Tuesday, February 1, 2011
389 Nude Photos of Me
"Valley's Folds" by Susan Singer
Between February and July of 2010, artist Susan Singer took 389 nude photographs of me. Our first shoot was, in many ways, like a first date. I shaved my legs, preened in front of the mirror and, after putting my clothes back on, wondered what the hell had just happened. In other ways, however, our photo shoot couldn’t have been more different. Susan, who helps women work through body image issues by painting them exactly as they are, helped me process my tumultuous mix of feelings as they came up, coaxing me through my most self-conscious moments and awkward poses. She offered only praise and encouragement as I stood in front of her red backdrop and arranged myself in her wingchair. But despite desperately trying to edit the narrative unfolding behind my glasses, the photographs we looked at later told the whole story. There I was— folds and curves, breasts and thighs, cellulite and scars. I went home and ate an entire bag of potato chips.
Like every other woman I know, I have a complicated relationship with my body. As a writer, I spend most of my time in my head, conveniently ignoring everything it’s attached to. Over the years I have attempted to remedy this. I have gone on women’s retreats where we vowed never to insult our bodies again. I have had my body traced on butcher paper to get a realistic sense of its shape. And when someone complains about gaining five pounds, I laugh, because I never gain five without gaining fifty. But how much I do or don’t weigh is only one portion of the getting painted naked pie. I know intellectually that I have survived a lot more than a mere undressing: 35 years of sporadic hedonism, irregular exercise, multiple surgeries, pregnancies and birth, to name a few. Still, I’m not sure I won’t die if someone other than my husband sees hard evidence of this. What’s the line between pushing myself to the edge of my comfort zone and shameless exhibitionism? Susan’s pastels and oil paintings are clearly a joyful celebration of the human body in all of its perfect imperfection, but that’s easier for me to say when I’m looking at someone else.
In 2009, when Curator to the Flippo Gallery and Adjunct Professor of Art at Randolph Macon College, Katie Shaw asked me to participate in the Artists and Writers Show in February 2011, I agreed instantly. I had no idea what I was going to do, but when I ran into Susan Singer a few months later, a light went off. I’d seen her paintings of women of every age, shape and size before- and they’d struck me as glorious- and groundbreaking. Was it really OK to be that fat or that skinny and that exposed? Since the very thought of being naked in front of other people terrified me, I knew it was perfect. Why not take advantage of a gallery exhibition to work through one of my biggest fears?
Despite the initial shock of seeing myself in full color below the neck, something happened between Valentine’s Day and our second photo shoot in July. I had just gotten back from the beach, but it wasn’t the tan that made me feel at home in my skin. The physical act of being naked in front of Susan for a few hours had actually done more for my body image issues than a lifetime of talking about them. I hadn’t died! And no one else had either. In fact, I’d felt more alive- more me- than I had since being a toddler running bare-bottomed around my own backyard. I pranced around Susan’s studio like it was not just my second nature, but my true nature. Instead of hiding behind props, I strutted my stuff. And the results were…gorgeous. I looked like a person who knew- and was happy- that her head connected to her body.
Am I now the body image poster child? Not exactly. Will I be wearing a bikini to the pool next summer? Doubtful. But standing beside Susan’s paintings and photographs documenting my journey in a well-lit room full of other people will be a testament to how far I’ve come. My body didn’t undergo a drastic transformation when Susan painted it, but the way I feel- and think- about it did.
The Artists and Writers Show, featuring Valley Haggard and Susan Singer amongst other collaborative pairs, will be held in the Flippo Gallery of Randolph Macon College in Ashland from February 18- April 1 with an opening reception on February 20 from 3-5 pm.
Belle, February 2011