Photo Essay Body Image

My friend Jessica says that her earliest memory hearkens back to when she was a baby. She recalls watching the sun coming through the slats in her crib, striping her mattress with light. She recalls, too, the lift and fall of the curtain in front of her bedroom window, and the small rustling sound it made. My childhood recollections do not go back so far, and if they did, I’m afraid they would not be nearly so lyrical. I’d probably picture an infant with a furrowed brow, worrying that her diaper was giving her a muffin top.

For my entire life, I have hated my midsection. It was always too big for the rest of me. Sure, my arms and legs were long and thin enough. But, then, right smack in the middle of my body was my excessively large blubber belly.

Let me enter into evidence the following: As a 19-year-old college student, I once sat at a kitchen table with three of my friends—all of whom were complaining about their belly fat. I said mine was the worst. When they doubted me, I informed them that I could make a large serving spoon disappear into the folds of my fat. When they doubted me once again, I said, “OK, watch this,” and I showed them, whereupon they agreed mine was indeed the worst. They proposed a toast to me, and we drank more scotch. Which, now that I think of it, probably did not do much for getting rid of my pooch.

A history of my belly: When I was around eight years old, I begged my mother for a yellow dress I had seen in the Sears catalog. It was bright yellow and had many, many ruffles, and the little girl who modeled it looked scrumptious. I showed it to my mother and told her, “That one, that one. I want that one. Can I have that one?” I believe my mother tried to gently dissuade me from my choice, but I remained firmly fixed on the image of the child with the curly black hair wearing that lovely lemon-colored confection.

My mother did order the dress for me, and on the day it arrived, I put it on, tied the wide ribbon sash around my waist, and then eagerly regarded myself. The model in the catalog had looked like a dream. I, on the other hand, resembled the Queen Mary, festooned with streamers. I took it off and never wore it again.

When I was in my 20s, I was involved in a serious romance. One day the man in question wanted to take a bath with me. Swell idea, thought I, and we climbed into the tub together.

I leaned back against him and it was heavenly: the warm water, the wisps of steam rising up, the feel of his chest behind my back, and the vibrations of his deep voice reverberating through my body when he spoke to me. Then he put his hands on my waist. I stiffened as though I had been electrocuted and shouted, “Don’t feel my fat!” As you might imagine, that did wonders for our interlude.

It wasn’t just intimate moments that made me self-conscious. Whenever I was in the company of anyone, I sucked in my gut. I constantly adjusted my blouse or sweater, employing a handy three-step technique:

1. Grasp fabric in the belly area, stretch it out as far as it will go (which is to say, as far as it will go without ripping), and release.

2. Try not to move to the left, the right, up, or down.

3. Try not to breathe.

Even when I thinned down considerably, I was still conscious of my belly. I never wore a bikini or showed my stomach at all if I could help it. I was horrified if my gut ever made it into a photo, if somehow I was captured with those dang rolls hanging out.

The only time I wasn’t self-conscious about my belly was when it was at its largest. But I was pregnant, so that didn’t count. Every pregnant belly is beautiful, for what it holds inside. But then the baby is born, and guess what’s back?

As time marched on, my belly problem only got worse. Jeans looked good on my legs, but my blubber spilled over the top. Belts were a no-no. I turned to elastic waists, which felt good but made me worry that I was somehow cheating. Also, they made me feel like a slob. Whenever I got dressed up, I looked OK except in that one place.

Then two things happened. A few years ago, I was on a trip with my best friend, and we were lying on the beds in our hotel room. Her blouse was raised a little and I glimpsed her belly, and lo and behold: I saw that it was even bigger than mine.

But it wasn’t awful at all. It was part of her. And as such, I loved it.

Then, a few months later, on a hot summer’s day, I was with my mother, who was complaining about the temperature. “You should put on some shorts,” I told her. She shook her head.

“Why not?” I asked, and she leaned in close to whisper, “Varicose veins.”

“Mom,” I said. “No one cares.” And then I connected some dots.

I have stopped hating my belly. Realizing that my mother’s varicose-vein anxiety was as pointless as my own adipose-tissue worry was a turning point. But I have also seen enough of the world and its sorrows to know that this type of thing is not worth my time and energy. I no longer suck in my gut. I wear elastic-waist pants, guilt-free. I also wear belts when I need to. Yes. I wear a belt over a top and throw on a cardigan and it looks just fine.

I had a friend who got really sick of hearing people talk about diets all the time: this diet where you don’t eat carbs, that one where you eat six small meals a day, another one where you eat only soup, and of course the always popular Don’t eat anything, ever diet. She said, “OK, you know when it’s time to diet? The time to diet is when you have to let out the shower curtain!”

I may not have evolved as much as that particular friend, but I have come to hold a certain respect for fat cells. They may make us look less than ideal (if you define ideal as those angry-looking models who wear their ribs as accessories), but they serve a few rather exalted functions: They store energy in the form of reserved nutrients. They give us insulation from heat and cold. They provide protective padding around internal organs. Isn’t it nice to know that the so often maligned parts of our bodies are looking out for us in these ways?

I have also begun to feel a kind of camaraderie or kinship when I see another woman with my “problem.” I feel as though if our bellies could grow little hands, they would reach out and high-five each other.

A long time ago, I saw a movie with a beautiful Portuguese actress with a flat, flat stomach who was lying on a bed when her lover walked in. In her gorgeous accent, she tells him, “I wish I had a pot.... Pot bellies are sexy.” At the time, I remember thinking, You can have mine!

Not anymore. These days I would say, “Now you’re talking.”

Elizabeth Berg is the author of 19 novels, including, most recently, Once Upon a Time, There Was You ($15, amazon.com) as well as two short-story collections and two works of nonfiction. She lives near Chicago.

Pressure Point, 2002 | Jen Davis and Lee Marks Fine Art

Yesterday, I came across two powerful photo essays that made me really think about body image and the way that we look at non-standard bodies in our culture. You have to see these photographs.

Jen Davis' project, featured on Slate, was spurred by a photo (at top) she took on spring break in 2002. Struck by how her larger body looked in contrast to the bikini-ed forms of thinner friends, Jen said:

“I wanted to make a picture to see what that felt like. I was shocked by the ability I had to kind of freeze that moment, to take a mundane but painful moment that was able to be described in the image.”

Untitled. 2003 (l) Pantyhose. 2007 | Jen Davis and Lee Marks Fine Art

She so kept taking pictures of herself for the next decade, many of the photographs in intimate moments, like in bed, brushing her hair, in domestic settings. The photographs are beautiful and arresting, showing a vulnerability both behind the camera and in front of it, exposing Davis' feelings about herself and her experience of the world. I'd argue they're a lot more empowering than Dove's “real beauty” sketches, too, but that's a subject for another post.

However, Davis says the self-acceptance project eventually made her want to change the way she looked:

“It was kind of shocking, kind of painful to look at myself and to see myself evolving and growing and understanding a deeper sense of myself but my body not being able to change after nine years’ time. I was shocked and thought ‘why can’t I take control of my life?’ and I realized I didn’t want to wake up at 40 and be in this body—I wanted to know what it would be like to be in a different body, and that was a painful realization.”

She ended up having Lap Band surgery and thought that she'd have no trouble documenting her weight loss, but found herself not wanting to use her camera once she began losing weight. She says she didn't want her camera to be a distraction to finding her way in the world post weight-loss, especially once she started dating.

Davis is now in a relationship and has taken a few pictures featuring herself and her boyfriend; those images versus the ones of her alone are different, but also, I think, imbued with a similar sense of quietude.

Untitled, 2013 | Jen Davis and Lee Marks Fine Art

Shortly after I saw Jen Davis' project on Salon, I came across Haley Morris-Cafiero‘s “Wait Watchers” project on Tumblr. And whoa. Similar in some concepts (Morris-Cafiero also photographs herself), but different in terms of the emotional reactions they elicit, this project centers around the body in public places.

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