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.

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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.

Sincere Self-exposure

If you want to be seen in this world, you have to seek exposure. Those seeking worldly success, fame, notoriety, have to promote themselves and their cause shamelessly to “get out there” and be seen.

But if you are shy, or suffer from self-doubt or low self-confidence and are still searching to find your way in the world, no matter how old you are, you may prefer to hang back or even hide rather than put yourself in the limelight.

No matter what we end up doing with our lives, the most important thing is to learn to be ourselves, accept ourselves and to be kind to ourselves. Easier said than done for someone with body image issues or for those who suffer from disordered eating and all the underlying pain that causes this behaviour.

These self-portraits are me looking at myself. Exposing myself to myself. Really looking closely for a change; not hiding from my perceived flaws. Sometimes seeing ourselves frankly staring back at our own bare face is even more confronting than seeing our unclothed bodies.

Although the drawings may appear pretty raw, this exercise was extremely liberating. I took the photos fresh out of the shower, unsmiling, when I was going through a rough period. I was very harsh on myself then, and I think the first drawing reflects that harshness.

But after putting in hours outlining and shading the first illustration, I was happily surprised to see how much softer the second drawing came out. Perhaps because I am not glaring at the camera like in the first one. It’s gentler; the gaze is more inwards and less confrontational. The first one seems to be challenging me looking back (at me!) with an attitude of “I’m ugly and I hate myself so what do you care?!?” whereas the second drawing reflects the mollifying effect of the artistic process.

In the second drawing I see myself with a rawness that is also very pure. It’s me at any age, at every age, me as a child, a woman, a mother. It’s me both weak and strong, both wonderful and worthy and ridiculously insecure.

It’s just me, and there is nobody else quite like me, so wouldn’t it be better if I learned to get along with myself?

In my face I see my children and I see my parents, and I also see the future vulnerability of old age, which I truly hope to reach, gently and peacefully. I see a life that deserves to be loved, just like every other human life.

The beauty in vulnerability

People say I draw well, and of course I appreciate hearing that. I love to draw, and I have put in alot of hours doing it, and we get better at anything we repeat. But being good at drawing is not the point of this blog. It’s about the process.

It’s about slowing down, taking the time to really look at the human body, your own or someone else’s. It’s about feeling what you feel and contemplating what you see. The overall picture, the details, and all that’s unseen. So many functions keeping us alive are completely invisible!

Drawing the body is the complete opposite of looking at yourself in the mirror and believing the fourteen critical thoughts that pop up in the first three seconds.

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In this image I see many things. This time it’s not a self-portrait, it’s of a friend. I was taking the photos. I remember the room we were in, the mood, her discomfort yet absolute determination to face her fears and do this, our laughter, and the sense of accomplishment we both had when the camera was put away and she dressed.

I see strength in this body, and I see light. In that frozen moment, I see something pure and tender that is not trying to hide or cover itself up or embellish itself in any way. I see the humility, the trust and the courage required to be vulnerable and be seen. While drawing, I did not see my friend’s ego, her personal issues or her health struggles, I just saw her, very simply, and I felt love and compassion.

I know that if she were to see the actual photograph, she would probably wince, like I do when seeing images of myself, and she would probably find something wrong with her body. I hope that when I show her the drawings made from that photoshoot, she’ll see the simple beauty that I saw as I drew.

Write to us at madaboutmybody@gmail.com if you’d like to try this practice.  We can correspond to coach you on how to do an easy photoshoot, or supply silhouettes of bodies similar to yours that you can trace from and then draw, colour, or paint. Everyone can get something out of this process, even if you have never drawn in your life.

Better, but forever in recovery

Recovery is a hopeful word, but it remains a distant destination in my mind. It is neither an achievement nor an arrival. At least not for me.

I have been working on my “stuff” for many years, but I cannot honestly say I am recovered.  I still fall back into my eating disorder. I still fall back into the false visions I have of my body, of myself. Not as often as I used to, not as violently as I used to, but I still fall.  I still fail. But I keep getting back up and trying again. It is simply what my life is, and if I want there to be an underlying purpose, then that’s why I’m here, to share what helps me, just in case it can help you too.

Drawing myself, my face, but in particular my body, brings me peace. Why is that? Because part of my problem is an off-the-charts striving for perfection as well as an inability to clearly recognize my  own strengths and weaknesses. Drawing my face, unsmiling, unmade-up, and drawing myself (or another person) nude connects me to what is vulnerable, to what is fragile and tender, to what is raw and real. It brings me back into contact with the frailness of humanity but also to a very pure animal-like strength. It moves me closer to myself in an unaccessorized, unromanticised way. It helps me to see myself as I am. Both strong and weak, resilient and vulnerable. Not all one or the other, but a mix of many shades in between. It brings depth to my shallow desire to appear impeccably put together.

In the past I have been ambiguous about sharing this work and these drawings, but not any more. I share the work in case it can inspire just one other person to pick up a pencil and give it a try, and perhaps find some peace there too. I share these drawings freely now because they don’t really belong to me, they just kind of come through me as I hold pencil to paper. As I draw, a sense of detachment grows in the translation from photograph to drawing. As I work on the image, there comes a point when it’s no longer me, my body, my scars, my curves. It’s just a drawing, of a woman, at that age, at that weight, with that attitude or composure or lack thereof. This erasure of identity brings a universality to the image that allows me to step back and have compassion for the person I see, even if it started out as me and everything that was wrong with me.

I ate much too much of too many of the things that don’t make me feel good today, and yesterday as well. I guess because I am struggling inside, because I am not aligned enough with myself to find  inner peace. Sometimes I think this sense of imbalance can’t be avoided or even controlled; as if the disordered eating swings the pendulum back, because when I am doing well, I start to think I am invincible. It’s as if falling backwards is somehow simply a quest for true balance. I could do without these ups and downs, but until I see clearly both my flaws and my finesses, I guess it will keep me drawing.

No artistic talent or experience are required for this process, just a willingness to face yourself and see something different than the you you are used to judging so harshly.

If you would like to draw with me, please let me know. We will find ways to do it together.  Write to me at madaboutmybody@gmail.com.

Hating my body until I choose to love it

…again, and again, and again.

It’s so easy to hate. Myself. It’s an ingrained habit, my baseline, my norm. Why? WTF???

What is there to hate? I am human, I am healthy, I am here in this world with a strong enough body that has served me immensely and was able to bring children into the world! I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, sing and DANCE! So really, what’s there to hate? Yet I so easily fall back into the noisy criticisms about my looks, my weight, and my fears of what people think of me.

When I’ve really had enough, I get down on my knees and put my forehead on the floor  and stretch out my arms in the wonderful position that yoga calls “the child pose.”

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And I say a prayer and try hard to let go of all the ridiculous accusations coming from my mind that are making my life miserable. Sometimes drawing helps, sometimes it doesn’t. But I must admit, that most times, it does. Sometimes, I write on my drawings. I talk to myself through my writing, to change my ideas about my body. I affirm life and beauty and love. I don’t want to live in self hate-anymore. Enough.

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Really, what is there to hate… other than the painful disconnect between my thoughts about how things should be, about how I should be, and the reality beyond thought that can only be experienced by getting out there and living, rather than waiting until I’m good enough?

No matter what size, it’s my body

I have been photographing myself nude for almost two decades. Daily during some periods, while other times I stopped for several years but always started again, because even if I was hugely resistant towards it, I had to admit it helped improve my body image. It made me stop hiding from myself and really look at the body I have. Drawing the photos afterwards was a further act of acceptance, and often became a process of very peaceful contemplation.

This series was taken when I was at my heaviest; perhaps not obese, but not very comfortable in my own skin, and well above a weight that felt healthy for me. I was not happy with myself in general during that period of time, and I think my compulsive eating habits and lack of activity were simply being reflected in my body shape.

This is how the drawings look in process. I choose an image, maybe crop it or fix the contrast, then print and trace it, and finally, sketch in the highlights. These photos of the drawing in progress were just taken with my cell phone. Look how much softer it appears when the contrast is adjusted; the drawing looks more skin-colored, like I’m gently hidden in the shadows.

During this photoshoot (a close friend was behind the camera), I felt shame and disgust with my body. I was trying to kneel down in this image and was struggling to bend my legs and sit on them. It is not a natural position for bigger bodies to get into, and although there is nothing wrong with that, I was embarassed. Seeing these drawings later, I just see softness. I see lovely curves and a roundess that is full of life, like an abundance. The abundant body gives much to those it envelopes. The abundant body, to me, is a shared body, a beautiful body, a gentler, softer body that is inviting and available in a way that a firm body isn’t. That was me at one time in my life, and it was okay. I wish I had known so at the time. I was SO hard on myself.

Seeing ourselves nude is of course very revealing.

Being “stark naked” means being extremely vulnerable.

biggerbody1-c I think we all prefer to be strong and in control. Ideally, Instragram perfect. But we’re not just that, and we can’t always  be strong and in control. Accepting our vulnerabilities, our nakedness, our weaknesses and our doubts is the best way to recognizing our strengths, even if it means going against a society pushing us to perform and improve, no matter what. 

A bouquet of forest in my soul

The winter is long, and I feel sad and tired some days. Insomnia is my most intimate partner right now and I have difficulty embracing it. Morning brings light and hope, even if I feel rough. Drawing is my meditation, and settling in at my desk in the early hours to draw, even for a few minutes before leaving for work is as much an act of observance as is it a choice.

I trace my body in the forest, again, ten years ago, before I gained all that extra weight. Even if the shape of me then is pleasing to my eye now, I imagine faults in my character as I trace myself. The mean voice is never far away. There is always something wrong with me.

It’s the leaves that bring me peace, their subtle life force, the burst of a thousand different greens. The affirmation of the forest that growth and renewal are always possible. That what is firmly rooted in the earth will always allow something beautiful to spring forth.

Leaves. Beautiful, gentle, tender sprouts of simplicity… I trace another one, and another, and suddenly the tears well up and my breathing is laboured. I don’t cry easily, it scares me, overwhelms me, but I try to let it be, to let the emotion flow through me and let the tears fall, even if they’re ruining my eye make-up and I have to go to work soon.

I feel sad for all the difficulties in my life, in everyone’s lives. I feel the weight of the struggles in the world. I am touching my brokeness and the vulnerability I feel that makes me strive to be perfect, to show my worth to someone, anyone, everyone, to convince them, and eventually, hopefully myself, that I really do deserve to be loved. Convinced that I have to earn it. I am crying for all the pain I’ve felt and that I know so many other people feel when hating myself has been easier than finding what’s lovable in me. For all the years and opportunities lost in self-sabotage. For all the darkness I’ve fed rather than turning towards life for light.

Thank you forest, thank you leaves. Thank you my body for still being there with me no matter how nasty I have been to you. Today I will carry a bouquet of gratefulness and soft green leaves in my soul and remind myself that Spring always, always follows the Winter.