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

Skinny girl looking in the mirror

draw-my-body-2What amazes me is observing the way I perceive this picture.

There are so many layers, but above all,  I see a fragile young girl, she is so childlike –  I can just imagine her bedroom filled with stuffed animals…

I didn’t draw the entire image – there was also a picture of a larger girl in a mirror and  this was not her real reflection, but rather her perception of  herself.   This difference between perception and reality touches me deeply because it’s something I have struggled with for so long, it was a problem for me since I was a child.

My perception of things seemed to be dangerous and disturbing as a child but particularly when I was around fourteen years old. I saw what she sees. Now things have become less focused on the body, and more on the inner and the outer challenges in my life, and the inner and outer versions of them, which are not always the same.

When I first looked at the picture I see all that, but as I draw and paint it another perception emerges – the incredible fragility of her connection to herself.

I can’t seem to do justice to the  protruding bones, to give them the white light and the presence they have in her image… her back bone is exposed and I wonder what really is holding her up? I marvel at the complexity of the  back bone structure; the  light entwined with delicate shadows, like lattice-work.

She is stripped to the bone. She wears her hurt in her body, and I feel like I love her, every tiny little vulnerable inch of her…

She wears her vulnerability, but she does not see it, like all of us. I wonder if she could see it, would she hate herself  for being so weak? Vulnerability appears to be and is judged as weakness to so many people, myself included…

At times, as I paint, I feel like I just want to hold her and fill her up with the compassion I feel as I touch her with my pencil or brush. I am not an artist, I struggle with my mind’s idea of technique, but my need to just express and try to recreate what I see becomes stronger than my fears of inadequacy.

They finally disappear in my need to express what touches me…..Thank God for that!

– Theresa

Yoga girl

drawmybody7_wuafbaStraightness and light, these are the things that stand out for me in this image of her.

Three hours and God knows how much paper I’ve gone through – and still I see the imperfections in my rendition of her image.  The mind is relentless.  I am in awe of the light on her body.  The hollowness of her stomach; she is like me, striving for perfection.  It almost seems like she is trying too hard to be straight, I want to soften that intensity and probably my own at the same time.

The vertical position of her legs and torso and the way her arms are grounded to the earth remind me of why we are here.  We need to ground ourselves to our mother earth and lift ourselves up to the heavens.  We are the bridge, we are the tunnel through which darkness and light flow.  When we stand vertically and open ourselves to receive the light, by quieting our minds, then we can bring heaven to earth.

We so need to open ourselves to changing the way we live on this earth. It seems like often we recreate hell here instead of heaven. If we can open a place in our lives where we can get past  the judgments and control, then we can become part of the change needed. Thank God I for this simple tool that is drawing that quiets and slowly changes the way we see and eventually act in our world.

– Theresa

Modelling nude for artists as part of a self-acceptance process

Lilly_1Years ago  I started an informal figure drawing workshop to allow people to draw the human body, nude. Not from a strictly artistic approach… for drawing practice, of course, but also to practice the way we perceive the body in its many different forms. Unlike in art schools, where the models are screened, trained and paid, our models are volunteers, usually with no previous experience, and we rarely tell them how to pose. We let them find their own poses.

The not-paying of the models was something that happened by accident (lack of funds), but what we discovered was that when someone poses for free, the energy is different from if it was a paid job, because they’re giving us something very precious and vulnerable – their body, and their nudity. Some people may talk themselves into doing it for the money, but when it’s for other reasons, it’s different. We get models who are scared to death and others who are rather happy exhibitionists, but we don’t criticize or overly praise. We let them explore and find their own peace and right movement within their bodies as they pose.

Because many of our models are uncomfortable with their bodies and are challenging themselves to face up to a fear, some weeks, the model doesn’t show up. In that case, we just draw each other’s faces, hands or feet instead.

Lilly_2One week when I hadn’t managed to confirm a model, the regular artists were disappointed, so I offered to sit for them, but fully clothed. That was fine with them, but then I started feeling uncomfortable that I couldn’t practice what I preached, and with a mixture of reluctance and frustration, I took off my clothes and continued posing, nude. It was an important moment for me, too, to break through this barrier, and I was grateful for the presence of those whose pencils scribbled peacefully across their papers, not visibly more or less impressed by me than anyone else they’d seen; yet obviously grateful to have another human body to sketch instead of the endless folds of clothing.


The thing is, all human bodies are interesting! Some of the figure-drawing artists that come to our group have seen more nudes than a doctor, but their gaze remains one of impartial appreciation. I’m sure they have preferences, but the simple fact of being exposed to different bodies more often than most people makes them more accepting than those whose references are restricted to their spouse or the usual media images of the body.

I could feel the difference it made for me to face up to this fear, and the dozens of models that posed for us almost all shared similar experiences. Some told me they felt they stood taller after posing nude, walked lighter and smiled back at themselves in the mirror. And by the end of a session, there is a warmth and closeness with the artists too… if they can look at our naked bodies and not laugh or criticize (the way we do!), then we can all learn to be more accepting of ourselves too.

– Colette

Bounteous Bodies

Below, examples of model-drawings done using a simple tracing technique on a light source. The drawings or tracings were then painted, and words added to share how the artist/draw-er felt as she worked on these images.

 

I’m working on getting comfortable with my own curves. When I did these drawings, I just dove in without thinking about it and I really enjoyed tracing the abundant belly and the generous amounts of flesh. I felt real pleasure in drawing this “sister” and I also felt a great tenderness for this woman who accepted to model as well as towards her sensitive and innocent body.  

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I really like this self-affirming posture (above). She looks sure of herself. I wanted to show the energy she gave off using colours and with the bands of colour inside and outside of her body. This body’s curves give you the impression that it’s soft, welcoming, and tender even if it’s large and strong.

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The belly and the thighs of this model stood out for me immediately, which is why I could not help but make them stand out in my drawing. The more vulnerable attitude of this model is intensified by her curves and gives her a child-like appearance. Maybe that’s how she was feeling as she posed?


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In this image (above), the model shows strength and openness… even if we’re seeing her from the back.

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I enjoyed letting the watercolours bleed… the watermarks seem to gently underline the roundness of the body.

– Iris

How thin is thin enough?

How many apples?eve-pomme-1

How much tea?

How many calories can I not eat?

 

How many laxatives will I take?

How much will I allow this needy, greedy hunger?

(This child of pain and anguish)

 

I can stifle her cries with my lies about how much I eat and when

If I am forced to eat or if I am weak, I can regain this goddess of control, who rules and reigns in a prison of limits, boundaries and loneliness.

 

Each time I reach out to touch another and be fed by their love, I am disappointed.

Denial and deprivation, this is real.  These are my friends and family.  These “friends” I know and can trust.

How thin is thin enough?

 

Where does it end?

Who wins?

How do we stop?

How do we surrender to the pain?

How do we love it enough to learn from it and finally let go of it?

Where do we find the gentleness and acceptance we need?

 

Uh oh another need, so greedy, so needy

How thin is thin enough?

 

I’ve heard the best anorexic is a dead anorexic.

Why?  Because a skeleton is as thin as you can get.

How can we stop the voice of control long enough, to recognize the hollow ring of a death victory?

 

Where do we find the love, we feel we are denied, that we deny ourselves?

How do we stop the judgment, control and rejection?

How thin is thin enough?

 

I’ve heard you can never be too rich or too thin.

What do you believe?

 

– Theresa

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

What pains us makes us grow…

Is photographing and drawing myself narcissistic? Self-Absorbed? Vain?

Or could it become a simple, accessible way to heal from self-rejection?

For me it is definitely the second statement. I do it because I have always judged and criticized myself harshly, and drawing self-portraits is the best process I’ve found to really change my self-perspective. Usually, when I look in a mirror, it’s to check/criticize/correct, and in my never-ending quest for perfection I can always find something to fix.

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I am 48 years old now and have been drawing myself for 12 years. I keep quitting and coming back to it, because in spite of my resistance, it helps. This image obsession has sucked so much vital energy from my life over the years that a part of me is really angry about it and has pushed me to act. Fortunately, there is a part of me that is able to see beyond the skewed vision of my mind and catch a glimpse of something else… an imperfect yet strong woman with a still-vulnerable little girl inside, a worthy and yes, a beautiful human being. AS ARE WE ALL…

It’s a double-edged sword in that it’s only because I want to be so outstandingly beautiful that I can possibly see myself as so pitifully ugly. And I’m not, even on the world’s terms, ugly. It’s craziness… but even crazier, our culture FEEDS this craziness!

I chose drawing because it was simple, accessible, free, and I had gentle, non-judgemental people around who encouraged me on this path even when I wanted to throw myself, them, or my drawings out the window. I am no longer shy to talk about this or show my work because I’ve had enough of falling back to the false visions and ingrained beliefs that are so harmful to my health and happiness.

We’ve agreed to only share drawings on this blog – to describe the process and invite others to try it – but I’m posting this photograph because it expresses in a single image just how much I’ve struggled with shame and fought for self-acceptance. And, because photography is  the foundation for our drawing practice.

Being old enough to remember life before digital cameras,  I must say they played a huge part in the development of this process because their accessibility lessened the cost as well as the performance aspect of photography.  My first digital camera allowed me simply to take many, many, pictures, period.

silhouetteCCWhen I began this self-image work, I took a minimum of three pictures of myself EVERY single day for nearly 3 years, and stored them in my computer. I didn’t even try to pose; most often I was balled up in shame, but over time I was able to experiment and slowly unfold my body. I eventually loosened up and even took some pictures of me dancing nude, which only I have ever seen because they were only taken for me to learn to love me.

To take self-portraits I use the timer, propping the camera up anywhere, and spontaneously throwing myself in front of the lens as the seconds tick down to the “click”. I don’t worry about lighting or backgrounds or positioning,  because taking the pictures is part of a process – it’s not about the results. In my mind, the pictures are only for drawing purposes anyways, so even if many of the photos are off-centred or unflattering, I keep them all, hoping to learn to accept myself from every angle.

But that is just the beginning – the most beautiful vision comes through when I take up a pencil and slowly transform the photographs into the simplest of drawings and later more detailed “artwork”.

Ultimately, we’re all “works of art”, just the way we are. Any other vision of ourselves is simply false.

 

– Colette