How do you feel when you stand starkly naked? In front of a mirror? With other women watching? Just the thought of it is enough to make a grown woman cringe, but the actual act might be incredibly liberating.
BODY IMAGE LIBERATION
Recently, I visited a den of nakedness which powerfully reshaped the psychosomatic experience of being in this female form. Jeju Spa in Atlanta, which might more accurately be called a “bath house” than a spa, doesn’t let a woman hide. When you walk into the women’s wing, you are unceremoniously required to drop every stitch of clothing, leaving you and every woman exposed. It’s beautiful. You sit shoulder to shoulder with woman of all shapes, colors, sizes and form and it BLOWS YOUR MIND.
Not one flawless, photoshopped body in sight! Instead you are exposed to 101 variations of the female form. They have curves, rolls, cellulite, hair, scars, tattoos and asymmetrical and disproportion forms of every variety. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. I have no idea how they feel on the inside, but on the outside each and every one is standing up straight, not covering even an inch, and inviting, even encouraging, one other to embrace their form, just by being in the room.
It does wonders for the psyche. Most of us walk around with a very narrow idea of beauty – one that has been given to us through the 5000 photoshopped images that bombard us everyday – saying that we must be tall, leggy, busty, and in every way flawless. But hanging out with real women with real bodies helps us see the variety of form – that each and everyone of us is so uniquely different and beautiful in our own ways – like a garden of wildflowers.
BODY IMAGE NAKEDNESS
I remember my first experience of being naked with a group of women. For most of my life I had only really experienced women's bodies through the lens of the media. Any nakedness had been in locker rooms, flashed from behind towels, robes and super quick changes from activewear to outerwear. Very few women simply hung around nude. If they did, we all looked at them a little strangely.
But about a decade ago, I went to the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference for the first time. It was a warm October day and literally 500 women lounged around the little lake, almost all of them naked. It undid me. I had never seen so many female bodies. I had never seen someone stand up tall and let their thighs rub together, belly shake, and arms flab all while talking and laughing with other women. It seemed to me there wasn’t an ounce of shame in sight. And it liberated me. It allowed me to step out of my habitual constriction, that I thought helped me hide my perceived flaws, and instead stand in my very real body -- thick thighs, asymmetrical breasts, and strong arms -- with an increadable sense of freedom.
RECLAIMING BODY IMAGE
It’s one of the reasons I love to skinny dipping to this day. Getting naked is a statement that says, “this imperfect body is allowed to experience the pleasures of being alive…of sun and water on its skin, the joy of laughing with its belly hanging out, the fullness of taking up space.” No matter who may want to shame me or sexualize me for my nakedness, and many have, including a beloved partner, skinny dipping is one of the ways I celebrate the beauty of my imperfect body and enjoy the gloriousness it provides for me and me alone.
Yet, take me out of nature and put me in front of a mirror, and that confidence can melt away. Talking to many of my girlfriends, I’m not alone in this experience. The mirror reflects back an image that doesn’t always fit how we feel and can be held up as a way to compare our real bodies to the constructed image the media gives us. We inevitably fail.
Some Native American tribes, according to one of my Cherokee students, believed the mirror was one of the seven evil gifts brought by the white man. Before the mirror, a woman was reflected by her friends, "Oh you look so beautiful today! Your eyes are just shining. Your hips are so wide and rich. Your belly decadent.” When the mirror came alone, it allowed a woman to stand in isolation and judge herselves.
So, since standing naked in front of a mirror is my edge, I am making it my new practice. Can I take off all my clothes, stand in front of the mirror in all of my imperfection, and love my body as it is> Can I see through the negativity to see the very real beauty of this form?
It’s not a practice I’m looking forward to…but I think it is one that will radically change the grooves in my brain and allow me to love myself fully whether I stand with 500 women or alone. It will allow me to stand proud in front of anyone no matter their shame or shaming tendencies. My hope is that it leads to even more freedom and acceptance.
RECLAIMING BODY IMAGE PRACTICE
Will you join me? Will you commit to just 5 days of standing naked in front of the mirror for 5 minutes and making your mind your best friend as you do so? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments below.
We get so hung up on these bodies. Their shape and size. Smell and color. The thickness of our thighs, perkiness of our breasts, roundness of our bellies, or texture of our skin or hair. We obsess over how many carbs we’ve consumed, or the calories burned. Yet to what ends? Besides keeping some sort of eye on our health, when it comes down to it, these bodies really are just complex and intricate vehicles carrying around something so much less material.
Nothing brought this home as much as seeing “Bodies: The Exhibition” in Atlanta this weekend. It’s an extremely controversial exhibition, made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of real human cadavers. The tissue has a polymer that renders them into a sort of plastic and gives them a shelf life potentially forever.
The controversy is around evidence suggesting the bodies, bought from China, may be young men who died while being held in work-camps for their spiritual beliefs. No government should ever be allowed to profit from its war crimes.
Yet, if this is true, the exhibition is simply another example of how our world holds life – as objects and often with little respect. Just look at the semis with chickens driving down the highway, the video games showing graphic violence as a form of entertainment, or zoos that hold animals hostage and make them go a little insane for the sake of education. Look at how we hold our own life, turning our bodies into objects rather than subjects.
Yet here we are, for better or worse, in “Bodies” looking at the most amazing of machines – the human form. It is beyond comprehension – the beauty, the complexity, the intricacy. We have over 200 bones, 100,000 miles of capillaries and nerve impulses that travel as fast as 170 miles per hour. Our lungs fill around 673,000,000 times in a lifetime, the cornea gets its oxygen directly from the air, and the human body has enough fat to make seven bars of soap. Every ounce of this form is brilliant, fragile, and sophisticated.
Standing there, eyeballing the eye sockets, skull, nerve plexus and bodily mechanisms once hidden beneath the skin but now nakedly visible, one could easily forget that we are also staring into something much more menacing. We are staring at the face of death. Each plasticized human in that room at one point was a life. He contained a mind, emotions, dreams, passions, skills, heartache and philosophical beliefs. He had parents, friends and potentially children and all the complexities that comes from being alive. He was both consciousness and chemistry. Spirit and matter. Breath and mud.
Never before had I felt so viscerally that for all intent purposes we really are walking around in, what comedian Wyatt Cenac calls, “meat filled skin sacks”.
With such a clear illustration that bodies really is just a vehicle, I became even more acutely aware of how much time, money, energy and self-esteem we waste hating or trying to change our forms. We are SO MUCH MORE than our shape, size or color. We are creatrixes, mothers, daughters, warriors, lovers, dreamers, mystics, priestesses, companions, jokesters, mystics, prophets, agents of positive change, and 1001 other things.
It makes me stop and wonder, what the world would be like if we took off the internalized corset -- stopped shaming ourselves, and others, for the bodies we live in. If we simply loved all of these various forms, and instead took all of that time, energy and power to be brilliant humans with skills, passions and dreams. If we took our creative force and used it to serve justice in the world.
Would we take the millions of dollars we spend on botox and surgeries, and instead fight to protect elephants, rhinos and cheetahs? Would we take the billions away from the diet industry and instead put it toward orphanages in India? Would we take the time we spent in front of the mirror at the gym, and instead write letters to help release prisoners of war?
I’m not sure. But the Chinese, despite their politics and potential war crimes, have an ancient proverb, “when sleeping women wake, mountains move”. Maybe that is why we are here. To wake ourselves up. And potentially to wake the nations as well.
We won’t shift overnight. But maybe next time I start a new diet or exercise program, I’ll also take a few moments to send some money to the animal shelter down the road too. If we all do that, we might actually feel better, and not because of the diet