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.

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.

Bonding over body image distress in confinement

Nobody needs to be reminded that we’re swimming through a pandemic since the onset of the coronavirus. As of mid-June in Canada, we are more focused on re-opening and getting out than we were two months ago, but our usual liberties and activities remain limited. The mental toll of “watching and waiting”, being without work, or doubled down working from home either alone, with kids or teenagers, or watching your business fall apart creates all kinds of anxieties, even if there are some positives. It’s safe to say that for everyone, life is challenging in new ways.

On the outside, first, the toilet paper drama, then, talk of the “quarantine-15”, an assumption that with people at home doing more cooking and baking, we’re going to gain weight. Studies say that isn’t really the case, but the fear is real. For people with disordered eating, severe food allergies and other health challenges, being at home around food all day is uncomfortable… only an abundance of self-love and self-care can protect us from these issues. Easy to say…

drawing, nude woman in distress

On the inside, the distress comes in many forms, often in waves. Some are living with grief for what or whom they’ve lost or may lose, for others, panic in the midst of illness or despair in the isolation of lockdown. We’re all having our down days, and all of this takes a toll on our bodies as well as our minds. We see you, we hear you, we feel you!!!

If you have the time and the energy to move more, exercise longer, build strength and resilience in your body, I’m convinced it helps. If that’s possible for you under the circumstances.

Being among those who find it REALLY difficult to self-motivate and excercise, I share your pain… the pain of not moving enough, slowing down and feeling disgruntled with yourself and your physique. That’s when the mind games begin, the daily sigh standing on the scale (even if the numbers aren’t moving!), the conviction of unattractiveness, the sinking realization that your clothes feel tighter. These disappointments can quickly lead to self-judgement and self-disgust.

You may also feel angry or despondent… like, why bother? Our lives have changed, and more now that ever, the only thing under our control is our thoughts, and that’s where the negativity and the “self-bashing” comes from.

As hard as we may try, we can’t fix ourselves, or learn to change our thoughts, completely on our own. In spite of social distancing, we have to reach out. Telling a friend about your fear of gaining weight or that you’re bingeing on sugar, drinking too much, or feeling desperate always helps. Together, we have to call out our minds and all the negative thoughts that pull us towards self-hate and self-destructive actions. Because the truth is we’re fine, in fact we’re awesome, just the way we are.

We need our bodies to carry us through this pandemic and the rest of our lives. Together, we can honour our bodies for their beauty and their strength.  How else can we better support each other in taking on this new perspective, not just for ourselves, but for everyone who suffers?

If walking and jogging and yoga and light meals aren’t happening, there are other ways… we can start with our thoughts. Call out the BS and feed the gentleness, but do it with a friend.

When your body can’t move because your mind has been too cruel, listen to Lizzo’s music, she’ll tell you where it’s at with unconditional body love, and dancing does wonders for body acceptance.

How are you feeling in your own skin lately?

 

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

It was self-loathing that led me to self portraiture

Funny how pain and suffering are sometimes the only things that push us to move beyond the paralysis of our comfort zones. I certainly never set out to draw self portraits, and much less to to share them on the internet.

There is no quick fix to learning to love yourself when you have made a habit of hating yourself.  The negative self-talk some of us know too well is the mother or all partypoopers to any human psyche. And it self-perpetuates. But it’s never true! It’s a very deeply ingrained bad practice that needs to be replaced by a good practice, and drawing is a very strong positive mantra that is based in reality, not just on ideas.

self-loathing, body image, body hate, art therapy

Often when I draw, or guide groups to draw on the subject of body image, I invite people to write what pops in their minds as they work. Our minds are stimulated differently while concentrating on lines, curves, light and shadows. Drawing is contemplative, and gives us  time to make connections, or more clearly identify memories and beliefs that we would otherwise be unaware of. Putting those thoughts down on paper allows us to see them with a bit more distance , and then choose what we want to believe, or not.

While this image has French words, you don’t really need to understand them other than to know I was writing all the mean thoughts that came up in my mind about my body as I drew a photo I’d judged as ugly – wait, no  –  it was my body I was judging, the photo itself was just fine! I can make fun about this now because I don’t live in that self-loathing as constantly as I used to. Thanks to this practice, my head is more often above the waters of self-hate, and when those thoughts come up, it is easier for me to recognize that they are not true, and to push them away. But it took practice, practice, practice…

For self portraiture, the first part of the practice is to dare… and I mean really DARE! to photograph the vulnerability of your own body, or ask someone you trust to photograph you. I will share more about this process in my next article, because it has always been the hardest part for me. If that seems impossible for you to fathom now, you can start with photos of your face or of others’ bodies, perhaps those with a size and shape similar to yours.

Then, you trace. It’s a simple process, no performance, no stress, you’re just copying contours (better with a light box so you can see the lines of the photo clearly under the paper you’re tracing to). Then you can work with the photo nearby for reference and shade, color, or paint the silhouette of the face or body you have traced. If that’s too hard, we can supply silhouettes for you to draw; we have prepared many for our workshops. Then write what comes up.

Remember – it’s a practice – results do not matter. Wanting nice or good results is hard to avoid. Many of us, including me, seem to be hard-wired to think that art requires magical talents and is something you sell or hang on a wall. For some people, it is that, and that’s okay! But art is also transformative and therapeutic, because it teaches us to really see.

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.

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.

wethair1-bw      wethair2-bw

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.