with loving eyes

This post about body image was inspired by my discovery of a crazy musician who has his own special way of making people’s lives just a little bit better… Marc Vella is a travelling pianist, whose mission in life for the past 25 years, has been to travel around the world with a baby grand piano, park it in the wildest of places, play, and then encourage others with absolutely no musical training to play, too, simply by connecting to their hearts. His message is one of love, and the importance of looking at everyone and everything with loving eyes. What a wonderfully crazy thing to do! You can read more about him at http://www.pianistenomade.com/index.php?l=EN

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I think his message is exactly what we need most to learn, in every aspect of our lives. To look with loving eyes. This is, after all, simply an attitude applied from the inside-out… requiring only a change of perspective and resulting in the kind of non-judgemental acceptance that frees us from what separates us from ourselves and each other.

Apply this to body image issues and it’s a no-brainer, right? Maybe, maybe not, but changing our perspectives is a practice, it does not come in a pill. It struck me today that by choosing to take my own self-portraits to draw from,  (to avoid having someone else look at me through the camera lens) something could be missing. In many cases the photos taken by others seemed more gentle than mine, because the people closest to me who took the pictures (a few close girlfriends and my male partner) were ALREADY looking at me with love. So then the translation into a drawing was not so harsh, because I could already see the beauty in the photograph.

I suppose that starting out doing self-portrait photography on my own to helped to break down the pride, the resistance, the need to APPEAR perfect. I have always had a complex about my weight, even when I was stick-thin I thought I could somehow be better. This drawing was done almost 6 years after the photograph was taken by a female friend of mine. I thought, at the time, that I was huge (good example of body dimorphic or dysmorphic disorder), as I had gone from being too thin due to anorexic behaviours to having a little meat on my bones because of eating more compulsively. But because of the skewed way I saw myself, this extra weight, in my mind, made me unattractive. Since I didn’t get around to drawing this one until I was another 25 pounds heavier, in hindsight, I can see how ridiculously off my vision was. From my new viewpoint of today, suddenly the “offensive overweight” picture had become the “when I was thin and lovely” picture”.

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When I consider all the suffering going in the world, be it the devastation from natural disasters and wars in less developed countries, to apparently healthy, young people around me dying of cancer or the many people chained to addictions or living, hungry, on city streets, it embarrasses me to be plagued with such an apparently superfluous and fixable dis-ease as being obsessed with my looks, when in fact, I am healthy and beautiful!

I know now that none of us chooses to be anorexic, bulimic, or to suffer from compulsive or binge eating. All of these labels are the outer manifestation of deeper psychological suffering. And, if all this inner pain has pushed me to look at myself and all people with love rather than maintaining the separateness of the human condition that leads to loneliness and wars, perhaps it is not such a bad thing.

– Colette

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Photographing my “different” body

Meli_1_wuafba   I have multiple sclerosis (diagnosed over 12 years ago) and my mobility has been reduced over the past few years. I’ve gone from using crutches, to a walker, to a wheelchair to get around. The first few years following the diagnosis were very difficult, but pushed me to begin an inner process during which I was invited to experiment with photography and drawing. I was not someone who had ever even dared to draw before, nor could I imagine myself doing photography, especially not nude! Self-judgment is so strong! I always tried to hide from cameras, even when I was fully dressed. But bit by bit, I tried – I dared – hoping to at least breach a gap in the prison in which I lived; a prison built by years of self-criticism, of feeling lesser than others, of old psychological wounds…

So after hesitating for a long time, I took the plunge and did a first photo session, then another. I came to see that my body had been judged for so long by my own mind that SO wanted my body to be different, more attractive, slimmer…and it was a huge step forward, accepting to reveal it, not only to the camera lens, but also to the person behind the camera! Little by little, the gesture of undressing became less difficult and took on a sense of lightness, like a return to innocence, to the truth, to the very root of being human!

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My desire to participate in nude photography was based much more on this deep need to open up from within rather than any pleasure derived from posing nude. I felt, and still feel, a very strong need to see myself in a gentler way, and especially the most vulnerable aspects of me. I’m also learning this by photographing others, starting with the friend who photographed me! Being on the other side of the camera brought a whole other dimension.

It helped me to soften my usual perceptions, and to start seeing the body like a small child needing to be treated with care, and also allowed me to get in contact with the more vulnerable parts that are often ignored and hidden, both in myself and in the other. You must admit that vulnerability is not terribly fashionable in a world that worships strength and beauty, youth, performance and efficiency, not to mention our most sacred expectations of complete independence!

Meli_2_wuafbaIt’s amazing to be able to recognize and admire the beauty, the magnanimity, of a nude body, and to finally make peace, at least a little bit, with my own body, just the way it is. It feels good! And so much more so, because I am living in a body that is weakening, that suffers, responds differently to movements once taken for granted, and is becomes, for now and  maybe forever, more limited. It’s a real challenge.

Like others with physical limitations, I find it even more important to do this inner work to liberate the body from everything that keeps it imprisoned, and simply accept to reveal it, to honour it, to recognize its beauty and it’s greatness, which coexist at the very heart of the fragility that is so scary to us and to those around us.

Nude photography definitely contributes to this process of acceptance… and I’ve discovered that drawing is also an incredible practice that has changed my life! It has also become a better window through which to see the body, but also through which to see the whole world, and my life!

– MeliMeli_4_wuafba

Anastasia

Anastasia and I were roommates for only a few months, but a close friendship grew from sharing about our food and weight issues. We breached a huge taboo by admitting that we both turned compulsively to food when we felt overwhelmed by the stress in our lives, and that authenticity created an instant bond between us.

Anastasia_1_wuafbaShe felt like she was carrying a lot of extra weight then, and even though I was quite slim, I felt just as uncomfortable in my body as what she described, and I’d always felt that bad about myself, as long as I could remember. I told her how fighting for the cause of improving body image was helping me work on my own issues. I told her about photographing and drawing the nude body, including my own. She liked the idea of doing a photo shoot with me, but it didn’t happen right away. As I well knew from my own experiences, a lot of inner resistance came up in the meantime.

But the photo session did happen, about a year later. Anastasia had been through major life changes and had just about finished a course to become an esthetician. She told me about her studies, in particular how the practice periods required intimate contact with other students’ bodies, and how this made her a lot more relaxed about everything body-related, so she felt ready to be photographed nude.

She was challenging herself to do it in order to change the negative opinion she held towards her body.

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This photo session with Anastasia taught me how uniquely each person reacts in front of the camera. We made a date, and she arrived mentally prepared for just about anything, but when the time came to undress, she started to feel uncomfortable and wasn’t sure if she could go on. I reminded her that it was totally her call and I left the room to give her a few moments to herself. When I came back, she was sitting on the floor wearing a camisole and underwear and still unsure about what she wanted to do. Since we were in a room with a camera set up just for that purpose, I proposed to take a few photos of her anyways like that, but as soon as I disappeared behind the camera she made up her mind and removed the last pieces of clothing.

Anastasia_2_wuafbaWhat happened next really surprised me. I didn’t tell her what to do or how to pose, I only suggested she try to feel her way into different positions according to how she was feeling. Once the ice was broken, she seemed incredibly comfortable in front of the camera, in fact, her poses were creative and natural and clearly she was having fun playing the game of shifting positions to expose her body from different angles. I was quite touched by how easily she was able to move around while I took the pictures. She did not look like someone who was ashamed of her curves. What I was seeing was someone who lived fully in her body from the inside out.Anastasia_3_wuafba

Anastasia_4_wuafbaWe took at least a hundred photographs, then sat down together at my computer to go through them. We agreed that these images belonged to her, and would never be shared with anyone else, but she was okay with me making drawings based on some of them. We sorted through, and she left me about 30 images – those that did not clearly show her face – and the rest were copied onto a key for her and erased from my camera’s memory card. 

Anastasia_5_wuafbaI didn’t get around to actually drawing this series until 5 years later. I haven’t seen Anastasia since the photo shoot, but we’ve maintained in contact. I’m not sure where she’s at with her body image or her weight, but she has continued to work on herself and grow stronger. I know that life is not always easy for her, but she is tenacious. Drawing her was a wonderful process for me, mostly because I’d gained weight since I last saw her, and for the first time in my life I was able to identify with curvier women, and in drawing her, I clearly saw the beauty above and beyond the extra weight.

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My drawing process is very simple; there is nothing original about it. I print the photograph on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, and then trace the contours onto a sheet of white paper using a light table. With the photograph next to my drawing, I then work on the shadows and highlights to bring it to life. I don’t invent anything new or try to improve what I see; it’s more like a translation of a photograph into an illustration to better see things as they truly are.

Anastasia_7_wuafbaFinding myself behind a camera with a nude model 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, I want to make sure they feel comfortable. I believe that by facing up to our fears and discomforts about our bodies, we can get past them, but sometimes it helps to meet up with our own judgments in front of a camera lens or another person (who is NOT there to judge!) that the shift can really take place. Most people only undress in front of their lovers or perhaps a family doctor, so it is different to purposefully do so in order to see oneself differently.

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For me, drawing the nude body, whether it’s mine or someone else’s; man or woman, of whatever age or 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 don’t become conscious of it and we don’t take care of it, we can 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 a large number of people insulting themselves in front of the mirror daily. Drawing the nude body is more like 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 the body.

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Thanks again, my dear friend Anastasia, for sharing your body for “the cause”. I am always deeply touched by these images and I trust that they will make their way out into the world to help other women on their body-acceptance path as well. xoxo Colette

Seeing the hidden beauty in each of us

I am working very hard at learning to love all of myself, a process that reminds me of peeling an onion. I pull off one layer, and uncover another, but I’m absolutely sure that each layer brings me closer to peace with myself. I am also convinced that so much of what I carry – what we carry – in terms of self-hatred, is passed down by our family’s and society’s views on our bodies.

I have a history of self-hatred. I know that I am not alone in this affliction. Some of us are aware of the hatred we carry, while others aren’t sure why they can’t stand certain parts of their bodies. I believe this lack of self-love is something that can be healed. I am certain this path of healing takes you exactly where you need to go, to grow. This gift of self-awareness can teach you compassion for yourself and others. I have worked on healing in various ways, one of which is taking nude photos of myself. I have been both the subject and the photographer. Both roles are healing. Each gives me a softer, more loving way of seeing myself and others.posernue1_wuafba

I am a very skeptical person. I doubt and question everything. I do not put my trust in very many things. I do, however, put my trust in this process for these reasons. The results I see, feel and hear in my own body confirm the healing nature of this process.

The first time I considered taking nude photos, I was working with a very kind person I had met at a health food store. I came to her with some of the health challenges I faced. She began to see me at home because she said she liked to help others. She helped me in so many ways. One, was learning to trust. She often spoke of taking nude photos as healing. She seemed so open and loving, I felt a need to try it. I had issues about pornography and I was very worried that she might turn out to be untrustworthy, after all. It was very hard for me to let go and trust. Yet, there was a chord that was touched inside me that yearned for this healing. I finally just decided to give it a try.

She took her clothes off as she photographed me, as an act of solidarity. She told me to close my eyes and feel the inside my body and to move in the way I wanted to. I had never done any of this before. At first, I felt very self-conscious. I was very aware of what she would think as I moved. Slowly I began to find a place inside me that felt liberated. To really be seen in a loving, accepting way, as you really are, is so freeing. I was exhilarated. I had climbed a mountain of fear and seen the possibility of absolute freedom on the other side.

I honestly felt completely loved and accepted. She did nothing to feed my insecurities or mistrust.

Later, I started taking photographs of other people too. I found that taking nude photos of people in nature gave me the gift of seeing them in a place of love and beauty. When I am behind the camera, I cannot see using my usual judgments. Everything I see is bathed in light, acceptance and love.

I continue to take pictures to explore things I need to love and accept. I have not found a more fulfilling way to touch the body with absolute love and to connect to the bliss of seeing the hidden beauty in each of us.

– Theresa