By Jen Kiaba
Everywhere we turn these days it seems as though our culture is at war with women’s bodies.
From the media scrutinizing celebrity weight gain, to congress politicizing women’s healthcare, to religion casting women’s bodies as a hotbed of temptation and shame – it seems like an uphill climb to quiet the noise and to cherish our bodies for just being.
It can be easy to get worked up about it all, but I’ve found that the most productive place comes from being calm and grounded in self-love and self-worth.
Those two words used to cause an immediate shut down in me; I wanted nothing to do with them because they hurt too badly.
These days they’re pretty much the core of my message.
So where exactly did the shift happen?
Growing up, my body and I didn’t talk much. I knew from church that there was a certain wrongness about my body, but I wasn’t really sure why.
I tried to hide from my body, this ungovernable stretch of flesh that was associated with sin and shame.
The needs of my gangly body, all arms and legs, were too worldly and needed to be mastered: the need for sleep, for food, and eventually even for sex.
These needs, we were told, could align us with Satan.
The young women in my childhood faith were especially targeted, and were taught that our bodies could lead young men into temptation. Over the years at church workshops, dress and behavior codes became more and more strict.
Young women were encouraged to cover up on hot summer days; then they weren’t allowed to be seen by the young men with wet hair after swimming or taking showers.
Eventually even the foods that we ate in public became policed: candy and fruit were simply too sensual.
Sadly, women don’t have to be raised in extreme religious environments to feel an inherent wrongness with their bodies.
Many of these themes exist in our culture-at-large and young women grow up feeling disconnected from their bodies, or that their bodies need to be controlled and punished.
I waged emotional and physical war on my body for years, feeling like it was never skinny enough, pretty enough or holy enough.
As an adult, when I started doing self-portraits I had a hard time recognizing myself in the images.
It was like looking at a stranger, I was so disconnected from myself.
If I found anything appealing about the woman in my photograph I thought of it as a lighting fluke, or an accident of posing.
I simply could not lovingly connect with myself for a long time.
Eventually, I began to realize that certain features weren’t to be dismissed as an accident – they were part of my being.
The shape of my forehead, it was exactly like my mother’s. The jawline that I had always been ashamed of as weak and undefined had a certain delicacy. My crooked lips had a fullness much like my father’s.
I began to try to love these little parts of myself.
But we aren’t made of disparate parts, and as I continued to photograph myself I began to appreciate myself a little more as a whole being.
I created this image “Show Me Where It Hurts” over the winter, and for me it’s all about the dichotomy of women’s beauty and women’s shame.
Truthfully, I was too embarrassed to share it for a long time because: Shoulder! Too sensual!
It was hitting a lot of old trigger points for me and dredging up a lot of old messages that are no longer useful.
When I was finally able to recognize those messages for what they were, I was able to see past them and see the value in the image and its message.
(I’m proud to say that it will be hanging in a show in Woodstock, NY this fall.)
In our culture it is so easy to dissociate from our bodies, or to pick them apart into arms and hips and thighs and lips.
But what if we found a way to make seeing ourselves as beautiful and whole a part of our daily practice?
These days self-portraiture is part of my regular fine art practice, and part of my regular healing practice.
I’ve learned about my body in a whole new way, and have found loving acceptance of it as this amazing piece of art that helps me express myself and tell my story.
(Yes, I think your body is a work of divine art too!)
While you don’t have to photograph yourself regularly as a loving practice (although I highly recommend it), if you were to take a few minutes every morning to gaze at yourself lovingly in the mirror you can experience an amazing reclamation process.
Or you can step in front of the camera of a photographer that you love and trust, who will help you celebrate yourself.
All things in this world respond to love, and I believe in the power of loving ourselves and loving the bodies that we get to experience this world in.
When we’re rooted in self-love and self-acceptance we become powerful agents in our own life, and that change gives others the inspiration and power to continue on in their own journey of healing and love.
Have you had an experience that has changed your relationship with your body for the better? Or are you still on the path of finding the value in your body?
Either way I would love to hear about it and celebrate it with you. I especially want to hear about any healing practices you’ve incorporated into your life!