(This article also appears at Get Lusty)
A friend of mine, Eva, was complimenting some of my photos in a series of clay covered nudes and since I mostly shoot friends, I remarked that it could be her in those photos. She chuckled, declined and said she had a lot of body image issues. Stunning as she is I was not surprised since this is unfortunately all too common.
To combat one particular body image issue and taboo I have also been working on a coffee table photo book called 101 Vagina, a collection of 101 photos with a message from each of the women. When this arose in conversation I again asked if she might be interested in participating. Again she declined.
But her compliments kept coming and I suggested she might appreciate seeing herself through fresh eyes. In the end it was her boyfriend who emboldened her, saying it might help her get over some of her negative body image. So she got in touch to participate, in both projects no less.
Most people are a little awkward in front of a camera at first, but Eva was almost inconsolable. She was visibly struggling, so I went to give her a hug. I was stunned. Her whole body was shaking, from the inside, as if some massive tectonic plates were shifting in her character, dislodging old and strong patterns of shame. I had never witnessed anyone confront such massive fear, and have the courage to go ahead in spite of it. Massive kudos to her!
As it turned out it didn’t take long for her to relax into the shoot and we got some great images. She could hardly believe that the images were of her, seeing herself through my eyes allowed her to see the beauty in my beholder’s eye, rather than the critic in hers.
The next day Eva wrote to me that she looked at herself in the mirror naked for the first time ever!
More recently she shared this about how it affected her relationship. “It certainly has changed our relationship, firstly I was so amazed and felt so loved when he [boyfriend] told me to go ahead with something that I thought most guys would discourage. When I sent him the pics I was really nervous, and I was so happy to hear that he loved them. I’m much less shy around him now, and find it slightly easier to talk to him about my body.”
My journey with nude photography began many years before I ever took a nude photograph; in my mind. I dreamed of doing it ever since I became sexually aware but there was a huge barrier in the way. That barrier was shame.
My mother was a fairly strong feminist and the message I inadvertently internalised was that male sexual desire is the root cause of all evil in the world, that nudes are degrading and people who take them akin to murderers. And yet I loved the images.
Perhaps fittingly it was a woman who finally invited me into the world of nude photography, and that first experience, and all that followed, have worked to reverse my inhibitions. It was a healing process for me, an affirmation that my appreciation of the female form is not only tolerated, but appreciated. Further to that, it was often a healing experience for the women also.
Any shame we hold around our bodies and sexuality will always impact on the way we share ourselves with others. Shame is a powerful hindrance to happiness and it does not dislodge easily. If it’s easy to talk about it’s not shame you’re dealing with. Shame is the last thing we want to talk about, ever. But it’s the first step to really being honest and connecting with ourselves and others.