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.

Your body is your home

The best kind of home can be found wherever you are.

When we are at peace with the body we live in, and not at war with it in our minds, we are free from the inside out, and wherever we are, it is possible to feel safe and loved.

While this does not come naturally to someone suffering from negative body image, addictions, or an eating disorder, it can be learned. Too often we are separated from our own bodies by excessive jugements inflicted on ourselves by our own minds.

Imagine sinking into a warm bathtub, or wrapping yourself in a cosy blanket on a chilly Fall day. Now imagine that living in a body you love can feel that good, all day every day!nude woman, body image

When I look at this self-portrait, I see the inner distress I was feeling, but the positive is that it was being expressed. As my friend photographed me, I told her about my fears and frustrations, and because I was vulnerable in my nudity, what came through seemed less filtered than usual, more raw, more true. Naked and liberating.

These photos were taken during the early months of the pandemic, when we were getting a taste of complete lock-downs. It was hard, and I was struggling with being alone so much, not being able to see my closest family members because they were out-of-town. It was in the weeks leading up to my birthday, which I was about to spend alone, the only human contact possible through video calls. My friend was also suffering from isolation during the lock-down, and by being in the same room together for an hour or so for the photoshoot, we were breaking the rules. And yet it did us both a world of good.

I continue to learn, discover and affirm that my body is my home. I have abused this home with disordered eating for many years. My fears and insecurities have long pushed me to seek comfort in food, but now I am getting closer to finding comfort in the only vessel I have to take me through this life, and to be increasingly grateful for all the wonderful life experiences it continues to allow me to have, pandemic or no pandemic.

It’s time to come home to stay.

Look closely at the human body with compassion, draw, repeat

“They say” that repetition is a sign of insanity, and yet other theys say it is only through repetition (of positive action) that we can learn to move beyond the things that keep us stuck.

I couldn’t find the quote I was looking for, but I clearly remember reading that the words we use to express love we repeat constantly to keep love alive. Which made me think about how many times I’ve told my kids that I love them, and will continue to do so for their entire lives…nude self-portraitAs a person who dares call myself an artist, I am not pretentious enough to imagine that by drawing the body, particularly my own body, I am inventing anything new. My drawings are not original or outstanding or mindblowing in any way. They are not made for the result, nor are they made to impress or to sell. They are the end product of a process, sometimes extremely satisfying and peaceful, other times frustrating and boring. They come from a process undertaken repeatedly to rewire the way I see myself. And it’s working.

And yet the very proposition of looking closely at the human body, my own, your own, any body and every body – from a perspective of compassion, acceptance and tenderness – in this day and age, is absolutely original, outstanding and mindblowing.

self-portrait from photograph

Photographing and drawing myself again and again have often brought up feelings of self-rejection, distress, and disgust. Yet the practice has also brought up life-changing discoveries, like seeing the innocence, beauty, and the inestimable value of a human body; mine, and everyone else’s. It has cut through the bullshit I heard my mind say over and over again, to help me learn to see beauty where there was only criticism, and the power in vulnerability where I only wanted to see strength.

In spite of my two-decades long practice, I have also gone weeks, months, years, without drawing, but I always come back to it. I have gone even longer without accepting to take photos of myself, or others, but every time I take the leap, I find again what a gift it is to allow or to be allowed to approach the core of our humanity, not in an intellectual way, but in a deeply embodied way that goes beyond personal desire or pleasure to simply observe and accept what is there. Sometimes naked and afraid, and also naked and proud.

“I no longer look for the good in people, I search for the real… because while good is often dressed in fake clothing, real is naked and proud no matter the scars”.  – Chishala Lishomwa

A rough draft of myself

The art of self-portraiture is a brave endeavour. Finding balance between making it look genuine without falling into complacency or self-denigration is not an easy task.

Publishing a work of art and making it visible to others’ eyes is always a courageous act, but even more so when it is a self-portrait. And when a self-portrait is nude, it can feel like the equivalent of undressing in public.

I want to acknowledge everyone who has dared to do so, artists and non-artists. In one way or another, they have contributed to the evolution of the way the human body is perceived.

To pay tribute to those who have dared, I will publish a series of articles to showcase self-portrait works that have particularly touched me.

painting nude womanTo begin, this painting by artist Chantal Joffe. I find it so easy to identify with this image! Looking at this self-portrait, it appears to me like a reflection, a mirror of my own feelings towards my body.

She has her head hanging down, which is exactly how I feel. There is too much discomfort and uncertainty in me to be able to lift my head and look straight forward with confidence.

My inner reality is cramped. I do not have the impression that I have much space in which to breathe.

The pale body seems to sway, adding a sense of instability. I recognize myself in the barely sketched features, as I’ve often felt like I’m only a rough draft of myself; an awkward outline that I have not yet managed to complete.

Nothing in this image seeks to please or seduce, and yet in the vulnerability of this nude self-portrait, there is an appeal for tenderness and caring, and a deep sense of humanity. Thank you, Chantal Joffe, for clearly expressing the emotions of so many women who are uncomfortable with their bodies!

Chantal Joffe undertook a year-long series of self-portraits of her face in 2018 which is well worth the visit. Sometimes sharing our face, in any state, is just as vulnerable as showing our bodies.

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.

“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.

Your body hears everything your mind says

Your body hears everything your mind saysthis powerful quote is attributed to American singer-songwriter Naomi Judd. Thank you Naomi Judd! I just came across it today for the first time, even though I have been following all kinds of body image sites and activists for years, and it really struck a chord.

It made me do a full stop and start questioning just what my mind has been saying about me lately, as I have been in a phase of intense self-judgement. Why? I’m not sure why, perhaps simply because I need to learn to consciously choose to live otherwise. To see myself as I am, to stop imagining I should be someone different or that I am inherently wrong. This sounds so harsh it’s embarrassing to put it out there, and yet I know that I am not alone in this me-bashing! And I don’t want anyone to feel this bad about themselves, ever, not even me. No more. We can’t do much with our lives until we discover our worth, and live like we not only deserve to be happy, but also live like we have, and we are, something and someone worth sharing.

drawing of nude woman leaning over flowers

A friend of mine photographed me this last Spring, with flowers from her garden. I was trying to let go more in front of the camera, to be less balled up than I often am during photo shoots. It was a calming, quiet session, and I later chose quite a few photos to work from. In drawing this one, I fell into criticism, got all freaked out and perfectionist, and let it sit on my desk for two months. Tonight I found it and decided to complete it, quickly, to try to let go of the results and just be with there with myself through the image. It’s soft… a soft woman in a safe place, leaning over freshly cut tulips, her hair falling  gently down over her face, the light warm and golden. I left it unfinished. I’m unfinished too. I’m a work in progress… aren’t we all, always?

Going to start another drawing now, and be ever more careful about what my mind says. I’ll call it out. I don’t want my body to hear any more of that negative bullshit.

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…

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?

Art makes us see

My title today was inspired by a lovely quote by artist Paul Klee who said: “Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see”.

mad about my body blog

My attempt at making art today is showing me alot more than just how I feel about my body. It’s giving me insight into where the roadblocks to freedom and happiness exist inside me. I am trying with a respectful amount of sincerity and as much persistence as I can muster to paint with watercolors.

I ditched a beginners’ class years ago because I didn’t like the professor’s approach and am trying to learn by doing. Sometimes I like what I do, but I’m also facing some deeply ingrained reactions like fear and self-sabotage.  Fortunately, I guess, watercolor paper is too thick to ball up and throw across the room, but the very idea of wasting a sheet of paper seems like a failure. My brain is hard-wired in terms of success and failure. What am I learning from the process? That I am too self-critical, that color is beautiful, that a paintbrush is a tool of great tenderness, and that my attachment to results is killing all my fun.

How will I get past these blocks? By keeping on doing it, I guess. By refusing to buy into the self-sabotage in my mind. By taking a break and going for a walk and trying again. By reaffirming to myself that it’s not about results, that the practice is worthy in itself and that I will continue to learn from the process. By not quitting and not judging. Easier said than done; avoidance is much easier. Do you suffer from these types battles in your mind too when you attempt a creative process?