Below is an exchange of letters between and acquaintance and me about the blog entry I wrote when an organization turned down my offer to teach a workshop on body image. This woman went through a bout with anorexia as a young woman and speaks very clearly about her process - how she got there and how she got away from it. She also has some wonderful insights about body image and nudity in today's society. I thank you, C., for taking the time to share your thoughts.
I was reading your blog article [about the organization which was uncomfortable allowing me to give a workshop on body image and show pictures of nudes as part of it] and can completely see your frustration. It's inspiring to see you offering your project to the world, and just as inspiring to see the challenges you face--not because I want there to be challenges for you to fight against, but because it is exactly those challenges that show you are hitting on some really important life-changing issues.
I think I have some insight to share with you. Though the insight isn't exactly clear for myself ;) As a child I was extremely shy and very modest. I was one of those kids that wasn't fat, but was chubby. Not extremely nerdy, but definitely not in the "popular" crowd. So strange these labels when we think of them now... but then I hit puberty and though I was embarrassed to be one of the first with tampax for some reason or other I became much more outgoing. In high school, though, I definitely spent time hugging an eating disorder close to me--I'd try to eat the least possible and then when I did eat I'd undergo 150 jumping jacks and an intense workout I'd designed for myself. But then I completely left all of that and now eat basically whatever I want. Health is the most important thing. Not image. Exercise because I love it and it makes me feel healthy mentally as well as physically and eating natural foods that nourish and sustain me--and the allowance that I love candy and sweets so I don't obsess over them as a bad guilty thing. What does all this mean and how does it help you? Looking back I try to analyze what has changed throughout my life. Now my body is my body, it is a part of me that functions in a practical way for me to achieve my dreams--in the times I felt self-conscious about it I felt self-conscious because I didn't have control. Probably over a number of things. Whenever we feel we don't have control over ourselves fear creeps in...this could happen, this could happen, and I'm helpless to stop it...
I think it is a feeling administrators and school officials have over students--they need to control what is exposed to the "future minds of America." They only think of nakedness as connected to sex, not of self. But to teach abstinence doesn't help...it only leaves information in the dark that could be used in the dark! One of my friends spent some time in South Africa and she was amazed by the female perception of their own bodies. After someone commented on her "tiny skinny white legs," she asked one of the locals what they loved about their body the most. "My thighs that are strong and can carry me across the village, my breasts that enable me to feed my babies, and my arms that help me to lift." When we have a sense of self, a sense of purpose, a need for our own flesh that is when we appreciate it the most. And until we have this need, this other purpose for our bodies in nudity other than what's considered a negative in most education systems--sex--people will be terrified of displaying the naked body. Too bad people still don't understand that to say no or to withhold evidence (such as your paintings) doesn't work--human nature always wants to do what it is told NOT to do. If your paintings were allowed and the images were readily discussed there may actually be some progress...that's my two cents. Hope it wasn't too confusing and perhaps a bit helpful.
peace and strength,
Susan Singer March 24 at 8:57am
I'm curious about how you were able to leave your eating disorder behind. How did you become conscious of it and decide to make other choices?
I think what you're saying about allowing yourself to love candy and sweets so you don't obsess over them is SO healthy!
I think you're touching on something really important when you talk about control and being out of control. It does seem like a lot of body issues have to do with control. Eating disorders seem to be about people wanting to have control over something, and their bodies are about all they can manage given their life's circumstances.
I'm also finding that a lot of the fear about nudity seems to be boiling down to the fear that kids will run out and have sex (be out of control) if they see naked bodies. It's an absurd connection to my mind, but it seems to be prevalent. I understand that when boys (and girls probably) look at porn they tend to get turned on and probably do want to have sex, but the naked body is not necessarily porn. There is a strong distinction. I don't think any of my paintings are porn. They certainly aren't intended to be! But I think that fear that people will get out of control is at the base of negative reactions to my paintings.
I love what the South African said to your friend. That's wonderful. How incredible it would be if we had such dominant thoughts about our bodies here.
C. April 5 at 11:11am
[...]It's funny, I had not thought about the time I was basically anorexic in a very long time. But speaking about it brought up emotions I didn't know existed around the subject. I think I often looked back on it as a silly and unfounded behavior and a part of my past that didn't quite make sense. It still doesn't really make sense to me and I think that's how I overcame it. So much energy went into watching what I ate, freaking out about if I did eat something I "shouldn't have" that I think I just got tired of it. I came to the conclusion that my body is not built to healthily be the skinny [shape] some of my friends were and I became uninterested in being in any environments that would judge my natural shape and size. An outward struggle of what I think each human undergoes inwardly as they more fully become themselves and confident in who they are and what they have to share with the world. So I guess I don't have an actual story to share about my struggle because I think I finally just made a conscious choice to release the worry. Maybe it's ironic that my theatrical focus now is teaching movement and how the body can be manipulated to create different characters...
My performance friend was telling me the other day that there are two categories in the school systems that have the most funding: bullying prevention and nutrition. Your class fits perfectly into the latter! There has to be a way to get around this whole nudity hoopla...like in Europe where the drinking age is lower, alcohol abuse happens less frequently. If children were exposed to nudity, especially in a non-deprecating, non pornographic way, they just might feel more comfortable with and less likely to abuse their and other's bodies.