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.

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.

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.

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?

 

Women using art to honour the body

This drawing practice, which has helped me make peace with my own body, was something that was developed slowly, over many years, through experimentation. Not just my experimentation, but that of others, too. Those others are now friends and together we’ve formed a drawing collective with the goal of honouring the body by seeing it differently. All of us have repeatedly photographed ourselves and others, and have discovered and rediscovered that looking at our bodies from new perspectives rather than from our usual critical viewpoint changes something… in fact, it changes everything!

women drawing around a table using light tables

It sounds easy… we photograph, we draw, and we invite others to draw with us, using the simplest of techniques. We start by simply copying or tracing images or photos to make the practice accessible to all; no art experience or talents are required! This photo shows a group of women drawing-tracing the body together as part of a women’s circle workshop. It was a wonderful day of personal sharing for all of us.

Behind the scenes, sometimes getting down to these practices involves facing up to a myriad of fears and resistance, questions and hesitations, that can make any part of the process an emotional challenge that must be overcome. Often it only becomes possible when the process is shared, and it’s important than everyone move at their own speed, attempting new practices as they’re ready, to discover as they go what most needs to be seen, to be brought to the light and to be expressed. Great strides are possible when the light of compassion is shined upon the things we judge the most.

https://www.facebook.com/womenusingartforbodyacceptance/

Contact us if you want to know more, start your own process with online accompaniment, or bring a workshop to your community! madaboutmybody@gmail.com

Drawing the body changes the way you see the body

I had the opportunity to participate in a women’s circle last weekend and to lead a drawing session with an amazing group of women. By the time we started drawing, trust had been deeply established between all present, so it was easy to get to the core of the practice of drawing the nude body. Although there were a dozen of us around the table, we drew mostly in silence. It was a comfortable, calming, peaceful silence. The women paired off in twos afterwards, explaining to each other what the drawing represented and how they felt while drawing it. At the end each told the entire group how she had felt and what she had seen. This is what we heard:

Drawing the body brought me comfort, it made me feel calm and connected to myself in a way I had never felt before.

This drawing speaks of tenderness, of letting things flow and and letting go of anything in my vision of myself that no longer serves me.

Drawing images of nudes was a revelation for me… seeing the body in all it’s frailty is so beautiful! But it was also in looking straight at what bothers me… facing up to that discomfort… it became a way of freeing myself from so much judgement. It’s like I was finally able to embrace what I’ve so long rejected, and make peace with it.

I felt so in touch with my own vulnerability while drawing, it helped me accept that part of myself that is fragile, and yet no longer see it as weak.

I don’t like my curves, yet I was touched by the sensuality of the body of the model I was drawing from. It made me feel better about my own body. I felt more alive afterwards.

I really appreciated this process of contemplating the human body through drawing. It liberated me from a huge amount of inner tension that I didn’t even realize I was carrying!

Draw with us! The practice is both simple and accessible and we are happy to accompany you in getting started.

For those who know how bad it gets

I am posting this in the “Self-love” category because self-love is what self-loathing screams for.  And self-love is possible, at first perhaps only fleetingly, but with time and nurturing, it grows. (…oh yes, and did I ever mention that drawing yourself can help? )

If you’ve suffered from an eating disorder, addictions, a handicap, illness – mental or physical – or any other major emotional challenge that makes you less than glowingly in adoration of yourself (to say the least!), then you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes it gets really bad. But it’s always better when it’s expressed. When kept inside, it rots and festers.

rough sketch of sad nude woman looking down      sketch of nude woman with writing about dissatisfaction with herself and her body

I found this drawing stashed away in a drawer, and just knew I had to share it, not because it’s awesome but because it’s so real. And I am glad to say that this vision of things is not my only reality anymore, there are many more good days than bad ones, but sometimes the bad ones come back to remind me to keep up the good work 🙂

Apologies for the fuzzy cell phone photos, but trust me, you don’t really want to read all the nasty things I was writing about myself… hopefully you’ll get the gist that it was an angry rant against my apparent lack of worth. Not your typical shiny Instagram-worthy content, and yet I post it hoping that someone else who hears these mad words in their mind will see with a little distance how hurtful we can be to ourselves at our worst. And that better days always come around if we can find a little compassion for ourselves and see deeper than the surface. Our bodies are our best friends… it’s our minds we must train to see ourselves more clearly.

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

From photo to silhouette to artsy whatever

With digital cameras we can get creative photographing ourselves and our bodies in order to get more comfortable with them. Unfortunately the most accessible photos of the human body are usually highly sexualised, erotic images, or excessively idealized fine art nudes, yet there is a huge spectrum of possibilities in between. Where are the regular people of all shapes and size doing ordinary things? These types of images of the body are so hard to find, that in order to draw the body from photos, my group of artist-friends found that we had to take the photos we wanted ourselves.

This image is an example of playing with the camera… I was hiding behind the scarf at first and slowly pulled it off and wrapped in around myself in different ways while taking photos using the timer and a tripod. First it’s traced, then colored, painted… whatever. I had fun with the scarf because I love to mix decorative patterns with the simple beauty of the human form.

mad about my body tracing mad about my body drawing

My self-portrait sessions only ever happen a result of periods of feeling really bad about myself and my body, and they always bring me peace. The process of drawing even more so. This little photo shoot turned into a series that I thought was quite lovely, but that I would never have conceived of or produced, were it not for my need to work through my intense body shame.

I wish I could bring this change of perspective on the body to every human being who cannot see their own beauty. To those who have lost all sense of connection to and recognition of the wonders of the body that they inhabit. Who have been blinded by the insane unattainable images that our society feeds us, making us sick with desire to be what we are not. I know what it is to carry that false vision and to live the pain of self-rejection. So I continue to draw, and share my story, again and again… and invite you to draw with us so you can see the bigger picture that for now, your mind cannot.

madaboutmybody@gmail.com