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.

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?

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.

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.

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

 

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

Bad about ourselves

In French there is an expression, mal dans ma peau, which translated literally means ‘’uncomfortable in my skin’’ or, according to Google translator, “bad about myself”. It’s an easy expression to remember for those who know how it feels to be not be at ease in your own skin; to live with relentless self-criticism, to constantly want to change things about your looks and about your body. For those who know what it’s like to not want to be you.

body image drawing practiceThis discomfort with our physical bodies ravages so many lives! If we seek an outside source to explain the problem, it is at least partially created by, and wholeheartedly encouraged by the beauty and fashion industries, but blaming them won’t change anything fast.

We have a better chance at changing ourselves from the inside out. Not changing our bodies, but the changing way we perceive our bodies. So how do we go about renewing the way we see ourselves?

Hold the plastic surgery, there are other options

It’s a long way home, as anyone with an eating disorder will tell you. It’s a long, slow process. Finding a supportive practice requires alot of outside help, but also a profound commitment to nurturing a new vision of ourselves from within. We have found drawing and photography to be incredibly helpful tools, but they must be practiced repeatedly, just like making healthy food choices on a regular basis, which we all know is a challenge in itself. We can’t reverse a lifetime of self-judgment in a minute; we need support and accompaniment to make lasting changes.

“To draw the body is to really look at what it is to be human, is to find the door to the heart and open it gently, allowing the light of love and truth into the darkest places. To draw yourself is to light a candle in the wind of fear, knowing that you can trust the process and finally let go of that harsh, judgmental, evaluating stare and simply see the beauty in being alive.” – Theresa

¨We’re all just walking each other home¨ ― Ram Dass

Speaking out, for ourselves, and for those who can’t 

One of the hardest aspects of any disorder; whether it be low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, addiction or troubled eating behaviours, is the desire to hide, to disappear, to isolate ourselves from the world and its ideals of beauty and success that we can’t seem to live up to. Learning to look at ourselves more gently, writing about our feelings and becoming more aware of the diversity of bodies that exist are positive ways to start breaking through the walls of silence that keep us trapped in self-loathing.

This invitation to practice photographing, drawing, and to writing about how you feel about your body is a call to arms to fight the body dissatisfaction that is so rampant in our society today, to speak up, out and against the perception that we must change and improve ourselves to become worthy or lovable; to become something we’re not. By denouncing these lies we hope to take our lives back and learn to enjoy ourselves and our bodies and to help those still suffering from negative perspectives.

“I truly believe that every tiny act of acceptance and recognition of what is most vulnerable within us helps the entire world to reconnect to this peaceful place within.” – Marie

The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” ― Anaïs Nin

Would you like to draw with us and share this journey of learning to love your body?

From photo to silhouette to artsy whatever

With digital cameras we can get creative photographing ourselves and our bodies in order to get more comfortable with them. Unfortunately the most accessible photos of the human body are usually highly sexualised, erotic images, or excessively idealized fine art nudes, yet there is a huge spectrum of possibilities in between. Where are the regular people of all shapes and size doing ordinary things? These types of images of the body are so hard to find, that in order to draw the body from photos, my group of artist-friends found that we had to take the photos we wanted ourselves.

This image is an example of playing with the camera… I was hiding behind the scarf at first and slowly pulled it off and wrapped in around myself in different ways while taking photos using the timer and a tripod. First it’s traced, then colored, painted… whatever. I had fun with the scarf because I love to mix decorative patterns with the simple beauty of the human form.

mad about my body tracing mad about my body drawing

My self-portrait sessions only ever happen a result of periods of feeling really bad about myself and my body, and they always bring me peace. The process of drawing even more so. This little photo shoot turned into a series that I thought was quite lovely, but that I would never have conceived of or produced, were it not for my need to work through my intense body shame.

I wish I could bring this change of perspective on the body to every human being who cannot see their own beauty. To those who have lost all sense of connection to and recognition of the wonders of the body that they inhabit. Who have been blinded by the insane unattainable images that our society feeds us, making us sick with desire to be what we are not. I know what it is to carry that false vision and to live the pain of self-rejection. So I continue to draw, and share my story, again and again… and invite you to draw with us so you can see the bigger picture that for now, your mind cannot.

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