We need to reframe our thoughts, not change our bodies

What does that mean… reframe our thoughts?

woman, nude, body image, self-portrait

Reframe this image – is she pregnant? Is she overweight? Is she in pain? Is she honoring her body just the way it is…?

I asked Google this question:  “Are eating disorders mental illnesses?” and this is highly representative of the responses I found:

Eating Disorders have been recognized by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) since the 1980’s.  The current DSM, edition 5, now recognizes 8 categories of feeding and eating disorders. The tricky thing about eating disorders, is that they also are very medical in nature.

Many of the behaviors associated with each of the eating disorder diagnoses can have dangerous impacts on both physical and psychological well-being. As such, it is important that anyone living with an eating disorder receives care from a full team of multi-disciplinary professionals including a therapist, dietitian, medical doctor and/or a prescriber if necessary.

While I don’t disagree with any of this, my major beef (yes, this really pisses me off) is that less than one third of people suffering from eating disorders actually get treatment, whether it be for binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, orthorexia and everything else in between. “Treatment teams” sound fabulous, but they are not available to everyone, and it is usually a question of money.

So, if we agree that we need to get healthier, mentally, to better accept and eventually love our bodies, just how do we do that without a “treatment team”?

Well, your treatment team might just be your mother, your neighbor, and your best friend. They absolutely count. The less we isolate around food issues and body dissatisfaction or shame, the better a chance we have at crawling out of the chasm of self-hate. I speak from personal experience with this, but also from a place of compassion for everyone  who suffers. Learning to be gentle with yourself can go a long, long way in helping you find some peace.

Reframing thoughts is basically a movement from judgement to compassion and could look something like this:

“OMG I’ve gained 15 pounds since the beginning of the pandemic and I don’t fit into my clothes any more. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. Everyone else is so fit, they’re all showing off their muscles on Instagram.

Reframed: “I’m not happy that I’ve put on weight because my clothes feel tighter and I’m not moving enough. Apparently I am not alone in this situation. Many people have found lockdown extremely difficult and I guess one of my ways of coping has been to comfort myself with food.”

The reframe is more truthful and objective. There is some drama in the first statement, as if we secretly love to hurt ourselves with blame and shame, just like we hurt ourselves by restricting food or overeating. I know it is much more complicated than that… but I am in the process of recognizing that the dramatic thinking has come back, and I am the only one that can correct these thoughts rather than feeding them and making them my truth.

If you were objective, how would you describe your body? And your relationship with it? If you were your mother, your neighbor, your best friend, what would you tell yourself?

Have you ever heard the expression “Be impeccable with your word“?

It’s one of four spiritual agreements of the Toltec people. Worth reading about if you have any judgements about yourself that need to be reframed or outright debunked, forever.

 

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.

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

* * * * *

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

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.

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 twenty 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 with empathy. 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 it’s often been said before, “in our vulnerability lies our strength”. And in our vulnerability also lies the very gentleness of our souls.