Naked Truths

by, Caroline Skelton, staff writer Times Colonist, August 27th, 2004

This is Beautiful project celebrates women’s relationship with their body

As I write this, I am a size six. Maybe an eight. About a 30 around one place, 34 around another, and about 130 when I’m standing on our twitchy bathroom scale. But last Sunday, I and 16 other women weren’t any numbers at all. We had no clothes to define our size, and no critics to point out our rolls or scars or fading tattoos. And because we had no one to tell us otherwise, in the cocoon of the Lynda Raino studio we felt beautiful, just as we were. We were just 17 of the 175 Victoria women who responded to Seattle photographer Amanda Koster’s call for participants in the first Canadian location of the This is Beautiful project. Now on its third location (there are two locations in Seattle), Koster’s project draws together female participants of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds for a nude photo shoot and following gallery exhibition. Her hope is to send these photos blazing into North American society, pushing the images of normal women into the cultural mainstream. Eventually, she hopes to produce calendars, a documentary and a book of her images. In the age of twiggy supermodels and reality shows that carve normal bodies into walking Barbies, Koster says many women are getting fed up. “They’re so ready to let go of all their body issues,” she says. She hears from the women in This is Beautiful, “I’m here and I’m alive and I’m existing, and why am I not in my own culture?” The CEDRIC Centre, a community eating disorder counselling centre in Victoria, invited Koster to visit after seeing her in an interview with Q13 Fox news in Seattle. “There’s such a lack of real images of women’s bodies out there,” said Brooke Finnigan, communications and administrative co- ordinator for the centre. And for many women, these images help to “create an unbalanced women’s relationship with their body.” “We all have to learn the hard way that we’re fine just the way that we are.” The women, who asked not to be identified by name, trickled in Sunday from a grab bag of lifestyles: Nurses, youth workers, media members, retirees, full-time mothers. One had terminal cancer, while another was pregnant, near her due date. Two brought their babies — another brought her sprightly four- year-old daughter. They all came for different reasons. For some, a violent past, sexual abuse, rape or eating disorder. For others, persistent struggles to love their bodies, despite worldly judgments. Koster, now 33, had experienced both rape and bulimia before the age of 21. But while in the studio, Koster asked us to dwell on the happy present, not sad pasts. Bring upbeat music, dance and have fun, she implored. When robes started falling Sunday morning, I retreated to the change room, where I spent as much time as possible. After a night of restless nervousness and too much coffee, the thought of shedding my teddy bear bathrobe had about as much appeal as jumping out the studio window. When I emerged, the bright studio was terrifyingly crowded with naked bodies. The women, leaning against the ballet bars and standing with crossed arms, looked like they were guests an awkward cocktail party. The question seemed to hang in the air: Where do you look when you’re talking to a naked woman? “Sorry-s” and “Pardon me-s” were audible as bumping into other women became a very personal encounter. The clock rolled toward noon, with Koster diving in and out of our makeshift social groups, camera snapping at, er, everything. But as the stereo blasted an eclectic mix of everything from the Jackson 5 to celebratory Indian music, a new feeling started to eclipse the terror of naked small talk. Women began comparing their bodies. “We have matching heart tattoos.” “Did that piercing hurt?” “Are we all innies?” Suddenly, differences became laughable — as inconsequential as zipper or button flies. Koster had warned me about this phenomenon. “Once we all get together and we take off our clothes and we’re standing there naked (we realize) ‘what’s the big deal?’ ” She says the photo shoots tap into something starving in untold numbers of women: Without clothing or props, they are somehow able to shed years of insecurities. “It’s really showing their bodies, and it’s just a total release for the women,” she says. “You can’t hide behind anything.” For many, removing one inhibition opened emotional floodgates. Some cried, while others told total strangers about years of inward terror — hating their bodies and feeling judged by the rest of the world. Others simply revelled in the joy of sudden release, twirling and jumping to the music. At a coffee shop later in the evening, Rita, Lynn and Barbara, who asked I only use their first names, looked back on the strange transformations. Growing up, Rita’s family constantly reminded her, “you shouldn’t laugh so loud, shouldn’t talk to much, shouldn’t eat that, shouldn’t wear that,” she says. In the second grade, she went to the hospital to treat a case of pneumonia and put on 15 pounds. Since then, she has grappled with her weight. “I’ve spent my entire life feeling less than,” she says. On Sunday, she says all these body image issues were momentarily gone. “It wasn’t about who had the least amount of stretch marks and who has the biggest boobs,” said Rita. “People were feeling free to be whoever they wanted. To be in the moment,” said Barbara. She says the setting let her dispense with fears and judgments — “all of the layers that all of us carry.” In the afternoon, Koster moved on to individual shots. Women chatted about dance classes at the YM-YWCA, or traded career ups and downs. Some cheered for those posing for pictures. As the women congregated for a final group shot, they pressed together, with no “sorry-s” and “pardon me-s.” And at that moment, a fateful CD shuffle produced an appropriate song. “It’s your thang, do what you wanna do,” blared from the stereo. One woman took this message to heart. Lynn hopped onto the window ledge, posing for cars and buses stopped for the traffic light at Yates and Douglas Street. Proudly, and without fear, she stood on the ledge, curling her biceps and lunging like a track star. The rest of us cheered. Later she confessed she was thinking, “I have nothing to hide.” When Koster had amassed over 150 e-mails from women interested in participating, she sent them all a questionnaire. One of the questions, she says, planted a seed in the minds of the recipients. “Describe your beautiful body,” she asked. The responses ranged from descriptions of cellulite to life stories. She chose participants for their diversity and enthusiasm — but some wrote back saying they no longer needed to be in the shoot. The question made them think about their bodies for the first time, and this was enough. “People participate (in This is Beautiful) on many levels,” says Koster. “By thinking about it, or by talking about it with someone else.” When she comes back in March to hang the exhibit, Koster hopes to do another shoot with the women who didn’t get a chance. But for now, she is intent on getting our 19 naked bodies out to the world. She says the women in This is Beautiful become aware, “I’m standing here and I’m OK … I feel support and I feel compassion,” even without cloth es, props, glamour lighting, or surgical nips and tucks. And Koster says, “my goal is for that feeling to resonate everywhere.” On the Web: (Copyright Times Colonist (Victoria) 2004)  

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