Ever since I participated in the Love Your Body Now project, the brainchild of Shannon Bradley-Colleary, I’ve found myself acutely aware of the growing number of projects that are intent on expanding our definition of beauty and teaching women to view themselves and their bodies with more kindness and love.
Here are a few of my favorites.
A while back, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty did an experiment called Real Beauty Sketches, where the participants discovered that they were more beautiful than they thought. In it, the participants, all women, described themselves to a forensic sketch artist who couldn’t see them and who therefore based his sketch solely on their description of themselves. Then the forensic artist sketched the same women based on descriptions from people who’d met the women only briefly. Watch the video below for the fascinating, unexpected results.
The sketches, along with interviews of the participants, including the forensic artist, are available here.
More recently, I came across the Expose Project, which aims to demonstrate that the images on billboards and in magazines of women’s bodies represent a minority of real women. According to a recent Huffington Post article about the project, “Blogger and activist Jes Baker teamed up with photographer Liora K to showcase women’s bodies just as they are — unfiltered, un-Photoshopped, and totally amazing.”
It’s worth taking the time to examine the photos from both years of the project to see the power and sensuality of each woman. It’s also worth reading Jes Baker’s original blog post introducing the series and Liora K’s post about this year’s shoot, where she noted that her goal was to make each woman feel special and to show them that “…their nudity, while making them vulnerable, does not make them at fault. And that…their bodies are their vehicles through life, and to treat them with kindness.”
Perhaps the project that has resonated with me most is Lucy Hilmer’s lifelong series of self-portraits called Birthday Suits in which she’s posed each year from the time she was twenty-nine in only underpants, socks, and shoes.
Her intention when she started the project in 1974 was to do a single self-portrait to “show her true self.” But the project morphed into a yearly self-portrait that became her way of handling the process of aging. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Hilmer explained, “I came of age before women’s lib, and wanted to buck the stereotypes of a culture that branded me a pretty girl, thin enough to be a fashion model and not much more…Armed with my camera and tripod, I found a way to define myself on my own terms in the most authentic way I could.”
In another recent interview with Slate, Hilmer said, “‘I was very serious of wanting to stop time and of course I’m wise enough now to know that’s a total impossibility.'”
I was taken aback by a comment posted on a friend’s Facebook page about Lucy Hilmer’s “Birthday Suit” series. The commenter apologized for being in what she thought was the minority of viewers and then stated that she didn’t find work like Hilmer’s brave or groundbreaking but instead felt it was “exploitative” and “exhibitionist.”
The comment saddened me. Implicit in it is the idea that for women to choose to publicly show our naked bodies is to take advantage of our own vulnerability in a cynical way, to try to flaunt and taunt rather than to empower and embrace.
But the point is not to taunt or flaunt. It is to redefine beauty. By revealing our flawed, naked selves, we are exposing the beauty of bodies that will never meet the air-brushed perfection currently held out by the media and society in general as the norm.
And so I prefer to view work like Lucy Hilmer’s, the Expose Project, the Love Your Body Now Project as part of a movement to help women accept our bodies, to empower ourselves by embracing our own imperfect nakedness. I myself have found freedom and self-definition and power in being photographed naked. I only wish I had discovered sooner that the way to love myself and my body wasn’t to seek to perfect either one but rather to explore as a unit my self and my body, to allow them to be nakedly imperfect and real.
Place here an image gallery shortcode (Add Media → Create Gallery) or video-page URL starting with http://