Guest Story by Jennifer M.
Over the last couple of years, Jennifer and I have engaged in deep exchange around seeing and being seen, and I asked if she cared to reflect upon her process. Here, her soul and bone baring reflections capture not only the unveiling I've witnessed in her, but also the essence of Unveiled. Sit back, let her take you on a journey...
Why would someone do such a thing? Get naked in front of a camera?
The knee-jerk answers that come to me: Vanity. Narcissism. One must be shallow, obsessed with outer beauty. Seeking attention. A silly girl. Obscene.
After all, beauty is on the inside. It shouldn’t matter what you look like on the outside.
These are ideas that have stuck with me, no doubt, from the conditioning I received in my upbringing, and the cultural messages we receive as American girls and women in our religious, achievement-obsessed, and popular media culture. I also give credit to a few gut-wrenching experiences I had as very young woman that have been profoundly written on my heart, still causing me to interact with the world, even those closest to me, from behind a fortress that looks a lot like a competent grown-up.
I’d be lying if I told you that my tryst with naked photography completely erased these shadows from my psyche, softened all of my self criticisms, and freed me to be the fearless and wildly sexual animal-woman that I knew I was underneath it all. Some of these wounds are so deep and still so tender, I’ve come to realize, that I’m not sure any singular experience could wholly liberate my soul. While part of me felt terror about emerging from my carefully constructed shelter, I also felt an undeniable tingle urging me to DO IT. BE seen, GET OUT in the open, OPEN your eyes.
I did. And, boy, did I learn a lot about myself.
One thing that became glaringly clear is that the boundaries between my Self, my marriage and my mom-ness had become quite indistinguishable. Where did feeling invisible begin? Had I always felt that way? As my husband and I reflected on our 20-something years together, we realized we hardly knew each other anymore. To be fair, we hardly knew ourselves.
I felt a yearning for my innermost self to be seen, witnessed, and acknowledged for something other than being mom, wife, volunteer, advocate, activist, and diligent worker bee. More importantly, I wanted to see myself – sans titles and responsibilities - in the light of day, truthfully, fearlessly and without inhibition.
That was a lot to ask of myself. And I can tell you this: a naked body doesn’t lie.
In both candid and playful consultation with my photographer, I prepared for the unveiling that would occur in my photo shoot. I bought some fabulous lingerie. I chose three locations that included natural settings and an elegant Victorian-themed hotel room. With my photographer’s gentle and skillful guidance, I journaled about what unveiling meant to me. This included exploring issues and inhibitions in the areas of body image, confidence, femininity, social and cultural conditioning, and sexuality.
All of these were emotionally charged topics. Tears were shed, and my heart sank like a stone as I acknowledged some of the past experiences and conditioning that I realized were still holding me captive in fear and judgment; words that had been exchanged, dogma that had been learned and internalized, relationships that had gone sour, perceptions and standards that I hadn’t even realized weren’t mine.
I acknowledged the torment that had torn through my body when I was a teenager struggling with an eating disorder, and I recognized with some pride the fortitude it took to recover mentally, emotionally, and physically. I came to appreciate my inner strength, and even the scars on my physical body as well as my psyche. I grieved for the years and opportunities lost to this illness. I grieved for my youth.
I remembered being called “slut”
While admiring photos of other women who had gone before me, who seemed so comfortable in their bodies, so open with their sensuality, I remembered being called “slut” as a middle school aged child. I felt the familiar and dreadful rush of sensation that came over me when it penetrated my mind and my flesh, seizing my heart and making it feel small, bloodless. I remember that word carrying both a mysterious allure, as well as the implication of filth and shame. Even at home, make-up had been forbidden because it made me “look like a floozy.” How this shaped my self-perception when my heart was young and tender and eager-to-please, and precipitated my need to prove myself as an intelligent, confident, attractive-yet-only-in-the-purest-way woman made me truly sad for the aspects of myself that I denied and shamed.
These reflections and acknowledgements were the beginning of the unveiling. It was like weeding a garden; pulling the pesky and tenacious foulness out of the soil so that the blossom could claim the space and nutrient wealth it needed to bloom in all of its glory.
The photo shoot started early on a gloomy Saturday morning with a 5 am wake-up call, coffee, light breakfast, and a bit of do-it-yourself make up. I met with my photographer and we drove, chatting lightheartedly, to the first location: a rocky beach at the bottom of a steep cliff-side stairwell. So began several hours of dressing and undressing; posing, gesturing, angling, laughing, negotiating, dancing, and hiding when an unsuspecting passerby approached. I was frustrated with my awkwardness, but it passed and I got into the flow and started to play. So many angles and moods were captured!
It was truth and authenticity that I wanted to see, and that is exactly what I got - with disarming transparency.
Etched into my flesh and my facial features; evident in my posture, in my efforting to “be natural,” were every one of the tender memories of my past.
I witnessed confidence, perceived indecision behind the eyes; inability to commit. The turbulence of a human experience as it unfolds moment by moment.
The scars. Familiar gestures. Awkwardness. Surprising beauty. Softness. Hardness. The way I protect my heart, and pretend that I’m okay when I’m not.
In a moment I understood why someone in conversation with me may have heard – perceived – this, when what I said with my words was that.
The truth lay in the lines, the jiggles, my eyes. The line of the jaw, the crow’s feet. The puffiness under the eye; evidence of the toughest days - those days when your eyes hurt all day long, and the exhaustion by the end of the day is extraordinary.
In the contours of my small belly I saw the swampiness I feel when I eat food that falls short of true nourishment; the effects of long days in the unforgiving angular confines of a chair, rather than exploring the infinite possibilities of moving like a human can, and should.
I loved and felt reassured by the images that revealed the most basic simplicity – no fuss – wild hair; raw, earthy flesh-meets-soil sort of honesty.
I experienced swells of emotion and insight as I took in these aspects of myself, as if from a third person perspective. From this angle, forgiveness was fluid, and the wisdom of my now middle-age was becoming more conspicuous than my doubts and imperfections. Where there once was the voice of a relentless inner critic, there was instead a nod of appreciation for a strong, healthy, resilient, sensual, and delightful body.
The depth and breadth of the experience was astonishing.
For me, this experience in self-seeing was rich with insights, catalysts and opportunities for growth. I contend that if we, as women, fail to release the shame and awkwardness that we experience around our bodies, our sensual experiences, and our sexuality, the realization of our Selves will be incomplete, the fantastic potential of our humanity held captive in a dark, airless – suffocating - underground.
And that would be a shame. Though our culture and conditioning may do much to perpetrate our self-misperceptions, I think the task of reclaiming and reframing belongs to us. It is easy enough, and there are compelling reasons to hide in the relative comfort of numbness and invisibility. Though, daring to see, and to be seen, with the lights on, is to welcome turbulence, uncertainty… and infinite possibility.
- Jennifer M.