Our bodies are constantly morphing creatures that need our love

The only certainty is uncertainty” (a quote attributed to many philosophers…)

When it comes to our bodies, clearly the uncertainties are different for everyone; women’s bodies change in ways that men’s bodies don’t, and yet everyone’s body, different from the start, changes with age and rides waves of well-being and illness that sometimes include disability or disease.

nude woman self-portrait body image

I love to read books that follow characters closely over their lifetime, to get a sense of who they were, what drove them, where they shone and what brought them to their knees. How they felt, how they looked, how they navigated the world.

The only lifetime we really get to know intimately is our own, because we only actually live in one body; ours. And change is the only certainty, even for our bodies. In my fifties now, I am fortunate to have known the joys and pains of pregnancy and childbirth, but also the despair of disordered eating and the discomfort of being both overweight and underweight. I navigated as best I could the awkward stages of puberty and the bumpy road into menopause; the irresistible bliss of sex and now, a strong sense that my creative energy must be poured into pursuits that go beyond me to reach out to others.

At some point, I discovered that the more loving attention I pay to my body by eating well and moving in joyful ways, the better I feel, and yet food and exercise can easily fall under unhealthy, unconscious control. Hunger, emotions, and anxiety still take over sometimes and affect my food choices. I can’t be too rigid or too relaxed about it. It’s been years of trial and error to find out how much control is enough and how much is too much; a constant moving cycle of listening, starting over, going too far and making my way back. It’s the dance of being me, in all the different forms this pushes my body to take, and being okay with myself at every stage has been the biggest challenge of all.

One of the gifts of self-portraiture is gaining the distance that a drawing or a photograph allows – that step back that offers a new perspective. Having taken that step back repeatedly over twenty years, I can see all the changes in my body as inevitable, telling, but also, so natural! We grow, we change, we fall, we pick ourselves up. I try not to be so hard on myself; it’s all just a part of the cycle that is life. We are so fortunate to experience this life through our bodies.

What I like the most about this self-portrait – this moment in time captured on film – is the highly expressive gesture of my right hand pressing into the soft area under my ribcage, just above my belly button. I don’t remember how I was feeling the day I took the photo, but while drawing I understood this gesture to be pointing at where it hurts, yet at the same time offering reassuring touch to a vulnerable place. While disordered eating is without a doubt an act of seeking comfort from the outside, this gentle, tender, albeit tentative gesture seems like a move towards self-love and self-comfort… a doorway to liberation often found in this simple process of drawing exactly what I see.

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.