I discovered the xoJane Beach Bodies Gallery this summer when I was halfway through my self-imposed challenge to complete 60 barre classes in 15 weeks. I love everything about my barre class, including the outfits, blaring Top 40 music, and youngish moms like me who show up at 6 a.m. because it’s the best time of day to fit in an exercise class.
I love everything except the peppy rhetoric of physical self-improvement, which goes something like this:
- “This exercise targets that muffin top area we all want to get rid of!”
- “You are working to get rid of everything you don’t want to leave here with today!”
- “You are carving out your hamstrings.”
And so on.
I certainly don’t intend to demonize barre classes. Doing so would be silly given that I attend so regularly that I’m coming up on the 100-class mark. But barre class does provide an example of the ways women are constantly exhorted to improve our appearance and reminded of the ways we don’t -- and won’t ever be able to -- meet the impossible ideals for female beauty.
Finding the Beach Bodies Gallery was like stumbling on an oasis of positive self-acceptance in a vast desert. I looked at every photo (there are hundreds!) and read the note each woman had written about why she submitted her photo and how she felt about herself when the photo was taken.
I quickly realized why the gallery is so novel and fascinating: we don’t ever see photos of women’s bodies that haven’t been photoshopped (unless, of course, it’s part of a “before and after” comparison of what a woman looks like before and after a self-improvement regimen such as 100 barre classes).
So at summer’s end, when I received an email with a call for creative and scholarly projects for Love Your Body Day at Texas Christian University (TCU), I was struck with a lightning bolt of inspiration. I wanted to -- no, HAD TO -- create a collage featuring the Beach Bodies photos.
Love Your Body Day, which is sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), is meant to “challenge the message that a woman’s value is best measured through her willingness and ability to embody current beauty standards.” TCU’s version of Love Your Body Day was organized by Dr. Jeannine Gailey, an associate professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies who publishes cutting-edge feminist scholarship on sex, power, fat shame, and fat pride. The exhibit, which highlighted the research and creative activities of faculty, staff and students from across disciplines, demonstrates the kinds of events that emerge from a vibrant Women and Gender Studies program.
By the time Love Your Body Day rolled around, I had created an enormous collage arranged in a nine-patch quilting pattern that features photos from the Beach Bodies Gallery, swimsuit pics of three generations of women in my own family, and feminist depictions of la Virgen de Guadalupe created by Yolanda López and Alma López. The central square of the collage includes this quote from Ntozake Shange:
I found god in myself. & i loved her / i loved her fiercely.
I was a little shocked by the finished project. It is so big! So bold! And it seemed to have practically created itself. After some reflection, I realized that it is my way of creating a work of art that affirms women for celebrating the bodies we have, rather than the bodies we are told we should have.
First and foremost, the project provides un-photoshopped images of women of different ages, races, ethnicities, and sizes who cheerfully pose for the camera in their swimsuits. The photos remind viewers that women come in all shapes and sizes and that it is possible for us to delight in ourselves whether or not we embody current standards of beauty. I also hope to remind viewers (and myself!) that we are each lovingly created in the image of the divine feminine, and that recognizing and celebrating that knowledge can be a source of female empowerment.
Every time I look at the collage, I feel that creating it was a way of celebrating the body that has carried me through 41 years and birthed two children, just for starters. But because the whole project feels quite personal, the idea that I would stand next to my collage and discuss it with gallery-goers in an academic setting made me uneasy.
But that’s one of the appeals of the Beach Body Gallery: every woman who submitted a photo chose to make herself vulnerable for the sake of providing a spectrum of real women’s bodies for others to view. A woman gazes out from each photo, some posing sassily, some running, some leaping into the water, all challenging viewers to celebrate our bodies just as they are RIGHT NOW. Not after 60 barre classes or 12 weeks of dieting or a “Mommy Job” (a plastic surgery package that “fixes” a post-partum mother’s breasts and tummy).
When I arrived at the Love Your Body Day exhibit, I quickly realized that other participants had made themselves vulnerable, too; the resulting collection of artistic and scholarly projects was intensely personal and intellectually provocative. An undergraduate dance major had developed a modern dance set to Katie Makkai’s spoken word poem “Pretty,” which she and other dancers performed again and again throughout the evening.
A graduate student chose to use her own body as her exhibit: she stood on a platform in a sleeveless mini-dress and displayed her unshaven legs and armpits. Next to her stood a presentation board that noted that she hasn’t shaved for seven years. The board also listed some of the unsolicited comments she receives (“Eww! Gross!”), as well as some of her responses (“I do shower” and “I’m not a child. Why should I try to look like a non-pubescent girl?”).
One of my personal favorites was an exhibit by a fashion merchandising professor that featured headless mannequins wearing undergarments from the last 100 years. She had placed a mannequin with a 1960s girdle next to one wearing 21-century Spanx, and they looked almost identical. The exhibit made me realize that our “modern” foundation garments are very close relatives to the “old-fashioned,” “restrictive” undergarments of the past, and reminded me that unrealistic standards of beauty are used as a form of control over women. Need convincing? Then consider these questions: How can women engage actively with political issues if we’re literally starving ourselves? And if we’re spending all our spare time -- and money -- in places like the hair salon, Brazilian waxing studios, the gym, and, of course, barre class?
Other projects were equally thought provoking: a collage with photos of post-partum women’s stretch marks said, “Your body isn’t ruined; you’re a goddamned tiger who earned her stripes.” A project about "Brave"’s protagonist Merida demonstrated the ways Merida was made more seductive and feminine when she was incorporated into the Disney Princess line. And a series of photos featured five undergraduate women with half of their faces photoshopped and half as they appear for “real,” along with their thoughts about these images of themselves.
The gallery night had been well publicized across campus, and the exhibit space was crowded with undergraduates. When I realized that the students felt shyer than I did, I began introducing myself to each person who stopped to look at my collage. I told them everything: about barre class, and my joy in seeing real women celebrating their bodies in xoJane’s Beach Bodies Gallery, and my realization that it becomes pretty much impossible for us to celebrate the divine in ourselves when we’re busy obsessing about our back fat and muffin tops. And I explained that the collage was a way for me to connect with the divine and declare my power as feminist woman.
I still go to barre class because it makes me feel strong and because, if I’m honest, I like the ways the classes have changed my body. But every time I go, I remind myself that I am beautiful as I am, and I thank my Creator for the blessings of the body I have today. Finally, I remember that our feminist foremothers of the 1970s were right when they insisted, again and again, that “the personal is political.” The shame and stress women feel about the way we look results from intense social pressure to conform to impossible standards of beauty -- not from our individual neuroses.
Projects such as the Beach Bodies Gallery and Love Your Body Day don’t just stand up to the standard body template; they provide striking counter-examples that remind us to cherish our bodies as they are and celebrate the divine in ourselves.