I’ve often compared my body to the Venus of Willendorf, it being a fairly accurate depiction of what I look like with clothes off. But in my life-long quest to beat into submission every stray lump and extra roll of fat, never had it occurred to me to actually think of my body as a work of art.
That is until I was listening to an interview with boudoir photographer Allie Monday on the Creativity Habit podcast. Allie went through a transformation of her own in how she sees hers and other women’s bodies — from partner-focused objects to be primped, prodded, and posed in alluring positions to unique and interesting works of art.
Like many women, I’ve spent the better part of my life attempting to mold my body into something it isn’t. Concerned with my “health,” my mother put me on my first diet in the first grade, and I’ve dedicated the last few decades to becoming a dieting professional.
DNA, however, is stacked against me. Despite my best efforts — I could rattle off an endless list that would potentially include every diet (fad and otherwise) ever invented by industry-gurus and well-meaning doctors, including starvation-type diets that resulted in frequent fainting spells and intense weakness — I’ve also spent the better part of my life “morbidly obese,” as they call it.
I could write a book filled with all my failed efforts at weight loss, including a lifetime spent playing sports, frequenting gyms, paying personal trainers, and participating in marathons and triathlons.
(Yes, it’s absolutely possible to be a fat athlete. Until the birth of my son, whose little years left little time for trips to the gym, I was an extremely fit fat person.)
And I wish I could say it was all done in the name of health, but let’s be real. Whoever embarks on the “cookie diet” in the name of health? No. All of it was in the name of attempting every conceivable method, short of full-body liposuction, to force my body into something it so clearly wasn’t — beautiful. Acceptable. Wanted.
Culture tells us that fat people are unhealthy. Yet, for so many of us with this body-type, when we perform the actions required of “health” — eating a healthful diet of good whole food in the right proportions and getting plenty of exercise — our bodies nevertheless refuse to conform to the appropriate boundaries.
A healthy diet and healthy exercise, for me, continues to result in a body out of bounds. So, in the name of forcing my body into acceptable standards (more often beauty than health, because that seems to be what “acceptability” is all about), I’ve frequently stepped over that edge, way beyond what should be conceived as healthy — including an infinite number of fad diets, long stretches of fasting, and the one-two combo of extreme exercise coupled with starvation-level subsistence.
I’ve gone for months of time existing on far fewer calories than my brain is supposed to require to function, and yet I am still, and have always been, fat.
My body refuses to comply, refuses to fit in, refuses to mold into anything deemed “desirable” by contemporary American standards.
And in response, society tells me that my body is wrong. This is not how it should be. I must be unhealthy. I must be doing something wrong. There must be something wrong with me. Because this is not how it should be.
But maybe . . . just maybe . . . there isn’t actually anything wrong with me. Maybe this is just my body.
But to accept that — that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that’s just the way it is — is a radical act. One that defies all our cultural training about what it’s acceptable to be.
We have only one body-type deemed “beautiful” — an epitomized work of art — in this contemporary American culture. Yet how many of us do fit precisely into this mold?
I’ve struggled with my own body my entire life, yet I’m hardly alone. For all sorts of reasons, women have struggled to fit into this one mold, this one image of what it means to be beautiful.
And this is why Allie Monday’s interview sparked such an insight for me. In response to host Daphne Cohn’s questions about her artistic process, Allie mentions a turning point in her career as a photographer, when her work shifted from (my words) portraiture to art.
Allie mentions that in the beginnings of her boudoir photography business, her work was partner-focused, meaning the end product was about creating a “sexy” image based on the normative cultural standard. That often meant adjusting lighting, altering poses, and photoshopping things like stretch marks — all the things one might imagine would be involved in creating the illusion of an idealized female body.
Yet, over time, her work shifted to become more self- than partner-focused and, as a result, more about celebrating the unique aspects of every woman’s body rather than forcing it into a manufactured ideal.
In fact, whatever body part her clients most seem to dislike — their breasts, their stomachs, etc. — she encourages be the very things they photograph.
And when she made this shift, Allie discovered art.
Though we may worship one beauty ideal in any given culture, bodies certainly do not come in one shape, size, or color. And that’s okay. Because neither does art. What makes art interesting is its infinite variety. How boring would the world be if the only art ever deemed “acceptable” was say, abstract expressionism?
What really makes Allie’s work art, though, is the dropping of artifice, the letting go of the manufactured, idealized image and the intense focus on what is.
No matter what the style of art, art can never be forced. It is what happens in the unexpected, when the imagination takes over and the unconscious mind goes to work. Art is what happens when we let go of all illusions in order to explore the realms of human experience.
I’ve gotten so used to thinking of my body as disgusting, or simply wrong, that to think of it as art is revolutionary. But when she looks through her camera lens and sees one woman’s droopy breasts and another woman’s extra roll of fat, Allie doesn’t see a body that is wrong. She sees art.
It is in our difference, not our sameness — even the sameness of a cultural ideal — that bodies become an expression of art. In Allie’s own words, “I actually have more to work with and my creativity expands when women look different.”
So perhaps it’s okay after all that my body, no matter the length of effort, will never look like it’s “supposed to.” It will never conform to that idealized shape we’re all taught to long for in order to be accepted.
Maybe it looks just as nature imagined, because in truth it’s actually nature’s own canvas.