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.

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.

Seeing beneath the surface

First impression – what do you see?

A drawing; a photo; a young-ish woman, somewhat thin… nude. Why? What is going on here?

Simply put, a peacemaking process.

self-portrait:  art as therapy

The photograph was taken as a self-portrait during a  difficult time. I photographed myself daily, a process of allowing myself to be seen…

Allowing myself to exist when self-rejection was overwhelming.

Using a timer on a digital camera, I took 3 photos a day for nearly 3 years. While I have taken other photos since, this daily practice was instensely liberating. I have gone back and traced or sketched many of the photos over the years as part of a practice to change my negative perception of my body into a more realistic and accepting perspective of self.

We all have our battle scars; my war with bulimia shows up in visible ribs, and my belly in this photo shows sagging and stretch marks from four pregancies, which while not battles, were powerful events for my body, and some of the most beautiful moments in my life.

I have drawn many self-portraits, and I will continue to do so, inviting others to join me in this practice, because it truly brings me peace. There is no war in my body, the war is in my mind, and this gentle process of seeing myself vulnerable, unprotected and real, is the best way I know to recognize how false and destructive all the noises in my head can be.

Please contact me if you’d like to give this practice a try. You do not need to know how to draw; it can be done very simply with online accompaniment.

madaboutmybody@gmail.com

Stand back and behold your beauty

It is true that when we’re too close to something we can’t see it clearly.

Standing back, even taking a break from seeing something, can help change perceptions. Imagine if there were no mirrors in your home, and you no longer checked your appearance on a daily basis… how would you see yourself if you only saw yourself on rare occasions? You might actually like what you see, much more than you usually do.

Photographing our bodies can be very helpful in changing perceptions, because is gives us that “stand back” view, and it also allows us to see angles of our physique that we can’t normally see at all. Without the help of photos, we really do not know what we look like from the back! This practice also gives us a sense of time; growth; transformation and the inevitable changes that come as we age.

Photographs made into drawings add another layer of detachment and appreciation to this process of self observation and self knowledge.

nude women sitting with loose belly flesh

Too many people focus solely on the aspects of their bodies that they find unacceptable. I wish I could cure us all of these misperceptions by somehow bringing us all back to the simple wonder of a human life living in a flesh costume. No matter how much we may dislike our thighs, our breasts, our cellulite or our arm flaps, it really is urgent to understand that our lives are precious fleeting moments and no matter how we look, we are so very fortunate just to be alive in a human body.

When you look at these intimate drawings, what do you see?

 

“It’s good to be seen”

My dad loved to make fun of convention. He had some really good lines, but by far my favorite was his response when people said “It’s good to see you”.  His reply was: “It’s good to be seen”.

I always thought he was being bumptious (a great word that means self-assertive or proud to an irritating degree), but later I realized that it IS good to be seen! We need to be seen! We want to be seen! It is a basic necessity for us to be seen, recognized, accepted and loved by others.

nude woman seatedAnyone suffering from negative body image may disagree, at least sometimes. I know I’ve wanted to hide when the focus on my imperfect body, or tired face, or whatever my mind was stuck on at the time, made it hard to go forth and happily be part of the world. And so it became urgent to learn to look at myself with love. Self-portraiture helped me accept myself over time, as well as offering workshops and accompanying others in this process. Drawing others also helps to see the beauty in every body, and the practice of live model drawing is a great way see many other bodies, just the way they are.

With gratitude and respect, I will continue to share some drawings I have done of other people here as well as my self portraits, in order to highlight the beauty of every body.  Lately I have had the opportunity to photograph and draw on commission several women who wanted to undertake the process with direct accompaniment and support. These experiences were very rich, and I am happy to be able to offer the possibility to purchase portraits of your body that I can draw  from your photos. Proceeds from these portraits go to supporting this process of helping people learn to see themselves more lovingly. Perhaps, through someone else’s eyes, you will see your own body differently and agree that you are perfect just the way you are, and, that it’s good be seen.

That part of your body you hate is just a squiggly line :)

I’m taking a class to learn how to draw the body without using a photo for reference, and it’s a bit unnerving! I’m pushing beyond my comfort zone, which is good. I will take you along for the ride if you’re interested, but most of all I’d like to share the fascinating symbolic connections I’m discovering in the process.

scribbling sketches related to learning to draw the body for body acceptanceOne thing I’m learning is that every single thing we perceive in the universe is made up of lines and curves. That’s it. Simplistic perhaps, but true. Energy or action either moves outwards or inwards. And intentions generally move up or down, to the left or to the right. Hand-drawn circles are never perfect and erasers are the best second-chance tools ever!

What else? On paper, all bodies are made up of the same parts (of course in life there are exceptions), and they pretty much fit together the same way, no matter how well or how badly we draw them.

So… here’s my little “aha!” moment that happened while attempting to copy these little figures that the professor shared in his lesson. The “aha!” was about how small our really big concerns about our bodies actually are, when put into perspective. How unfounded, unimportant, unfathomably silly our angst about our cellulite, our pimples, our weight or our pointy elbows appears in the backdrop of this effort to reproduce the phenomenal complexity of a human being on paper.

I’m not minimizing anyone’s pain or suffering with their body image or their health or their weight; I totally understand the gravity of these concerns because I share them. But my struggle in making these little figures was an excellent reminder that our bodies are also, always, unfathomably awesome machines made up of many moving parts! And they function marvelously with little intervention on our part (think about the essential involuntary processes the brain commands like breathing and digestion).

So just maybe that thing we think is so wrong with us it not wrong at all, but just another aspect of one of the many manifestations of humanity in all its glory? Can you see how cute you are in my squiggly figures?

Forever a work in progress

In this drawing I see me, about as real as it gets. After I traced the rough outline of my face from a photograph, I spent hours penciling in details and shading. Making hair look somewhat real takes time, but after years of experimenting, it’s no longer a pain, I like doing it. Drawing in great detail has turned into periods of calm contemplation that bring me peace.

I’m still learning how to draw. While I can copy photos with good results, it is something else to learn to sketch freehand, from life, to see the most important curves, lines and expressions that form a person, place or object. I’m also still learning how to see myself with the love and acceptance any human being truly deserves, yet which I would easily offer to someone else.

I’m learning to treat myself and my body with respect. One of the hardest things is committing to feeding myself in ways that give me energy, rather than weighing myself down with the kinds of foods that are really just a temporary escape from my fears; distractions with consequences.

I believe the worst part of an eating disorder is the self-sabotage we consciously and unconsciously inflict upon ourselves that keeps us down. Self-sabotage that goes way beyond what we eat, because it includes self-destructive thinking that keeps us from breaking out of the prison we’ve created and maintain in our own minds.

In this drawing I also see a woman who’s discouraged, exhausted by the self-hate, self-questioning, doubt and disdain she carries for herself. I see too, that at this point, she was starting to get ready to lay down her arms and stop fighting with herself, to finally take some more little steps to work towards freedom. Forever a work in progress…

Anastasia (series) – V – final

Playing the role of camera person for a person daring to pose nude, for me, is always a series of gentle, tender moments. I feel humbled to be invited into the vulnerable space of someone’s nudity, and because I have also experienced the model side of the equation, it is very important that I help them feel comfortable. I believe that by facing up to our fears and discomforts about our bodies, we can get past them. Sometimes facing our own judgments in front of a camera lens is what it takes to allow for a shift in perspective. Most people only undress in front of their lovers or maybe their family doctor, so to do so purposefully opens the door to seeing ourselves differently.

For me, drawing the nude body, whether it’s mine or someone else’s; man or woman, at any age or in any condition, is an act of respect towards the miracle that we are as human beings. We don’t always appreciate the complex intelligence of this envelope that allows us to experience life on earth. When we are unconscious and don’t take care of it, we may find ourselves at war with our own bodies; as many anorexics, bulimics, drug addicts and alcoholics know too well. Aside from these extremes, there are still too many people insulting themselves in front of the mirror daily. Drawing the nude body, no matter how basic our drawing skills may be, is a celebration of the body in every form it takes; a moment of contemplation in front of this miracle; a tender caress of a crayon upon paper translating the simple beauty of our humanity.

And I said to my body, softly, “I want to be your friend.”
It took a long breath and replied, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

— Nayyirah Waheed