just for that purpose, I proposed to take a few photos of her anyways, just like that, but as soon as I disappeared behind the camera she made up her mind and removed the last pieces of clothing.

drawing of nude woman lounging

What happened next really surprised me. I didn’t tell her what to do or how to pose, I only suggested she try to feel her way into different positions according to how she was feeling. Once the ice was broken, she seemed incredibly comfortable in front of the camera, in fact, her poses were creative and natural, and clearly she was having fun playing the game of shifting positions to expose her body from different angles. I was quite touched by how easily she was able to move around while I took the pictures. She did not look like someone who was ashamed of her curves. What I was seeing was someone who lived fully in her body from the inside out.

Nude female body posing

“Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world.

Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form.

Risk being seen in all of your glory.”


― Jim Carrey

Anastasia (series) – II

Anastasia was struggling with dieting and really frustrated with her body; not at all at peace with her shape or her weight at the time we met. Talking about it honestly, I think she was surprised to hear that even though I was slim, I felt just as uncomfortable in my body as what she described, and I’d always felt that bad about myself, for as long as I could remember. I told her how using imagery to fight for the cause of improving body image and loving our bodies was helping me work on my issues. I explained that for several years already I’d been photographing and drawing the nude body, including my own, and how liberating it was. She seemed to understand how this process could be helpful, and liked the idea of doing a photo shoot with me. It didn’t happen right away, because as I well knew from my own experiences, a lot of inner resistance came up in the meantime.

Our photo session finally happened about a year later. It had been a rough year for Anastasia; a break-up, a move, and quitting a boring office job that led her to enroll in a course to become an esthetician. She told me about these studies, in particular how the practice periods required intimate contact with other students’ bodies through massage and skin care, and how this had made her a lot more relaxed about everything body-related. She said she now felt ready to be photographed nude, as a challenge to herself. Instead of trying to lose weight or change her body, she just wanted to change the negative opinion she held towards herself.

To explore a body symptom is to enter it, as it has entered us, and to partake in a sacred mystery. It is with the greatest respect and humility that we undertake this task.

— Rose-Emily Rothenberg, The Jewel in the Wound

Anastasia (series) – I

Anastasia and I were roommates only for a few months, but a close friendship grew from sharing about our food and weight issues.

Somehow, we quickly managed to breach a huge taboo by admitting that we both turned compulsively to food whenever we felt overwhelmed by the stress in our lives, and that authenticity created an instant bond between us.

Anastasia1

” We carry a terrible wound: alienation from our embodied life.

Your flesh shall become a great poem. “

                    – Walt Whitman