by Catriona Mitchell
[NB this article is paired with Rupture & Reclamation, Part 1: Regena Thomashauer, which should be read first, particularly for an explanation of ‘rupture’ and ‘midwifing’ in this context – ed]
In May, I was in the USA for a dance training, and found myself on a spontaneous road trip afterwards with dancer and photographer Nilaya Sabnis.
Nilaya and I hadn’t known each other longer than a year, but our meeting was to me like a collision – the beautiful, destined kind – because of our impassioned views on women, politics, art and the body.
As soon as we’d signed up for a hire car and ventured out into the dramatic wilderness of southern Utah, it hit me. Nilaya was a practiced photographer of women: not only that, her photography was largely focused on women’s empowerment.*
Could Nilaya be my midwife?
It took courage to ask her to take nude photos of me. I wanted to visually explore my ‘rupture’ out here, outdoors, in total seclusion. Out here, in the vast open desert landscape. And to record the process, to deepen it, make it more real.
Not for exhibitionism. Not for vanity. Not to proliferate the social media obsession with self-exposure…. but for healing.
To explore – and release – the vulnerabilities housed inside this female skin.
I believe that a candid conversation can change a life. Not only was this uncharacteristic idea (I’d never posed nude before, and am generally shy in front of a camera) inspired by Regena Thomashauer’s wonderful book Pussy: A Reclamation, it sprang from conversations I’d been having in BRAVA Magazine interviews since January. Two women, independently of one another, had told me that they were healing deeply embedded sexual trauma by consciously creating a new relationship – a photographic relationship – with their bodies.
What they said moved me. They were transforming a negative self-view into a positive one, by disrobing, posing at their most naked emotionally as well as physically, and assuming control of the camera’s gaze.
Although I didn’t have an overt sexual trauma in my history, I had narrowly escaped violent assault from strangers several times, starting from the age of ten, instilling in me early on a sense that this body wasn’t safe. More insidiously than that, an awareness of the ‘male gaze’ had been a part of my psyche since adolescence, when the emergence of my sexual self – the sprouting of breasts and pubic hair – and the attraction of sudden unwanted attention, for which I was not prepared – had created a shift in my sense of identity from subject to object.
At that time I began to perceive myself and my place in the world from outside in, rather than from inside out. Other people (men) got to decide whether or not I had value, based largely on the attractiveness (or not) of my body. This had become a core part of my identity, a lens through which I responded to life.
Despite an extraordinary dance practice that’s given me a joyous relationship with my body, and a lot of feminist reading and re-programming, this pernicious way of thinking was still with me – to some extent at least. I think it’s a form of psychological micro-violence, imposed by the patriarchy, that all of us absorb into our systems over years.
I wanted to be free of it.
I wondered what it would feel like to bare myself in front of a female photographer. The only nude photos I’d ever seen of myself were the kind spontaneously taken by a lover’s camera, typically blurry, with me diving to hide under the sheets. Would I be able to successfully flip the male gaze (real and imagined) to a female one?
I wondered what it would feel like to investigate my sexual shame (I’m half German, and the word for female genitalia in German is Schamlippen – literally ‘lips of shame’), and my body shame – all those imperfections – and to photograph that, with nothing to hide behind.
I wondered what it would be like to explore my feelings around being physically unsafe, and to photograph that.
I wondered what it would be like to bring an accumulation of uncomfortable experiences about being seen to the camera – a whole lot of murk from the past – and to bring to light the very things that preferred to stay lurking in the dark.
We hadn’t planned for this when setting out on the road trip, and were ill-prepared in terms of accessories: we had no lights, and the idea of hair and make-up was a far-off dream (we were sleeping in the car in wild places each night, and growing more bedraggled by the day).
But styling wasn’t the point.
We did stop at a thrift store by the side of a highway though, in the hope of finding props for the shoot. I emerged jubilant with a roll of scarlet crushed velvet. The colour was a symbol of rupture. It seemed like the perfect accessory.
And then, we chanced upon some dappled woods and a cool stream, surrounded by desert, somewhere outside of Sedona. We had found our spot.
LiYana Silver writes in her book Feminine Genius – and she told me again in interview last month – that most young women (around 90% by her estimate) disconnect from their bodies during their teens; and oftentimes this rift doesn’t heal, because society upholds the rupture, through its myriad depictions of women as object.
97% of women, she claims, have at least one thought per day along the lines of “I hate my body.”
Stepping into the shoot was no comfortable moment. I did not feel wildly liberated, like a wood nymph allowed back into her natural habitat. I felt tense and self-conscious. Vain. Above all, embarrassed. (Three middle-aged men were fishing downstream. Was I really going to take my clothes off within eyeshot? Was that even legal? Could this be my excuse to back out…? But they weren’t looking at me. They weren’t even glancing in my direction).
I wanted to hide, but breaking the habit of hiding was the whole point.
Nilaya, well versed at putting women at their ease in front of camera, came to my rescue. Through gentle instruction, she reminded me of all that we learned through our dance practice. She helped me loosen the rigidity in my spine, move my centre of gravity down to my belly, feel into the ground beneath my feet, drop the armour, relax, breathe.
She directed my body into various shapes, and I obeyed, and after some time, my sense of self-consciousness began to fade. I wondered why I’d felt intimidated by such a simple, natural thing – after all, what could be more natural than my own nakedness? Why should this feel so psychologically twisted up, multi-layered, exposing?
I realized that the shoot was about finding the gift inside my shame, which was my agency; and ridding myself of the notion, so frequently reinforced in advertising, the media, entertainment, that the female body (including mine) was some kind of commodity that belonged to a world ‘out there’ for other people to judge and control and make decisions about… and sell products to, based on its many flaws.
Some words from Pussy ran through my mind, reminding me why I had wanted to do this in the first place:
Being shut down from our grief and rage deprives us of living our emotional and creative power.
Embodied rupture is an important part of our creative unfolding as a woman.
Between Nilaya’s skilled direction behind the camera, and imaginary whispers of encouragement from Regena Thomashauer, I allowed myself to be present, and to be fully seen. I didn’t split off, with my mind in one place and my body in another. I stayed with the vulnerability, breathing through it right down to the soles of my feet, turning my discomfort into shapes, until it turned into something else.
After the shoot, Nilaya and I sat at a roadside diner, eating clam chowder and talking the experience through. It wasn’t time to look at the pictures; that could wait for another day. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see them: by that time I felt the work was done. The pictures weren’t the point. I’d taken the risk, and been compassionately witnessed.
A feeling of newness was with me, and yes, excitement; I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t articulate what it had to say, not yet. But I knew that I was changed.
* Nilaya’s portfolio includes L’Oreal’s Women of Worth campaign.
Photos by Nilaya Sabnis. It was a deliberate decision not to share the nude images online.
Nilaya Sabnis and I are planning to host empowering, transformational photo shoots for women in 2019, in Europe and USA. If you feel that a carefully planned, intimate, safe photo shoot would help you to create a more positive relationship to your body, and help you establish a stronger sense of personal presence, please send a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll keep you in the loop about what we have in store – Catriona