Rebecca Novick is a writer and yoga teacher with a focus on cultural change, spirituality and human rights. A survivor of sexual assault, she is now (many years later) finding an unusual way to investigate her relationship to her body and re-frame it: with the camera, in a series of nude auto-portraits.
The photo series was an entirely private endeavor for her until the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and the #metoo social media campaign took over almost every woman’s postings across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Now, Rebecca finds herself opening up to discussion about this unusual project.
Catriona Mitchell: Rebecca, what gave you the idea to do this self-portrait series? What was the impetus behind it?
Rebecca Novick: I found the idea of controlling my body image very appealing, and this probably links back to certain formative experiences where I felt I was unable to exert control.
I decided to photograph myself naked because that felt scary and vulnerable, and I knew that vulnerability was important if I was going to discover anything of value. I only had one rule—that I wouldn’t shy away from what I saw, no matter how embarrassing, or disturbing or difficult.
Whose ‘gaze’ are you seeing with, when taking the pictures? Do you imagine a male gaze? Do you imagine /experience yourself inside your body, outside, or both?
At first I couldn’t stop posing for some invisible man. He wasn’t there, but he was having an impact in how I was holding and presenting myself. Once I had managed to more or less exorcise him, there was a whole bunch of invisible women in there wagging their fingers at me!
I only had one rule—that I wouldn’t shy away from what I saw, no matter how embarrassing, or disturbing or difficult.
I kept peeling away at these levels of self-perception and self-deception, until I got to a place where I realized that these layers are endless. Still, I managed to access certain levels of conditioning around body image that I simply hadn’t been aware of before.
How have the pictures evolved, from the first one you shot to the most recent?
I became less attached to looking good, and better at jumping into the abyss. I began to trust what was coming up in the sessions.
Did this mark a shift in your psyche?
Yes, definitely. It felt like I was writing, directing and acting my own mythic story. And I didn’t have to explain it or rationalize it or apologize for it.
What have you learned from this project that has surprised you?
How attached I am to my idea of what beauty is, and how conditioned that idea is, how limited. How afraid I am of aging, of no longer being attractive.
But then I sort of stumbled on a new kind of beauty, one I had never identified with before, that was sensual and strong and unapologetic. It was a kind of beauty that I actually liked, one that I wanted to hang out with.
It felt like I was writing, directing and acting my own mythic story. And I didn’t have to explain it or rationalize it or apologize for it.
I did part of the series in Varanasi, India. Varanasi is an amazing place. It’s basically a charnel ground. It’s where people go to die. Sex and death are so intertwined in our psyches. I did a photo series in my room. I felt very safe and I was in a really good space mentally. But when I looked at the images there was a lot of sexual violence in them.
Your suffering must have been enormous, both in terms of the actual assault, and the more insidious effects of it that followed over the years.
To be honest, if I had felt more pain at the time of the rape I think it would have been better. For 30 years I barely thought about it. Occasionally, I got the idea that it had affected me in ways I didn’t understand, but I had shoved it deep down inside me in good British fashion.
I believe that we are more than the sum of what happens to us, but in a very real sense I had avoided the pain. I had removed myself from the experience. I knew so many women who’d suffered far worse experiences than me. It felt indulgent to dwell on it. So I ignored it. I think I had become afraid of my own feelings. Maybe I thought they would engulf and overwhelm me if I let them in.
And then the lid came off in my mid-40s. I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. One thing I’ve learned is that you can only ignore the subconscious for so long. If you have disallowed genuine feelings at the time of some key traumatic event in your life, at some point you will probably have to feel it. If you don’t it can keep raising its head in other ways—in fits of inappropriate anger, in depression or hyper-sensitivity. It can mess with your relationships, with your confidence, with your ability to carry out your ambitions, and you’ll always sense it lurking somewhere like a Gollum, like a shadow self.
In what ways has the photo series helped you to resolve and heal your pain?
This photographic project is just one tool in my toolkit to reframe my connection with my body. But I can say that it has helped me get in touch with a side of myself I’d been missing. The side that can look after myself and look out for myself. The side who can spot a predator a mile away and who is my own ally and defender. In other words, the Animus.
I realized at some point that I was having a conversation with myself in images, a conversation that for some reason I hadn’t been able to have in words, even with a therapist. Each photo was like a piece of code. I was telling myself a story. Of course people have always used art as therapy, but this was very direct.
Do you think there’s something in this process that might be really helpful to others, as a safe form of self-exploration and expression? Can it perhaps repair some broken links for them, in their relationship to their own bodies and agency?
Yes, certainly. That’s why I can talk about it.
It’s not that difficult to do. You just need a camera with a good timer, some private space and a willingness to step into the dark. It’s better to have as few preconceived ideas as possible. You don’t have to do it naked.
Each photo was a like a piece of code. I was telling myself a story.
Put aside the idea of anyone else seeing your work, at least in the beginning. The whole point is to get beyond this voyeuristic patterning, and to deconstruct your self-image, to find a friendlier and more honest relationship with yourself and the body.
Photos are courtesy of Rebecca Novick. The title of the feature image is ‘Readiness.’
Rebecca Novick is a writer and yoga teacher with a focus on cultural change, spirituality and human rights. Her first two books Mavericks of the Mind and Voices from the Edge were interview anthologies with change-makers and cultural innovators. She has a Masters Degree in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wales and is the author of Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism. She has just finished a book about her ten years of travel in India and is planning another about online dating.
Rebecca currently lives in Western France with her cat, Lenny, and a few local spirits.
You can read Rebecca’s contributions to the Huffington Post here.
To see the full-length interview with Rebecca Novick, and an example of her photographs, see here.