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.

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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.

Model drawing & modelling when you’re not a model

Do you have that recurring nightmare about being naked in public?

What’s that about? I’m pretty sure it’s about vulnerability. Fear of being judged if you were to find yourself completely unprotected and fully “seen”.  And sometimes, it’s about body shame. And the difficulty with healing body shame is that you can’t do that without involving the body, when all you want to do is hide it!

For ten years I ran figure drawing workshops, which usually involves hiring nude models to pose, so that people can practice drawing the human form. But our group did it all backwards. We started in my living room, with the bravest among us offering to be the model. As we were just beginners slowly forming a group, we didn’t want to charge those learning to draw, so we didn’t pay those modelling.

And we discovered that there was a subtle difference when the models were not paid; instead of it being a job, it became a gift they offered to those drawing… a gift of their vulnerability.  They were there because they wanted to be, not to be paid. So we continued that way intentionally. We called it a “figure drawing workshop for body acceptance” and invited people who wanted the challenge of finding themselves nude in front of others to model, even if they had no previous experience. And it worked!

It allowed people who were uncomfortable in their own skin to start working through their shame. They gave us the gift of their vulnerability, and in return received the gift of discovering that the artists were really only there to draw their body, not to judge, exploit or even necessarily admire their bodies. And that was a gift in itself. With time, the artists started making a point of showing their work to the models, and to offer them one of their drawings to thank them for posing.

I was never particularly strong at drawing models, and I was not a willing model! I preferred to find models and run the workshops, but that also put me in the hot spot if models cancelled at the last minute. It’s scarier to think about it than to actually do it, so who could blame them! When this happened, we asked for a stand-in in the room. If nobody responded, then it was me.

This is a drawing I received from an artist at a session I posed at. It helped me see myself differently than I usually do… definitely with less judgement. It’s just another body… unique as they all are…

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.

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.