Nudes - A Disappearing Exhibition
On January 18th, 2017, This Must Be For You and London in Stereo held a small exhibition at SJQ in Dalston, London.
The exhibition featured the work of 10 photographers who were given polaroid cameras and asked to produce 10 images that would be exhibited for one night only and then taken home for free by the exhibits visitors.
For my piece I asked friends who have never posed nude before, and weren't particularly comfortable with the idea, to do exactly that, and then write about the experience and how they felt about appearing nude in a gallery where strangers would be taking their photos home. I'm not a fan of using sex to sell; it's often the lazy last ditch attempt at making a boring concept appealing, so the images are intentionally un-erotic and simple. What makes them worthwhile, what justifies the nudity if it needs justification, is the incredible writing that accompanies the pieces. Participants poured their hearts out to the point that I'm not going to attempt to describe the write-ups. Here they are:
When I was a teenager I learned a trick. By that point I already understood that I was living in a world that feels uncomfortable with the space that female bodies inhabit. Women are either expected to be exceptionally modest and covered, or exceptionally sexualised and visible, or most frequently, both and neither at the same time – a particularly difficult conundrum to get my young mind around. At school, I was teased for my small boobs and boyish figure as my male peers became quickly and acutely aware of our changing female bodies and how they compared to the highly sexualised versions of femininity available to them on the internet. My experience of puberty was a lot kinder than many other peoples', and although the teasing from my male friends was normally in good humour, I was made to understand that my body was not deserving of total respect. It could be touched against my will. It could be compared to unrealistic standards. I could be ridiculed for it. It could be used against me.
And then I learned the trick. It didn't defeat the patriarchy, or save me from rape culture or eradicate gender roles. But it did help me fight against the humiliation of my body. The trick was taking my clothes off.
I did not have then, and don't have now, the sort of body that societal standards deem beautiful enough to be naked. I am short and stocky, with hands that look out of proportion to the rest of me, pale and freckled with no waist to speak of, hip bones like razor clams and breasts that never really grew out of the training bra I so proudly wore. I was a ripe target for mockery when those around felt the time called for me to put in my place. I was outspoken, opinionated and angry as a teenager, and people didn't like it. A boyfriend's mate described me as looking 'disgusting' and 'like a drowned rat'. When I complained to a teacher about another boy's drawings of myself and my friends in intricate, horrible, sexual situations, he later responded by running both of his hands slowly down my sides (the memory of which makes me shudder even now).
And then I learned the trick. I learned that if you convince people that you have nothing to be ashamed of, you cannot be shamed. I took my clothes off. If an ex got nasty and showed pictures around? Hah! Who cares?! My body was old news. I stripped off at parties all the time. I drunkenly swam in Kelvingrove fountain. I was the first to suggest skinny dipping. I did a naked calendar shoot for the University Sailing Team. On a boat. In winter.
So when I read about this project, of course I said yes. I said yes without thinking, because my attitude to nudity had protected me from thinking about it for more than ten years.
And I will say this much: it was harder to write about this then it was to do it. I half want to say it was just a laugh, getting naked in front of a friend, telling people I was a nude model for an exhibition (as one pal said “Put it on your CV! You might get more interviews that way”). But as a woman I know deep down that really, being naked is always a political statement. I have struggled to put down these words on paper for months. The anger has boiled in my gut. In the time since my photo was taken, a misogynist has been elected President of the United States. A man who talks about women's features like they are fodder for his tiny, sweaty hands. The thought that I could one day bring a daughter into this fucking disgusting shambles of a sexist, sexualised, messed-up world makes me want to howl with rage. Why is this so complicated? Why do I have to engage with it? I just want my body to be my skin and flesh and blood, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, but nobody else's consideration but mine, until I say so.
Some days I hate the very bones of my body. Sometimes I admire it in mirrors. There are only two occasions when I truly love it. The first is when someone else shows me how much they love it, not just for its physical form, but as a vessel that holds me. Once, when holding an ill kid, they settled into my chest and stopped crying to mummer 'I can hear your heart Nanny Jo'. For that moment, my body was a solid, reliable mass for them and for me, and I was grateful for it.
The other is when it moves how I want it to move, and feels how I want it to feel. I used to be a dancer when I was a teenager. I would look into the mirror and admire the clean lines of my form, the precision and poise, the release of energy as I nailed a particular step. I always, always love my body when I dance, or laugh or sing.
So please, feel free to take my picture home in all it's imperfect, rash-y (thanks Pityriasis versicolor!) awkwardness. But remember, I've got this trick. What you get isn't really me at all. Sorry.
P.B.When I was a teenager, like so many teenage girls, I was slim and beautiful and hated myself. I don’t remember a specific time when I decided to learn to love myself - it was a slow burn - but certainly the way I feel about my own form has changed dramatically since I was 15. I work hard at it every day, pushing myself into slightly uncomfortable positions to do so. Wearing that slightly shorter skirt. Taking my clothes off to jump in the sea, the cold of which instantly dissolves any hang ups. Sending my girl pals underwear selfies (always met with a wave of positivity and adoration). Getting naked for a photograph.
“So, why did you say yes?”
The first question Sonny asked me was the only one I couldn’t answer. I’d spent an unfeasible amount of time thinking about the practicalities; what I was going to wear (clothes that made me feel good about my body, that were as easy to remove in as non-embarrassing way as possible, a sarong to cover myself while I got dressed), how I might feel during the shoot, what I’d think about the resulting photo, how to cope with hating the resulting photo, how to hide the fact that I hated the resulting photo, how to avoid a complete breakdown or crisis of confidence as a result of hating the photo – you get the gist – but I hadn’t stopped to consider why I’d agreed to take part. More than agreed, in fact.
When, during an afternoon of aimless Facebook scrolling, Sonny’s post looking for participants had appeared on my timeline I’d messaged him to say “hello, yes, I would like to do this” before I could stop myself. I couched the initial approach in as much vocal-fry as I could, giving him every opportunity to back out without actually having to say he was backing out, and was half-wishing he wouldn’t actually follow up on the message at all, but only half, because no-one wants to offer to get naked in front of someone only to be told “actually, nah, let’s not.” But I deliberately and comprehensively shut down the part of my brain that was shouting “What are you DOING? Why would you do this to yourself?!” Trying to analyse why I was taking part would almost certainly have led to me pulling out.
The relationship I have with my body is a complex and often acrimonious one. Over the years I have shaved it, plucked it, dyed it, painted it, covered and uncovered various bits of it based on which aspects were attracting my ire at the time, exfoliated and scrubbed and cleansed and toned and moisturised it, denied it certain foods and forced it into a level of activity I’ve frankly never been comfortable with. When these methods failed to sculpt my body into the image I had in my head – an image insidiously fed to me in a constant drip, drip, drip from every medium I consumed since before I was old enough to even understand what was happening; an image so posed and primped and preened and post-processed as to be entirely unattainable to at least 99% of women – I punished it. I cut it and I burned it and I starved it, I exercised it to within an inch of collapse, drowned it in alcohol and forced it, over and over again, over many years, via various methods, to get rid of every last scrap of food I’d put in it. I blamed it for all of my failings, both real and perceived. I hated it and was convinced that everyone else hated it too, and, by extension, hated me.
Having agreed to participate in the project, I realised I didn’t even really know what my body looked like. Years of carefully honing myself not to see it – to avoid my gaze in the mirror, to being the one behind rather than in front of the camera, to focus on other faces in group photos, my eyes skating over my own – “don’t look, you won’t like it, it’ll only make you feel bad.” I saw my body as individual parts, focussing obsessively on the ones that didn’t pass muster – my hated double/triple/quadruple chin, my rolls of belly fat, the cellulite on my arse, the stretch marks on thighs which haven’t had a gap between them in 15 years, the wrists I can no longer get my thumb and finger around (one of the key measures of ‘thinness’ I used). I don’t exert control over my body in the way that I used to, but I never grew to accept it; I just started to ignore it. This project felt like a way to reconnect with my body again. To really, properly look at it, without judgement, without appraisal, without preconception. To own it – all of it – as a part of who I am, not as something I need to change to reflect who I feel I should be.
Upon learning full details about the exhibition, I nearly ran for the hills. The thought of a room full of strangers looking at a row of naked bodies and choosing one to take home with them sent me into a complete tailspin. I conjured up detailed scenarios about people so desperate to tell me how hideous my body was that they’d track me down, using an incredibly convoluted combination of sleuthing, facial recognition and social media stalking, seeking me out just to make sure I knew my body didn’t meet their standards. I couldn’t shake the feeling of standing in the school gym waiting to be picked for a sports team. Or the memory of the boys who grabbed me on the school bus, forcing my sweatshirt tight against my body and screaming to the rest of the kids that I was flat chested. This was not my idea of reclaiming agency over my sense of self. I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t change my mind at that point. Actually, that’s a lie – I know exactly why I didn’t change my mind at that point and it’s because if I’d done so, those boys would have won. The constant judgement and control society tries to wield over women’s bodies would have won. And I wouldn’t have reconnected with anything. So I didn’t pull out. And I drank so much cider the night before that I was sick. I wanted to shave.
Actually, let’s be honest, I wanted to diet. I wanted at least a month’s warning and an eating plan and a personal trainer, maybe a hair and makeup artist, possibly plastic surgery. But I also adamantly did not want any of those things. I haven’t shaved in 2 years, which is probably the last time I wore makeup (my sister’s wedding) and it felt wrong to present a version of me which doesn’t exist, however strongly I might wish that it did. I did, however, feel an overwhelming desire to be clean. I was more paranoid about being smelly than about anything. Visions of Sonny recoiling in horror at the fug which rolled off my body when I undressed swam through my mind. I even cleaned inside my belly button, and liberally covered myself in deodorant before leaving the house.
Sitting in someone’s living room, casually chatting about life and nudity and body image while knowing I was imminently about to get naked wasn’t as weird as I thought it might be. Getting naked in someone’s living room wasn’t as weird as I thought it might be. Being naked was odd. While I didn’t hate it or feel a burning need to cover myself – both scenarios I had considered – I couldn’t make eye contact, and I didn’t want to talk. I fixed my eyes on a point on the wall and sent my brain away, not unlike when I got my tattoo – and waited for it to be over. And then it was over, and it was fine. The world hadn’t ended, fire hadn’t rained down on me, Sonny hadn’t flinched at the sight of my body. Everything was OK.
The strangest part of the entire process, by far, was what came next. This sounds odd, given that I’d already done the naked bit, but I felt far more self-conscious and embarrassed *after* the shoot than I had been before it. I literally wanted to grab my things and bolt as soon as I put my clothes back on. I assumed that’s what Sonny would want also. When he started chatting to me while I was getting dressed, that was the one point during the whole thing where I felt slightly uncomfortable. It was a weird feeling – part discomfort / irritation that he was trying to elicit an immediate response rather than waiting until I was dressed, part relief that he wasn’t ushering me straight out of the door, part ‘holy mother of god what have I just DONE?’. Having finished getting dressed, we sat and chatted for a while, which helped calm the hammering in my chest and the clamour in my brain – it was great to be able to process my thoughts about the shoot in the company of the person doing the shoot, rather than sitting on the bus on the way home letting my brain spiral out of control.
I didn’t hate the picture. This sounds like the most non-committal response imaginable but I can’t emphasise how huge that is for me. I saw my body – my whole body, uncovered, unaltered – and I didn’t hate it. I’m in tears writing this. My body – a part of me that I have mistreated, that I have relentlessly judged and never accepted, that I have simultaneously controlled and let control me, that I have blamed for everything and hated for so long – there’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing at all. I am so sorry.
I was compelled to take part because Sonny always said it was fine, and in some ways preferable, if you’d never considered doing anything like it before. My experience of being trans has been characterised by a long list of things I’d never consider doing; “posing nude” was certainly up there, but so were numerous more everyday things like “not wearing a scarf indoors at all times in the office”, “going somewhere unfamiliar without knowing where the nearest Starbucks is in case I can’t face gendered public toilets”, etc etc. At times, my list included pretty much any human interaction with anyone outside a small circle of family and close friends. When I was in my teens and early twenties, most of my life was structured around finding ways to avoid having to do Things I Wouldn’t Do, but unsurprisingly that didn’t make me happier or more content in my own skin - it just made me feel constantly anxious, and frustrated at all the experiences i might be missing out on. In order to pursue medical transition, I had to acknowledge and dismantle a lot of my coping strategies. You can’t have an honest conversation with doctors about how to improve your quality of life if you can’t be honest with yourself about what’s making you miserable.
I started on testosterone almost exactly two years ago, and I’m on the waiting list for chest surgery - most likely, that will happen in the spring. It’s been an ongoing process of examining my personal boundaries and constantly reassessing them based on my comfort levels with my body as it moves more in line with my identity. There are some things I don’t think I’ll feel ready to tackle until after surgery, but in many cases I’ve been surprised by how okay I feel about lots of things I previously considered off-limits. I’ve become much more outgoing. I started taking ballet classes in January, and at the end of the first term I was too nervous to be in any of the group photos, but since then my confidence has grown immensely and now i’ll quite happily flood all my social media accounts with dance selfies. It’s helped with the process of confronting the realities of my body, its strengths and limitations, and my feelings about inhabiting it.
So it was with all this in mind that I decided to have a go at posing nude - that, and the fact that trans bodies are underrepresented in art and life, and I wanted to try and offset that a bit. I always said I didn’t want to take photographs of myself during transition for my own records, because part of my goal in pursuing medical transition was to spend less time measuring myself against some abstract yardstick of masculinity. But being part of a project in a structured way felt like something I wanted to be part of. I was very proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and not remotely nervous about it, until I woke up on the actual day, at which point I was terrified, though determined not to back out. Sonny is the least threatening photographer imaginable, though, which did help.
I was surprised by which aspects felt embarrassing and which didn’t. The actual standing under the lights being photographed bit turned out to be the least daunting bit. I was much more nervous about the etiquette of being nude in someone else’s house. I got undressed in the bathroom because it felt a bit impolite to strip off in the living room, and I ended up putting a bathrobe on for the walk between the bathroom and the lounge, which was a maximum of about three yards. Something about the idea of walking around without clothes on felt like it was overstepping polite guest behaviour, kind of like going uninvited into the kitchen and eating all the food.
I was hoping I’d feel up to having my chest more visible in the shoot, but I ended up crossing my arms. I guess that's one personal boundary I didn't feel up to challenging. It wasn't being photographed shirtless that made the idea so nerve-wracking - that aspect didn't really bother me. But the idea of having a friend see me like that, of having to be physically in a room with another human being and confronting them with the biggest mismatch between my body and my identity, felt a bit too emotionally demanding. I've become quite at peace with the rest of my body, which is pretty muscular and hairy, so it's quite easy to identify my chest as the source of most of my dysphoria these days. I was surprised at how flat it squashed down, though, considering I was only trying to deflect attention away from it rather than actively disguise it.
The resulting photograph made me smile. I know the point of candid polaroids isn't to look sexy but I must admit I was hoping I would effortlessly exude not-even-trying sexiness. I ended up looking a bit cross. But I was having a laugh, which I think comes across too. It seemed like it summed up where I'm at with my transition quite well.
Am I nervous about the idea of a stranger taking home my photo? Not remotely. I like the idea of images taking on a life of their own. But I suspect being trans has helped me develop an awareness of the gap between your image and your self. Sometimes that gap can seem insurmountable. I imagine surgery will mark the start of a new chapter for me and my relationship with my appearance, but I'm glad I took part in this project when I did. I don't want to feel like I'm waiting on surgery for my life to begin properly. If you think you have to wait until you're completely comfortable before you start challenging yourself, you'll never get round to it.
“He needs more men.” explained my good friend, Anthony while holding out his iPhone to show the table a naked photograph of himself. Taken aback by Anthony’s unabashed confidence, I was intrigued. I’d immediately discounted Sonny’s original call for nude models when it first flashed up on Facebook but now it was clear his quest for buddies in the buff was stalling from a lack of lads. Gender, for me, is an absurd imposition on human freedom and must be challenged at every opportunity, so by the end of dinner my mind was made up. I would do something thoroughly out of character and strip for Sonny.
Whether the fact that I’d been dumped less than a week earlier gave me the necessary “fuck-the-world” impetus, or whether I was simply jealous of Anthony’s up-front full-frontal fortitude I can’t tell. But just days later I was in Sonny’s reassuringly untidy living room drinking green tea in a contrived prelude to whipping out my wang for a polaroid portrait.
Some my apprehension was surely wrapped up in sex and our fixation on male calibre. “Sexual performance” is a term which haunts many men. I’m yet to find an argument against textbook Darwinian evolution as compelling as the phenomenon of spontaneous erectile dysfunction. Surely an under-performing penis is proof God exists and has a cruel sense of humour. Which is not to say there was anything sexual about Sonny’s shoot, but the weight of a nation’s sexual judgmentalism is normally kept at bay by pants – pants I no longer had to hide behind. Stage fright doesn’t just strike on stage.
Male vulnerability is a strange thing. On the one hand it is overwhelmingly clear that men are born several rungs of the ladder above women, and although that analogy is wholly wanting as a description of human endeavour, the patriarchy is surely stacked in men’s favour. On the other hand, the most likely thing to kill me before I am 50 is me. An epidemic of male suicide has overtaken all other causes of male deaths between adolescence and middle age. Although nudity is a poor proxy for vulnerability, especially in the home of a close friend, I felt that Sonny was implicitly asking me to face up to a broader kind of exposure than just physical.
Did it work? I think it did. I somehow trust Sonny more that I did previously, a strange sentiment maybe but felt sincerely. Perhaps nudity is a good metaphor for male vulnerability after all – both are hyped-up by society more than they deserve. Both are terrifying in advance but disarmingly simple in the moment. Both raise the eyebrows of peers who are unequipped to know quite what to make of them. The experience of modelling nude for Sonny affirmed my confidence in him as a friend, even cementing something that men find hard to articulate. And although I am in no rush to do it again, I don’t regret it.
Eurgh, look at that cellulite. Is that even cellulite? What even is cellulite? I thought it was something only old people got. God, am I old? It’s definitely only something women get, right? Women’s bums are always splashed on the covers of magazines - big red circles highlighting its dimpled presence.
God, I hate this picture. Like sick-to-my-stomach / I-don’t-think-I’ll-eat-today hate. Okay, well, I just had three bites of cake so maybe it’s not that bad but I still hate it. I hated having it taken. You’ll probably hate reading this too. I’m sorry.
Getting undressed wasn’t the problem. We’ve been here before. I didn’t feel nervous. I felt defiant. Still able to do the unexpected. Being nude wasn’t really the problem either. Being nude didn’t make me feel self-conscious, but having my choices questioned suddenly made me feel naked, more naked than I’ve ever been.
I felt like all the self-doubt I’ve ever had compounded into the inner layers of my flesh and I wanted to dig them out. There is usually a buffer. There is no buffer. If I can’t dig, I want to bury them deep within layers of clothing. The softer, the better. I’m craving cashmere but if you must, give me gauze.
I don’t want to face the camera. Yes, I know that’s what everyone else has done. I don’t want everyone to know it’s me. Yes, I know they’ll probably know but I don’t want them to know, know. Okay, well I won’t do it then. Okay, I will do it then. This feels empty. There is no strength in my being naked.
Oh, we’re done. Let me look. Let me look. Eurgh, look at that cellulite. I cry and leave the room. I feel disappointed. I regret this. It did nothing for me. I wonder if I can make this photograph disappear before the exhibition. If I can take it home, so no one else can.
I’d never given serious thought to what it would be like to be naked in front of a camera until asked, but instinctively always believed I have no problem with it, and that in the right context I would. I’ve never had concerns about being naked or being seen naked, perfectly happy naked in a Sauna, Hammam or swimming; and in considering this photo realised I have always been fairly lax when it comes to hiding my nakedness; I usually forget to draw curtains at home (it is nice to see out – why does it matter that someone might be able to see in?).
I think being naked in the right (not necessarily sexual) context is generally a pleasant experience, or at least not a bad thing. Not in an exhibitionist or voyeuristic sense, but a more straightforward idea that a body is just a body and it should be perceived as less of a statement to be or be seen naked. That it’s sad that nudity has been inextricably linked with sex in most of our culture. That hopefully nudity can be ordinary rather than overtly charged.
Or maybe given these cultural beliefs it was that I felt I should not have a problem with being photographed naked. That if I believed my own arguments that I had to be able to be photographed naked. So here was a chance to test my rhetoric – to put my body where my mouth is.
I’ve never posed nude, or indeed posed for any photo that I knew would be explicitly public, and always feel awkward in front of a camera. The sort of awkward that comes from having no real training or experience, that leads you to suddenly forget what to do with your hands or how you normally stand as soon as a lens is pointing at you. Being seen naked and actively displaying yourself naked suddenly seemed quite different.
In the run up to the photo I became nervous about being nervous. Not being naked itself but failing to live up to my expectations of what I should be able to do. I’d told myself I didn’t have any problem, but what If I was wrong?
Thankfully when it came to it the experience itself was as unexpectedly easy as I had initially hoped. I came in had a chat, took my clothes off, had a photograph taken, was in no real rush to put them back on while we reviewed the photo. The simplicity of the set up certainly helped, set a context where the body was to be presented without judgment, and I think I would have felt very differently if there were undertones of judgment though the photo that so often accompany images seen publicly. But in that context it felt prosaic and, in a good way, anti-climactic. It turned out that I didn’t mind being seen naked.
I have never been a fan of my body. It’s either been too skinny or too fat, and has never worked when I’ve most needed it to. Sometimes I remain confused by its inability to conform to my wishes - it is amazing how little control you can actually have over something which is 100% yours.
Its interesting that people often assume that being tattooed is a sign of confidence. They definitely invite discussion, and it is true that the more tattoos I acquire the more comfortable I feel in my skin, however for me they are an intentional distraction. In a gallery who focuses on the wall that the art is mounted on, in favour of critiquing the art itself?
A large part of me wanting to take part in this photography series was my desire to support the exhibition that I had instigated. But I was also curious about what my body look like captured in an image. Would I disassociate from it and look at my form through an impartial lens? Would I be able to transfer my opinion on my physical faults to just the photograph, or would the picture confirm my insecurities? I have now come to think of that photograph when I think of my body. In the same way that my tattoo’s often work as a shield, so too can I analyse my naked body via this photo and it somehow softens the blow.
Having a friend be the one to wield the camera made the process a safe space, where the surreality of the situation could deflect from any strangeness I was feeling, and in the end I’m extremely grateful that I did take part. It was a daring moment that I feel proud of myself for, and the reaction of friends an interesting commentary on the feminine form. At the very least when I’m old and decrepit I can look back at a younger (and significantly less tattooed version) of myself.
I’ve grown up in a society with some unfortunate vestiges of Victorian morality where nudity feels like some vulnerability you should protect from strangers, like your PIN or darkest fears. But in the unnecessarily thorough shower the night before the photo I couldn’t at all justify those instinctive feelings. There was no truth or reason to why I should feel apprehensive. This was all consensual, after all. Should I be embarrassed? Why? What might happen when someone sees the picture? It’s a body; literally everyone’s got one and I’m fine with mine so I should be fine with being naked. I mean for christsake I’m a cis man who’s above average height, hasn’t started balding yet, and has a pretty nondescript penis – I’ve got about as easy a ride as there is. But no amount of checking my privilege or rationalisation could stop the rampant heart beat and loud, dry mouth on the way to Sonny’s flat.
See, I only got here by accident- making a silly pun on his post whilst secretly wishing I had the courage to just sincerely admit I wanted to do it. For me this meant there was no build up as I never really confronted the fact that it was actually happening, so the visceral bit only came on the bus there. But it turns out it was all apprehension because as soon as it was done, I put my underwear back on, waited for the photo to develop, got dressed and carried on like nothing had happened. I suddenly felt totally fine and at ease with it all. And I still do. I’ll probably have the same shallow breathing leading up to and at the exhibition, but otherwise I am calm.
Actually I’ve found writing this far more exposing than having the picture taken. Here, I’m struggling to express myself and my ideas. Here I can be misunderstood, I can offend, I can annoy - but my naked body is just sort of there. It’s blank and requires no justification or explanation. I’m very lucky in that my body doesn’t bother me, probably because no one bothers me about it. Any part that niggles me, I’ve tried to find a way to make it not - either through change or acceptance.
In taking part in this project I did have a mild point to prove to myself in that I had the courage of my convictions when it came to nudity and the human body but ultimately I guess it seemed like a better thing to do than not, and when it came to it I couldn't think of a reason not to.
I feel I should lay a disclaimer down that every time I tried to get into things like social constructs or gender imbalances this became a 9 hour conversation ending up with the pilot of Fleabag at 4am. So the above is an attempt at briefly expressing my personal experience, not my thoughts on the topics of nudity or body shaming or inequality or objectification or any of the other myriad things this easily opens itself onto.
I type this whilst sat in Singapore airport. I’m on my way to Australia and two days ago I posted a picture of myself on the beach in a bikini on social media. This may not seem like a big deal to someone who volunteered to be photographed naked for an exhibition, but I can assure you, it’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable enough to take my clothes off in front of another person, let alone one with a camera in their hands.
On hearing the idea of this exhibition, the concept both fascinated and terrified me. I couldn’t quite understand why people were OK with being photographed naked, particularly by someone they knew. I had been suffering with Body Dysmorphia followed by an eating disorder for years and although I had been discharged from therapy, the thought of someone offering to take their clothes off still baffled me. Until I was shown one of the photos.
The image was of a girl I knew and when shown it, the simplicity of the photo amazed me. Seeing someone look so calm whilst so bare intrigued me, and I wanted to know what it felt like.
The minutes before having your picture taken are spent talking about the project, looking at those who had done it before you and discussing how you felt when you saw theirs. It’s enough time to calm yourself down after arriving, but simultaneously enough for your body to begin to shake with nerves, which was evidently my reaction when it came to taking the layers off.
A few weeks on and I occasionally look back at the photo. I would be lying if I said I was happy with it. I feel it doesn’t represent my dress size, nor the fact that I’m a runner and I think that I still look unattractive, out of proportion and uncomfortable in the situation despite having lost weight over the last few months. But although the physical appearance is acceptance I’m still yet to work on, I force myself to take time to appreciate the photo for what it really represents.
It’s a polaroid of a body that has been forced through the extremes; starvation, over-eating, purging followed by excessive exercising, marathon training and more recently, triathlon training. Reminding myself to be thankful to my body for allowing me to put it through the limits it’s faced is a daily task and one that I’m genuinely convinced that I will have to continue to do every day for the rest of my life. Mental illness isn’t something you can walk away from, but you can challenge the negative mentality you face on a daily basis and although sometimes you can feel you’ve lost the battle, there’s always another day and the support in knowing you’ve come so far already, and this photo is a physical reminder of exactly that for me.
The shoot took place on my last day as a London resident. The city I moved to just two years before and began my 16 month journey in therapy. It couldn’t have been a more fitting way to walk away from the old life and start with the new and although things aren’t 100% all the time, having had the courage to do this makes me realise that things are better and that my chapter in London was so much more than being about growth in my career, it was about becoming stronger mentally too.
I was once told ‘you can loose all the weight in the world, but if you don’t learn to love yourself, you’ll be weighed down forever’ and I honestly couldn’t put it in better words myself, so I’m going to continue to work on it.
All models are over 18 and their permission has been granted to use these images on this site only.