On not wanting to talk to my body

I went to a School of Life event this week called Learn to Love Your Body. I’ve been to one of their events before and it didn’t really work for me; my default setting is ‘get shit done’ and the philosophical thinking style of the event wasn’t a match for me. I am one of those people who finds meandering brainstorming sessions deeply frustrating – I know they need to happen, but please don’t ask me to participate (although once you’ve come up with a shit hot idea, hand it over and I will develop a watertight project plan and it will come in on time and on budget!).

Anyway, I decided to go back because this event intrigued me. I was particularly interested in this bit: “We’ll experiment with sensitive, tactile drawing processes that keep the sense of sight out of the process to help us engage with and appreciate our bodies.” Now, I can’t draw for toffee but as Exposing 40 is at its heart a visual exploration of our relationship with our bodies I thought I would give it a go. In the end there was no drawing involved. There was lots of thinking though…

The day before the event we were asked to think about an “image of someone or something that speaks to you about a nurturing and emotional warmth”. The first image that sprung to mind was of me with my three oldest friends in New York a couple of months ago. We’re fooling around in a photo booth at the top of the Rockefeller Center, mocking up the famous image of the workmen having their lunch on a crane. We are roaring with laughter. There is no pulling in of stomachs, angling of legs, or jutting of chins to define the jawline. We look extremely and gloriously happy.

On the night we had to use the image as the starting point on a journey to find our perfect nurturer. We had to quietly imagine what this person will look like, sound like, what they will say, and what they will do. This perfect nurturer will become our ever-present friend and the voice of reason who speaks to us about our body concerns in times of doubt. Now, I could have run with this if I was in my chosen photo and imagining what my best friends with whom I am always happy and carefree would be saying to me if I was having a crisis of confidence, but this exercise started to come unstuck when it turned out this perfect nurturer was meant to be our inner voice. It completely unravelled at the point at which we were encouraged to talk to, touch and thank the parts of our bodies that upset us, for example “by placing your hands on your spare tyre to apologise to it and thank it.”

I shouldn’t mock too much because this approach could work for some people, I do of course appreciate the value of mindfulness exercises, and I also know that in the social media driven world we live in it is easy to become reliant on comments, ‘likes’ and positive affirmation from others. However, since the poor relationship many of us have with parts of our bodies is driven by the voice in our own head I am not convinced the solution is to be wholly found in our own heads.

When I think about some of the feedback I have had on images posted here, there were times when I thought ‘that’s a lovely thing to say but I think you’re just being nice’. I didn’t always believe them. But if I think about comments I have left for others when they have spoken of insecurities I know I have never once lied in a comment. I simply do not see what they do and if I say I think they look beautiful I mean it. So, if I don’t say things just to be nice, why assume others do when commenting on my images? This simple thought process and the conclusion I reached did so much more for me than laying my hands on my belly and thanking it for liking wine and cheese would have done.

Certainly we are responsible for our own emotional strength and happiness, driving personal change, and kick starting a process of reimagining our own self-image if we need to, but the fact is, when it comes to our bodies we are our own harshest critics so let’s not beat ourselves up if we need to look externally to help ourselves deal with our insecurities and vulnerabilities. For me, the snapshots of friendships that capture how we felt not how we looked, the conversations that are coming about as a result of this project, and the generosity and kindness of the online community is a greater foil to negative thoughts than having a conversation with my body.

Postscript 1: If I hadn’t been in a perfect storm of work and flat-buying stress this week I would have written this in time for Marie’s #wickedwednesday – sorry I missed the deadline, lovely. xx

Postscript 2: I did mention the absence of the drawing and now have two free places for future events. I am now torn between thinking ‘ooooh, freebie’ and accepting that the events won’t really be free if I come away thinking they were a waste of my time!

Whitechapel Smile

I have been so excited about taking this photograph! It was really important to me that the first person who I photographed for Exposing 40 was this friend. Call me sentimental.

Yesterday morning. Tea and toast in a sunny kitchen, catching up on gossip. Then: “Darling, we are going to the bathroom to photograph the scar where you came out of Mummy, you can come in if you want.” My God, my friend is the most laidback cool mum. Her son is a dream.

Footsteps pad down the hallway towards us and a face appears, bearing very important news: “Auntie Catherine, this is a Roman warrior.” A few minutes later: “MUMMY, there’s a bee in the kitchen.”

It was funny and perfect and I will hold the memory close.

The Whitechapel Smile is what my friends (her husband is not just her husband, he’s my friend too!) call her caesarean scar, in an affectionate nod to the hospital where their son was born. When we first chatted about photographing her scar she described how she once hated it but now thinks of it as being part of the “rich tapestry of my life.”

We talked about it yesterday. She touched on her issues with the physicality of the scar – the lip it’s created that’s visible through swimwear, the fact that underwear slips down and gets caught uncomfortably in the ridge. But more interesting were her reflections on how motherhood had changed her relationship with her body.

That relationship had always been a close one – it wasn’t disassociated from the rest of life in the way some people separate their physical and intellectual selves: “I really inhabited my body, I was aware of it.” Childbirth changed all of that. Nearly four years on she says it’s only really in the last six months that she feels really in touch with her body again, that it is once again becoming an expression of herself and her sexuality.

“What’s happened in the last six months?”

“From 30, when I looked in the mirror my feelings about what I saw were all about not looking as good as I once had. I felt like I was fading.”

She was driving as we chatted and glanced away from the road to me.

“We are aging really well you know. We both look bloody good for 40.”

Eyes back to the road.

“Now, when I look in mirror I don’t see what’s gone I think ‘bloody hell you look good for your age.’ Forty feels like a turning point.”

Thank you for yesterday, my glorious friend.



Versions of Ourselves

When Maria posted her beautiful photograph last week there was so much I wanted to say but I held back, not wanting to hijack her blog with an unwieldy comment. The days passed and rather than settling on something suitably pithy I actually just refined the long response in my head.

As an image plain and simple it was wonderful; the muted colours, the relaxation of the body, the fact you could imagine the contemplation on her face without needing to see it. But it was the words that really struck a chord with me. Within a few lines Maria had touched on many thoughts that had been tripping through my mind.

July 2014 AnonymousShe spoke of closely cropped versions. Oh, the crop! I have pondered the integrity of a body positivity project in which I so often work hard to manage out the bits I don’t like. I bloody love my legs, but my Stepping Out post is very exactly edited to just lose the belly overhang at the top. I really don’t like my breasts, yet I happily and frequently return to this photo (which I first posted anonymously a year ago), mainly because here they really don’t look like mine! Am I being body positive because I choose to celebrate and post photos that make the best of me, or am I being negative because I choose to hide the truth?

For me, the leap of faith came with Andromeda where my belly hung out and my tits are at opposite sides of the room like quarrelling siblings. I understand Maria’s instinct to regard herself with disdain. I am proud I posted my full body shot, and I will do more of them I am sure, but it doesn’t mean I am completely comfortable with everything I see.

Am I allowed a gratuitous Dirty Dancing quote here? Damn right I am. “If you love me, you have to love all the things about me.” And I do love my body. It copes pretty well with the distances I make it fly, the alcohol I put in it, the lack of sleep I subject it to when I can’t say no to another work project, and it’ll shrug and get on with it when I decide to shuffle it 13 or 26 miles round a city. It is also home to my spirit. So I am sorry belly and boobs that I am not always very nice about you, but I am learning to love you.

For me the most powerful point Maria made was this: “One of the most lovely and helpful things about the Sinful Sunday community (for me) is thinking about how my image will look through other people’s eyes rather than just through the filter of my own baggage.”

Tomorrow I am photographing one of my oldest, dearest, friends for this project. She wants me to focus on her caesarean scar. Next weekend I am photographing Honey for an amazing new project in which she is withdrawing her right to self-edit and giving other people complete freedom to choose how they photograph her. One of these women I have known for half my life, the other I have met just once. I am humbled and honoured by the trust both are putting in me and my camera.

And trust is really at the heart of all of this: my Andromeda, Maria’s Undo, Honey’s project, my friend’s excitement about participating in Exposing 40. By sharing our self-portraits or by allowing others to photograph us we trust them to help us face our vulnerabilities, celebrate our good bits, and see ourselves with kinder eyes.

And Maria, feeling (or being) large is an undeniable fact for many of us, but there is absolutely nothing ungainly about you. I see only elegance in your words, photography and body.

A New Perspective 

I have a job that frequently shocks me, regularly inspires me, and usually ensures I keep a reasonable perspective about the things that bother me in my own life.

Yesterday I was working in a community that would casually be called the “poorest of the poor” by policy-makers, the media and charities alike. It’s on the outskirts of a bustling city and exists to collect and hand sort the rubbish the city and its growing middle class produces. As cars race past on a gleaming highway a few hundred metres away the rubbish arrives by horse and cart.

I spent the day at a community library that gives children who don’t go to school the chance to read, learn, and play. A group of friends were identified to feature in the short film I am making. Two interviews down we beckoned the third girl towards the camera. A cocky, confident, and funny nine-year-old, she’d been enjoying herself while we filmed the group activities, but as her moment in front of the camera arrived she shrunk back from us and her shoulders hunched.

“Are you ok?” my translator gently asked.

She shook her head.

“What’s the matter?”

The translator’s face fell.

“Because I am fat and I am not beautiful,” she’d whispered back.

There was a sharp intake of breath from the whole team. This week we’ve interviewed migrant workers who haven’t seen their children in 15 years, visited sweatshops where people sit at sewing machines for 18 hours a day, and filmed illegal night markets that provide some people with their only source of income. Somehow this little girl’s insecurities shocked all of us more than any of that. We’d been expecting the rest and knew it would be bad. We hadn’t expected this.

We would have been saddened to hear those words from a nine-year-old anywhere in the world, but somehow it seemed even more shocking to hear them in this community. But why? Just because she is poor and living a life we find hard to comprehend, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the same worries about how she looks or isn’t vulnerable to the same images as nine-year-olds at home are.

I can’t say I had previously assumed people in the communities like this one didn’t care about their body image because until yesterday I hadn’t actually given it any thought. But if asked I would probably have muttered something along the lines of ‘more important things to think about’. That seems patronising now.

But there are more important things to think about. A little girl born into poverty and unable to go to school shouldn’t be worrying about how she looks on camera. No more than a nine-year-old in a nice family home in a richer community should be taking pictures with a ‘slimming selfie app’. We live in a world where body image is a primary concern for little girls, whatever their circumstances.

The growing body positivity movement is heartening and thankfully it’s not just restricted to women. Projects like Kate Parker’s Strong is the New Pretty and the great A Mighty Girl initiative are helping adults think about how they support girls to think differently about themselves. I wonder if these responses will cut as deep as the images that make girls think poorly of themselves have?