What’s in a nude? Catherine Gleave on how taking pictures of herself naked was the first step in a journey to self-love and body positivity…
In the summer of 2017 my washing machine would break down a lot. Like clockwork, and often just as I was about to run out of the door, a build-up of obstructive lime scale would strike: a crisis which caused the machine to inexplicably flood and transform my kitchen into a detergent scented swamp. Over one fleeting summer, I skipped countless catch ups, get-togethers and day trips all because of some severe “technical difficulties”.
On days like these, following the apparent combustion of my combi, nothing could persuade me to abandon my washer. I would make a hasty, shame addled apology, mute the group chat and retreat from view. Swallowed up by guilt, I couldn’t help but abandon my phone for an hour or two, in an attempt to deny the slow ebb of my friendships and give myself some space from the decay I’d set in motion.
Lying to myself, and those closest to me, I’d pad barefoot into the kitchen, and linger a little on the cool dryness of the hard-wood floor—definitely not flooded. Taking in my intact washing machine and pristine kitchen, my gaze was finally able to rest on the real problem: me. In those moments, I’d tear at the roles of fat that coated my waist, loathing my terrible, grotesque body. It was no lie that I was trapped in my flat—I hadn’t left in days— but it was easier to make up the breakdown of an appliance than it was to admit my own unravelling.
Returning to my wasteland of a bedroom, scattered with the clothes I’d worn and rejected, I’d try to piece together one last, fraught outfit. Throwing on yet more clothes, my body contorted into strange angles. Twisting this way and that, I’d distort myself into accentuating a double chin, a bulging stomach, expansive thighs… It seemed that no matter what I wore, I’d find a way to transform it into something ugly. When finally, I’d lose patience with the whole routine, I’d collapse to the bed in tearful resignation, finally admitting to what I knew all along: I couldn’t bear for anyone to see me like this.
Repulsed by my body, I’d pull out my phone and take a photo, determined to capture the moment on camera for the next time I felt like eating something I shouldn’t. As the months went by, I became increasingly obsessional and would pour over reams of photographs, demanding friends to tell me the truth: “do I really look like this?!”, “am I really this fat?!” The photographs kept me caged and feeling small, forcing me to see my life through the lens of pounds and ounces, callously editing out all the fullness and warmth I needed.
Like so many women, my weight felt like my defining characteristic. At my lowest, intelligence, humour and generosity paled into nothingness if I couldn’t be thin. A bitter yardstick for success: a thin day was cause for celebration; a fat day was a miserable struggle. I’d often topple between feeling fat and thin at will, with no warning and certainly no control over how each state would impact my day. On good days, a bad photo would jolt me back to reality, and my self-confidence would plummet. On worse days, a flattering photo would catapult my mood upwards. In spite of everything, I’d hold onto all of my pictures as a collage to showcase my fluctuating willpower: what I could achieve if I skipped lunch, or what I had wasted for dinner with friends or an extra drink on a night out.
Bored and increasingly lonely, something in me snapped. As I scrolled through my hateful camera roll, I was furious that I had wasted so much time dumping emotional energy into the pursuit of a “perfect” body. Feeling more empowered than I had in months, I was determined to see myself for real. So, I poured my body into a full-length mirror, and ran my hands over my entire body. I couldn’t remember the last time I had let myself feel my body without pulling at it or sucking it in. When I took my first photo, I was so ready to hate it but my body wouldn’t let me. Without realising, my body and mind had changed. In so many ways I felt softer but I knew that I had hardened too. I liked how my stomach folded at the sides when I pushed my hip out and I loved how flesh blurred my collar bones and dressed up my neck and back. Spurred on by a new sense of joy, I turned on the sexiest record I had and shut the door. As I removed my clothes and my body became increasingly bare, a rising sense of boldness took hold. I experimented with how it felt to pose to accentuate my body. As I did so, I was able to take photos that appreciated the reality of me; I stood up a little straighter, my finger-tips enjoying the curve of my hips, hands lingering over the soft silhouette of my stomach and torso. For fifteen minutes, I resembled nothing of my former self; my anxiety was totally absent. My body was mine.
In the beginning, it felt as though I was embarking upon my own piece of personal resistance. Each photo represented a new chapter and I learnt how to inhabit the sexier side of my personality; I discovered joy in taking photos and sharing them if I felt like it. Soon, photos of my naked body became part of my daily existence and I learnt how to enjoy my frame without guilt. It became important to document good days—the outfits which defined them, and the nakedness which defined me. Soon, I’d developed a catalogue of images which left me feeling relaxed and radiant. Happily, and in no time at all, that confidence radiated out of me too. Selfies are often seen as an act of vanity, but in a world where women are constantly told of the myriad of ways they don’t reach some impossible standard, to have a collection of images that make you feel beautiful is anything but vain. It is, in many ways, an act of defiance.
Through the photos, I cultivated a self-image I was totally in charge of. The pictures began to speak louder than the nasty voice in my head; I found a confidence I never believed I could harness. I began to understand what my world could look like without the debilitating longing to be thin, and I now have more reminders that I am beautiful than those which set out to make me feel worthless. Whilst some days are still plagued with calorie counting and fraught internalised arguments, I don’t feel trapped in my own judgment and I have enough evidence to tell my psyche to take a long walk when I need to. I know that sometimes I am still the voice of insecurity, but taking photos of myself has taught me how to be the voice of reason as well.
It’s been almost a year since my washing machine last broke down. While I’m still sometimes unnerved by how much my approach to my body has changed, I’m overwhelmed by the power photography has given me and I’m in awe of how every selfie feels like a little love letter from me, to me. I’d never really considered how much my negative psyche had forced me to sacrifice, or how in the months my approach to my body grew a little, my world would grow too.
Follow Catherine on Twitter: @CatGleave_
Illustration: Mariel Abbene