Our bodies are constantly morphing creatures that need our love

The only certainty is uncertainty” (a quote attributed to many philosophers…)

When it comes to our bodies, clearly the uncertainties are different for everyone; women’s bodies change in ways that men’s bodies don’t, and yet everyone’s body, different from the start, changes with age and rides waves of well-being and illness that sometimes include disability or disease.

nude woman self-portrait body image

I love to read books that follow characters closely over their lifetime, to get a sense of who they were, what drove them, where they shone and what brought them to their knees. How they felt, how they looked, how they navigated the world.

The only lifetime we really get to know intimately is our own, because we only actually live in one body; ours. And change is the only certainty, even for our bodies. In my fifties now, I am fortunate to have known the joys and pains of pregnancy and childbirth, but also the despair of disordered eating and the discomfort of being both overweight and underweight. I navigated as best I could the awkward stages of puberty and the bumpy road into menopause; the irresistible bliss of sex and now, a strong sense that my creative energy must be poured into pursuits that go beyond me to reach out to others.

At some point, I discovered that the more loving attention I pay to my body by eating well and moving in joyful ways, the better I feel, and yet food and exercise can easily fall under unhealthy, unconscious control. Hunger, emotions, and anxiety still take over sometimes and affect my food choices. I can’t be too rigid or too relaxed about it. It’s been years of trial and error to find out how much control is enough and how much is too much; a constant moving cycle of listening, starting over, going too far and making my way back. It’s the dance of being me, in all the different forms this pushes my body to take, and being okay with myself at every stage has been the biggest challenge of all.

One of the gifts of self-portraiture is gaining the distance that a drawing or a photograph allows – that step back that offers a new perspective. Having taken that step back repeatedly over twenty years, I can see all the changes in my body as inevitable, telling, but also, so natural! We grow, we change, we fall, we pick ourselves up. I try not to be so hard on myself; it’s all just a part of the cycle that is life. We are so fortunate to experience this life through our bodies.

What I like the most about this self-portrait – this moment in time captured on film – is the highly expressive gesture of my right hand pressing into the soft area under my ribcage, just above my belly button. I don’t remember how I was feeling the day I took the photo, but while drawing I understood this gesture to be pointing at where it hurts, yet at the same time offering reassuring touch to a vulnerable place. While disordered eating is without a doubt an act of seeking comfort from the outside, this gentle, tender, albeit tentative gesture seems like a move towards self-love and self-comfort… a doorway to liberation often found in this simple process of drawing exactly what I see.

Take your body image offline for a minute

Last night I watched a documentary about people living off the grid in Northern Canada, in regions so far away from cities that they need solar power or other means to generate electricity. These people are by necessity very handy, and lead gloriously simple lives close to nature.  While many aspects of their lifestyle appeal to me, I know that I am too social  to  thrive so far from other humans. But it made me wonder how living so far away would change the way we relate to our physical appearance.

body image nude woman drawing

Just try to imagine a life without social media. No influencers or outside influence other than geography and the weather. No shopping malls, magazines, make-up ads or fashion, no spas, hairdressers or microblading technicians to be found.

A life where you dress to be comfortable for outdoor work, and rarely look in a mirror, because the only other human you’ll see for days is your spouse/partner, who may be so busy fixing the pump to maintain your water supply from the nearby spring that he/she/they won’t even notice if you’re having a skin breakout or a bad hair day. They look up and they just see you, as you, no matter what your appearance.

Imagine if your own relationship to your body was based solely on how it allows you to move around and complete the tasks you need to do to survive, rather than worrying about how your body looks, weighs, or performs. Imagine that all you need to do is show up every day, no matter how you  look. Just you, doing you.

No comparisons to others’ bodies, no jugements, no concerns about aging or sagging or shapes that you wished were shaped otherwise. Just a functional, healthy body that gets you through the day and lets you sleep at night. A well-oiled machine that does its job. So many of us already have this perfectly functional machine, and yet we spend  hours rearranging it to meet unattainable, unnecessary standards.

I’m not trying to take away anyone’s joy in grooming themselves to feel as beautiful as they possibly can.

What I do wish I could take away, or rather bring back, are the countless hours, weeks,  even years of our lives that we lose trying to be, feel and look better when we are already absolutely okay, just the way we are.

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.

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.

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.

Why bother drawing the body?

There is a viewpoint “out there” that says if you are seen nude, you are somehow dishonored. Clearly, the women in our art collective disagree, but we know this perception exists, and we understand where the sense of shame comes from. Nobody wants their privacy invaded, their vulnerability paraded or their intimacy exposed.

Everyone wants to be able to share their intimacy on their own terms. Or not at all. But if we’re not exposed to our own bodies, our own vulnerabilities, how can we accept ourselves, every aspect of ourselves, exactly the way we are?

We draw the human body, often including our own bodies, in order to LOVE what is UNLOVED.

Our goal is to offer tender, loving, eyes upon all aspects of life, including those we are less comfortable with. Drawing is a slow, contemplative process that allows us to see things differently, as opposed to the instant judgment that comes up when we see an image we instantly, unthinkingly like, or dislike. It helps us to see what’s really there, with less judgement and more curiosity and acceptance. To peel back the labels and see what’s underneath.

We invite others to draw in order to participate in this change in perception; to move beyond the exclusion we usually practice with our easy judgments in order to see things the way they are, with love.

Simply write to us to find out how to get started on this process, we are happy to accompany you: madaboutmybody@gmail.com

 

Waist or no waist

“Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.

But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.”

building positive body image with aging

“There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.”

– from the wonderful writings on aging by  Ursula K. Le Guin

To know your own beauty

The good thing about growing older, is that we truly do get wiser. Experience is the best teacher and after many trials, errors and a few successes, we do learn to do things differently and to see things differently. While there is something enthralling about youth, newness, guileless energy and strength, we must learn to see the beauty in maturity, in fragility, in slowness and in vulnerability, particularly in ourselves as we slow down and ripen into middle and then old age.

If disordered eating and negative body image are truly forms of mental illness, I never really understood that I was sick. Although I sought help, no real help was to be found other than prescriptions for anti-depressant meds, which I tried, but didn’t get good results on them. So I just kept wading through my own mental muck, thinking everyhing that was wrong with me was my own fault.

madaboutmybody10

After at least twenty-five of years struggling, striving and battling with myself, I think I have reached a place where the self-acceptance is finally greater than the doubts and the self-harassment. Finally. I can’t look back without thinking “what a tragic waste of energy…” and wondering how my life would have been different had my inner life been gentler.

But here I am with my process to share. Reaching out to see if I can possibly grab on to the hand of someone else who is suffering like I was, and help show them the way home to themselves through this simple practice of drawing the body.

When I was in my twenties, I was not that aware of my beauty, or my strengths. I didn’t yet know how powerful I was as a woman, as a human being, with a heart full of compassion. I thought appearing beautiful on the outside was extremely important.  Now I  see so much  beauty everywhere I turn in life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I see myself as part of that beauty too, and I’m not trying to change myself any more.