Will taking nude photos of myself teach my daughter about beauty?Shannon Colleary
“Mom, I don’t like this coat, it makes me look fat,” said my 7-year-old daughter Bridget over the holidays.
This was, perhaps, my lowest moment as a mom. Bridget already has a Betty Page pin-up figure – gorgeous, muscular little gams, and a wasp waist. The only thing missing are the breasts, thank Holy Mary, Mother of God.
“Honey, you’re not fat!” I said.
“But the coat makes me look fat!”
How is it that a 7-year-old already knows that “fat” is a dirty word in our culture? Is she watching too many teens-who-are-famous TV shows? Has she been looking at all the photoshopped goddesses in my Vanity Fair? Did she see a Victoria’s Secret commercial with whippet-thin Angels and their double-D chests? Or is it me? Did she get the message that “fat is bad” from me?
I can answer that one. Yes. It is me. It’s not all me. But some of it’s me.
She’s overheard me mention my “muffin top” on the phone with some other mom friend, contending with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). She’s overheard me caterwaul to my cagily quiet husband that I can’t button my size 10 jeans. She’s witnessed my dissatisfaction with my post-nursing breasts, one heads east while the other heads west.
My BDD began back in college when a not-so-helpful boyfriend told me I had cellulite on my thighs and butt. I was 5′ 6″ and weighed 115 lbs dripping wet. But I believed him, because – in the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman – it’s easier to believe the bad stuff. So that’s when I stopped wearing skirts and shorts, and tried never to sit down in a bathing suit in natural sunlight.
Years later, when I was a wacktress (mostly waiter/sometime actress) I thumbed through L.A. photographer Helmut Lipschitz’s portfolio while waiting to get a headshot taken. I noticed he had an entire series of nudes. The women were all shapes and sizes and wore elaborate paper mâch’ animal masks. One woman was a lion, another an elephant; their bodies posed instinctively in character as the animals they portrayed. Maybe it’s because the women were anonymous beneath the masks, but they looked bold and free. Each body type had its own singular beauty.
I wanted to be bold and free like them. I decided I wanted my own nudes taken, sans mask. It was time to actually see my body for what it was.
Of course it’s a long way from saying to doing. I made the appointment right away, but canceled twice in terror. It took six months before I kept my appointment with Helmut.
I arrived at the studio with pounding heart and sweating palms. Would my hideous cellulite show? Would I see some other defect in my body I’d been unaware of? Would my parents find out and cut me out of the will? Would God smite me? Could I back out now?
I stood in Helmut’s bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. I knew if I backed out I’d never forgive myself. That I would be a coward. I bolstered myself like a coach inciting his players to “Do it for the Gipper!” I bolted from the bathroom, marched right into the studio and dropped my robe. (Poor Helmut told me later he wasn’t ready for me and realized he’d better load the film in the camera fast because it looked like I was going to bolt or have a seizure.) But I didn’t have time to consider my own nervousness right then, because he had done something as helpful as it was distracting: He placed a mirror in front of me. I could see my nude body. And instead of running away from it, I looked carefully and saw a girl ready to take her body back.
Once Helmut began to shoot, the session went by painlessly. And a week later I had the photographs in my hand. I’d like to say I loved them instantly, but BDD is very sneaky and hard to banish. At first it was shocking and foreign to see myself so exposed. I focused on the flaws I thought I saw. But slowly I began sharing the pictures with trusted friends and through their eyes I was able to see a slender girl with long, graceful limbs who looked like a dancer. She wasn’t perfect, but she was lovely, and she was me.
After the “fat” conversation with my daughter, I pulled those old photos out. How I now loved that gamine figure that I’d hated while I was in it!
And that’s what did it. I decided then and there that twenty years, twenty pounds, and two kids later, I was going to have nudes photos taken again – that in healing my vision of myself, perhaps I could better navigate my daughters through the treacherous, dying-to-be-perfect maelstrom that is our current culture.
Helmut Lipschitz passed away, so I had to search for a new photographer. I found Rob Greer through his popular photographs of a nude woman pre- and post-double mastectomy and reconstruction. He’d handled his subject so delicately and captured not just the journey of her body, but also her indomitable spirit.
I was far less nervous this time around. After giving birth twice, whatever modesty I’d had was pretty much hanging by a thread. I treated it much the way one might treat an OB-GYN appointment, a means to an end (minus the indignity of the speculum).
Rob had me revisit all the poses I’d done twenty years earlier. I tried. Lord how I tried, but the back bends just weren’t happening. Still, the seated poses were fine, and I trusted Rob to know what he was doing. I secretly thought I was going to love these new photos. Yes, I drank too much wine and ate pastries, but all that excruciating Pop Physique had to amount to something. I thought these new photos would accomplish for the current me what the old photos did for the newer me.
So I was surprised when Rob pulled up the first photograph on his computer screen right after our session. What I saw there was a haggard, broad-flanked, sun-speckled woman staring back at me.
I hated the photographs. All I saw was ugly.
I left the studio crumbling inside. And yes, I was aware of the irony: My goal to nurture my daughter’s self-image by nurturing my own had completely backfired. I felt worse about my body than I had in a long time. It was pitiful on multiple levels.
Then, funnily enough, I did go through the same process I’d gone through when I was 26. My husband and dear friends told me the photos were beautiful. Not all of them. But a lot of them. And then I began to wonder … what if I just wasn’t recognizing the beauty – the actual real beauty – that was in the pictures? What if I was so hung up on a notion of perfect that I couldn’t enjoy my reality? It’d happened before. It could happen again. I decided to ignore the critical inner voice that has dogged me since my not-so-helpful ex-boyfriend days and act as if I loved my body by embracing these new photographs and sharing them. This is the result of my efforts…
Love. Your. Body. Now.
I can see myself again. Not in body parts, but whole, strong and healthy.
Recently I shared the video with both of my daughters. I also showed them the Dove Campaign for Beauty ads, which expose the damage photoshopping does to women, and PLUS Model Magazine, which demonstrates that women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful. I explained that we each have a range of weight that looks good on us and that each age has its own dignity and grace.
I wondered if some of this conversation might be too sophisticated for my 7-year old, until Bridget said, “You know mommy, in real life sometimes ‘perfect’ just gets in the way.”
You’re right, baby girl. Thank you for reminding me.