Facing the Possibility of Their Beautyby LaNette M. Reaphotographs by Philip Brautigam
Magazines, movies, and television portray women that I can never be. The images are of unattainable perfection; still I continue to judge myself against these impossible standards. Each day I encounter another advertisement promising to revitalize, enhance, hide, slim, trim, and perfect my female form. Seeing women constantly displayed as objects slowly chips away at my self-esteem. Will I ever be tall, pretty, and smart enough? Where am I to learn the simple art of self-acceptance?
I struggle to find beauty and worthiness from within. I yearn to see myself without the tainted lens of society. I want freedom from the self-degrading voice in my head speaking of my unworthiness. I long to rediscover my innocence. After years of being numb, I want to be in my body. Brewing inside is a woman of strength and confidence. My mission is to give birth to her.
In the spring of 1996 I was given an incredible opportunity to do this. My friend, Vicky Edmonds, a poet and writing teacher, phoned me about a project she was collaborating on with photographer Philip Brautigam. The goal of the project was to reconnect women with their beauty. They called the project "In the Mirror: Women Facing the Possibility of Their Beauty." The passion and sincerity of Vicky's words were contagious. I agreed to meet with Vicky and Philip, along with other women that they had already contacted to discuss the project.
Vicky began the meeting by sharing the accidental birth of the project. "About two years ago Philip asked me if I'd be willing to pose for nudes for his portfolio. I agreed to do some `off-the-shoulder' on the condition that once the photo session began Philip wouldn't speak to me. Anything that made me aware that I was in the room would end my ability to be there."
She continued, "By the next week I had 256 photographs, and I could only find two that were nearly, remotely, good enough. I couldn't find anything right about any of them. I was wracked with guilt and shame for looking the way I did. I knew Philip was a fine photographer so I couldn't blame it on anything but me."
"After two years of writing, I have approximately fifty photographs that I like. The writing became a surgery of thoughts, a careful removal of splinters of what Philip calls `other-people-think disease,' " Vicky explained.
They wanted to give other women the opportunity to unfold and remove the layers of judgment, guilt, shame, and misperceptions about themselves, and especially the way they look. Since there was no curriculum for doing this, they created one. They were seeking women of various ages, colors, weights, and backgrounds who really want to see themselves to explore and participate in this unique project.
They proceeded to give details of the process that would combine photography and writing. Vicky would facilitate a weekly writing group and discussion for a small group of women. Some of the topics were to include body image, what we find valuable in ourselves, and the different roles in our lives. The first photo session with a "buddy" from the group would take place after three weeks of writing. Overall, the group would write for twelve weeks, with three photo sessions dispersed throughout. The idea was to use writing to explore feelings and thoughts, combined with the photography to allow us to see how we really look. We would also use the photographs to look more deeply into our fears and misconceptions.
"The marriage of the two is an incredible thing, because suddenly we have more than three dimensions. The photographs give us two dimensions, and the writing gives us two more: it gives us our heads and it gives us our spirit. Individually, each medium only represents a portion of our being," Vicky said.
"In my writing classes," Vicky explained, "women have written about their feelings of beauty but they could only see themselves in words on paper. By using photographs, each woman can get to a depth that probably would take a year with just writing. The photograph brings her suddenly face to face with her negative thoughts and her fears about how she looks."
Vicky and Philip weren't stopping with the photography and writing. Their goal is to use the photography and the writing to create a book showing examples of women accepting and loving themselves the way they are.
"If I saw this book sitting on a coffee table, I would be so grateful for it being there," Vicky said. "Just the presence of it in the room would give me so much more permission to be the shape I am, the age I am, the curves, lines, wrinkles, and the hair color I am. I would have more permission to be."
Philip proceeded, "We want to see a shift toward the global human and the global woman viewed as one entity. A huge stake is driven in the heart with thoughts that a woman's body is not gorgeous simply because she is female. The magic that Vicky and I are creating with the help of these blessed beings is an antidote. It's a chance to push the poison out of the soul of the global goddess. It's a chance to create a reality that pulls the rug out from under the `I'm not good enough, let's beat myself up' attitude. The creation of the poetry, photography, and book is done in an atmosphere of pure and divine love for womankind. The goal is to have that emanate from the book.'"
Instantly my soul cried out an overwhelming, "Yes!" But I could sense hesitation in the room. "How is this different from other nudes? What separates it from pornography?" asked the woman sitting to my right.
Philip addressed this concern, "Pornography, I prefer to call it eroticism or erotic art, is designed and produced in an atmosphere of wanting to titillate and bring up sexual energy. While the nude in any form can do that to a repressed person, the key has to do with the atmosphere, energy, focus, and intention of what the art is about. It gets back to what the intention is and how participatory the woman is from her deepest soul self, her deepest spiritual self in the building of this artwork."
"We're striving to photograph her essence, not her nipple," added Vicky.
Philip explained how he would work with the women, "We're making photographs, not taking photographs. Each photograph is a co-creation between artist and model. Before the photograph is made, I'll work with each woman to understand what she wants."
"Both people participating are artists in the moment, one noticing that she is a work of art and the other making a work of art." Vicky continued, "I traced the word beauty back to its roots and found that it means to make blessed. If someone makes anyone or anything blessed, that is beauty in action. Beauty is a verb, not an adjective. How I walk through this world is so much more important than how I look when I'm walking," she spoke with softness and a tear in her eye.
Vicky continued to share her vision. "I imagine a time when nine-year-old girls won't be trying to look 25, when girls who are one hundred twenty pounds aren't trying to be ninety pounds, when women aren't killing themselves for an image, a time when we're living from the inside out instead of the outside in. I imagine a time when women won't be ashamed of the possibility of beauty. The definition of beauty changes with time. Who decides what beauty is? How is it that a few people in any industry can decide for everyone what beauty is? I want to dispel all of that."
"It doesn't seem like there is a strong voice in the media saying, `You're beautiful because you're a woman of power.' We want to create a space where men and women can find their best friend in each other again. We see this book to be a lightning rod, a pivot point of that shift," said Philip.
"If you're only working with women, then how does this impact men?" I asked.
Philip pointed out that "anything that affects women affects men. If the woman shifts, the man has to shift. There is no such thing as an isolated incident. If a woman is standing in her power and beauty with awareness of her power and beauty in a compassionate way, then she can assist the male partner or partners (family, children, fathers, business associates, etc.) into making the shift."
For three weeks we wrote, and then finally the day of my first photo session arrived. I was scared and nervous beyond belief. Philip did a great job letting us know what to expect, but nothing can really prepare anyone for her first photo session. I felt as if I was standing naked not only in front of the camera, but God. As the session progressed, I cried as I allowed myself to love myself for who I was at that moment. I concentrated on just being, without judgment. I was hoping to find my innocence and purity.
At the end of the session I was invigorated. I felt there was absolutely nothing in the world that I couldn't do. After facing such a huge fear, I felt like an empowered goddess. Never have I felt such a surge of pride, self-love, and self-esteem. These feelings were more important than the photographs.
When I saw the photographs from the first session I said to myself, "It is really true. Not only do I feel this way, I look this way. I am beautiful."
The process of writing for twelve weeks, combined with the photography, certainly brought up a myriad of issues and emotions. Being vulnerable with a group of women was challenging and enlightening. I listened to the other women bring up issues I had yet to discover in myself and I learned from them. I was able to process much more than had I embarked on this journey alone.
To look at the photos of myself and share them around the table was frightening and cleansing. Some days I sat engulfed in shame with negative thoughts rambling in my head, only to hear other women cooing and sighing sweetly over the photographs of me. I couldn't believe they were talking about me. They found the beauty I couldn't see.
Today I pulled the photos and writings out and stumbled upon the words I wrote toward the end of those twelve short weeks:
My soul would rather do without all this covering up.
How would we function?
Find the courage to be so exposed?
So connected on such an ongoing basis?
We are all in our bodies somewhere.
Somewhere I will find more of myself,
through these words,
The project wasn't about removing layers of clothing, but about removing layers of sludge and coming home to the essence of myself.
If you're interested in more information about "In the Mirror: Women Facing the Possibility of Their Beauty," contact Vicky Edmonds at (206) 937-0700 or Philip Brautigam at (425) 775-8422.