|Rachel (17), a cutter on the path to healing|
exhibit has toured college campuses and galleries across the nations for nearly two decades. The book of the project, Bodies and Souls: The Century Project was published in 2006. Through the women’s own words and naked portraits we learn their powerful accounts of their conflicted feelings about their bodies and their vows to own and celebrate them.
The project is heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time, and a very important contribution to our body-negative culture with its unrealistic beauty ideals and warped ideas about sex. Opposed to those, the participating women shed their clothes in defiance, not because they are exhibitionists, but because they refuse to be censured and dismissed, demanding to be seen for who they are. Real women, with real bodies and real issues, because we all have them, to a varying degree, whether it’s beating ourselves up for not looking just right, or the shame we feel for what has been inflicted upon us, by others or ourselves.
Power and success in the boardroom countered by lonely all-night eating binges. Purging, kneeling in tears, trying to cleanse myself again and again. Desperate to be thin. Looking at myself in the mirror afterward, promising never to do it again. Hating myself even more because I knew I would. I couldn’t stop.Christina then describes what standing during the photo shoot in front of another mirror did to her: “naked and alone, and for the first time in years, I had to see myself. It was terrifying!”
At first I was repulsed, I wanted to turn and run. All I saw was fat, undesirability, flaws, and failure.For Christina, posing for the project and forcing her to really see herself provided an opportunity to accept who she is, realizing that she is the one who has to give herself “permission to be content with who you are.”
But the more I forced myself to look, the more I began to see her. She was reaching out to me and I was willing to see her.
Brooke (19) describes how for years she used to hide all her scars from self-inflicted cutting, the shame and denial sucking the pride and life out of her. Posing in the corner of a bathroom, she displays the scars on her thigh and vows to take pride in her body, including her scars. “Whatever your story, it’s yours alone; whatever your struggles, they’re only yours to fight and win; and no one ever has the right to make you apologize for who you are, what you are, or why you are.” Explaining why she wanted to pose, she concludes, “This is my body and these are my scars and that is why I’m here.”
Many of the women report seeing themselves as somehow imperfect because of what they were told by their mothers and partners. Mondy (50) for instance, a beautiful woman pictured outdoors proudly displaying her fake breasts, shares a history of “cosmetic surgery as a beacon of hope” in her efforts to look “lovable.” As a child “there was hardly a day that my mother didn’t tell me how ugly I was,” she explains.
She ridiculed my face, my hair, and my body, especially my flat chest and my pouchy tummy. When I cried, she took me to the mirror so I could see just how horrible I looked. She never displayed a photograph of me, nor did she ever touch me except to slap my face. My mother made it clear to me that because I was so ugly, I was unlovable and unloved.”
For all those years I had never come to terms with this, so, for me to stand naked facing the camera—no props, no poses, just me—was painful at first. A deep sadness, along with some anger, wells up in me over what had been done, what I had allowed to be done to myself over the years ... and I wasn’t able to hold back the tears.For Lumina, posing for the project became “a healing and freeing experience,” “this from a woman who has for years tried to avoid being photographed at all costs.” She concludes on a note of empowerment, joy, and gratitude.
I found, though, that by the end of the session I was able to acknowledge to myself the hurts and disappointments I’ve suffered in the past, but no longer feel defeated or separated by them.
The stories of sexual abuse were the hardest for me to read. There are several, in particular incest, statistically the most common form of abuse. Brenna (22) was nine years old when her cousin began molesting her and then her older brother’s friend, and Winnie (39) was eight when her uncle began molesting her while her “mother lay asleep (passed out) in her bed while he carried me past her open door.” A history of prostitution, heroin use, and abusive partners followed, leaving her scarred in many ways as she sought the comfort and love she didn’t receive as a child. Yet she ends on a positive note: “Today I accept my body as it is. My scars are my medals. I’ve earned them.”
We tell our stories not to shock anyone, but to let others know that despite the fear, the self-loathing, and the hate, we have chosen to finish our path; that the survival of a soul that has been battered beyond recognition is a triumph that needs to be celebrated.
Our pictures go beyond the scars and the stories; they shout about more than survival; they roar of strength and of hope that the next sunrise won’t be as difficult as the last.
What the Century Project so beautifully captures is the power of the naked image and word, the candid personal story and its capacity to transform. If these women can overcome the injustice done to them, after all that they have endured of sexual abuse and body shaming, so can you and I and all of us.
Explains Mayé (36):
I see the human body
As a marvelous creation of nature […]
I am not ashamed of my body.
Through it, I gave life;
Through it, I create.
States Antrece (45) simply: “I am a goddess!”
A grounded and lighthearted energy radiate from the portraits of the older women, brining hope of perspective and peace as we age. “What’s wrong with a little sex?!” asks Eve (79) with a smile on her face, naked in the woods.
Or do I look like a happy child with wonderful parents whose only ‘abuse’ has come from those who have tried to take away our right to live the way we do.
For me, my naked bodie is normal; for me, my naked bodie is wild and free; for me, my naked bodie is being proud for who and what I am.”
Explains Jessie (14), pictured in her room blowing bubble gum wearing a polka-dotted cap sideways:
The reason I agreed to have my picture taken was, I am tired of the stereotype that all nude pictures are dirty.
These are the kinds of positive and empowering message we need to instill in today’s younger generation of women and reinforce in ourselves. Give yourself the gift of Bodies and Souls: The Century Project.
Frank Cordelle: Bodies and Souls: The Century Project (Heureka Productions),
ISBN: 978-0-9730270-3-7 (0-9730270-3-7).
(Photos copyright 2006 by Frank Cordelle. Used by permission.)