Today’s guest blogger Hannah – @fionchadd – is going to talk to you about posing naked, something that I’ve been trying – and failing – to do for a very very long time. Hannah posed completely naked for photographer Sonny Malhotra, as part of A Disappearing Exhibition, which opens in London on the 18th January. The idea is that people who come and visit can take one of the photos away with them. It’s a really awesome idea – check it out at the links above.
Alongside the exhibition, Hannah offered me a guest blog about the experience of posing naked. As someone who has really struggled with nudity and body image in the past, I found her post incredibly moving – and I can see myself in a lot of it. The world conspires to make body confidence an increasingly difficult thing to achieve, and I’m really grateful to Hannah for writing so honestly and movingly about her photoshoot.
“So, why did you say yes?”
The first question Sonny asked me was the only one I couldn’t answer. I’d spent an unfeasible amount of time thinking about the practicalities; what I was going to wear (clothes that made me feel good about my body, that were as easy to remove in as non-embarrassing way as possible, a sarong to cover myself while I got dressed), how I might feel during the shoot, what I’d think about the resulting photo, how to cope with hating the resulting photo, how to hide the fact that I hated the resulting photo, how to avoid a complete breakdown or crisis of confidence as a result of hating the photo – you get the gist – but I hadn’t stopped to consider why I’d agreed to take part. More than agreed, in fact.
When, during an afternoon of aimless Facebook scrolling, Sonny’s post looking for participants had appeared on my timeline I’d messaged him to say “hello, yes, I would like to do this” before I could stop myself. I couched the initial approach in as much vocal-fry as I could, giving him every opportunity to back out without actually having to say he was backing out, and was half-wishing he wouldn’t actually follow up on the message at all, but only half, because no-one wants to offer to get naked in front of someone only to be told “actually, nah, let’s not.” But I deliberately and comprehensively shut down the part of my brain that was shouting “What are you DOING? Why would you do this to yourself?!” Trying to analyse why I was taking part would almost certainly have led to me pulling out.
The relationship I have with my body is a complex and often acrimonious one. Over the years I have shaved it, plucked it, dyed it, painted it, covered and uncovered various bits of it based on which aspects were attracting my ire at the time, exfoliated and scrubbed and cleansed and toned and moisturised it, denied it certain foods and forced it into a level of activity I’ve frankly never been comfortable with. When these methods failed to sculpt my body into the image I had in my head – an image insidiously fed to me in a constant drip, drip, drip from every medium I consumed since before I was old enough to even understand what was happening; an image so posed and primped and preened and post-processed as to be entirely unattainable to at least 99% of women – I punished it. I cut it and I burned it and I starved it, I exercised it to within an inch of collapse, drowned it in alcohol and forced it, over and over again, over many years, via various methods, to get rid of every last scrap of food I’d put in it. I blamed it for all of my failings, both real and perceived. I hated it and was convinced that everyone else hated it too, and, by extension, hated me.
Having agreed to participate in the project, I realised I didn’t even really know what my body looked like. Years of carefully honing myself not to see it – to avoid my gaze in the mirror, to being the one behind rather than in front of the camera, to focus on other faces in group photos, my eyes skating over my own – “don’t look, you won’t like it, it’ll only make you feel bad.” I saw my body as individual parts, focussing obsessively on the ones that didn’t pass muster – my hated double/triple/quadruple chin, my rolls of belly fat, the cellulite on my arse, the stretch marks on thighs which haven’t had a gap between them in 15 years, the wrists I can no longer get my thumb and finger around (one of the key measures of ‘thinness’ I used). I don’t exert control over my body in the way that I used to, but I never grew to accept it; I just started to ignore it. This project felt like a way to reconnect with my body again. To really, properly look at it, without judgement, without appraisal, without preconception. To own it – all of it – as a part of who I am, not as something I need to change to reflect who I feel I should be.
Upon learning full details about the exhibition, I nearly ran for the hills. The thought of a room full of strangers looking at a row of naked bodies and choosing one to take home with them sent me into a complete tailspin. I conjured up detailed scenarios about people so desperate to tell me how hideous my body was that they’d track me down, using an incredibly convoluted combination of sleuthing, facial recognition and social media stalking, seeking me out just to make sure I knew my body didn’t meet their standards. I couldn’t shake the feeling of standing in the school gym waiting to be picked for a sports team. Or the memory of the boys who grabbed me on the school bus, forcing my sweatshirt tight against my body and screaming to the rest of the kids that I was flat chested. This was not my idea of reclaiming agency over my sense of self. I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t change my mind at that point. Actually, that’s a lie – I know exactly why I didn’t change my mind at that point and it’s because if I’d done so, those boys would have won. The constant judgement and control society tries to wield over women’s bodies would have won. And I wouldn’t have reconnected with anything. So I didn’t pull out. And I drank so much cider the night before that I was sick.
I wanted to shave. Actually, let’s be honest, I wanted to diet. I wanted at least a month’s warning and an eating plan and a personal trainer, maybe a hair and makeup artist, possibly plastic surgery. But I also adamantly did not want any of those things. I haven’t shaved in 2 years, which is probably the last time I wore makeup (my sister’s wedding) and it felt wrong to present a version of me which doesn’t exist, however strongly I might wish that it did. I did, however, feel an overwhelming desire to be clean. I was more paranoid about being smelly than about anything. Visions of Sonny recoiling in horror at the fug which rolled off my body when I undressed swam through my mind. I even cleaned inside my belly button, and liberally covered myself in deodorant before leaving the house.
Sitting in someone’s living room, casually chatting about life and nudity and body image while knowing I was imminently about to get naked wasn’t as weird as I thought it might be. Getting naked in someone’s living room wasn’t as weird as I thought it might be. Being naked was odd. While I didn’t hate it or feel a burning need to cover myself – both scenarios I had considered – I couldn’t make eye contact, and I didn’t want to talk. I fixed my eyes on a point on the wall and sent my brain away, not unlike when I got my tattoo – and waited for it to be over. And then it was over, and it was fine. The world hadn’t ended, fire hadn’t rained down on me, Sonny hadn’t flinched at the sight of my body. Everything was OK.
The strangest part of the entire process, by far, was what came next. This sounds odd, given that I’d already done the naked bit, but I felt far more self-conscious and embarrassed *after* the shoot than I had been before it. I literally wanted to grab my things and bolt as soon as I put my clothes back on. I assumed that’s what Sonny would want also. When he started chatting to me while I was getting dressed, that was the one point during the whole thing where I felt slightly uncomfortable. It was a weird feeling – part discomfort / irritation that he was trying to elicit an immediate response rather than waiting until I was dressed, part relief that he wasn’t ushering me straight out of the door, part ‘holy mother of god what have I just DONE?’. Having finished getting dressed, we sat and chatted for a while, which helped calm the hammering in my chest and the clamour in my brain – it was great to be able to process my thoughts about the shoot in the company of the person doing the shoot, rather than sitting on the bus on the way home letting my brain spiral out of control.
I didn’t hate the picture. This sounds like the most non-committal response imaginable but I can’t emphasise how huge that is for me. I saw my body – my whole body, uncovered, unaltered – and I didn’t hate it. I’m in tears writing this. My body – a part of me that I have mistreated, that I have relentlessly judged and never accepted, that I have simultaneously controlled and let control me, that I have blamed for everything and hated for so long – there’s nothing wrong with it. Nothing at all. I am so sorry.
Extra links if you want to find out more:
A Disappearing Exhibition facebook page
Photographer Sonny Malhotra’s website, instagram and twitter.
And guest blogger Hannah – @fionchadd. Thank you so much for this piece. x