How Photoshoots Can Heal Your Body Image
(And how healing your body image can heal the world!)
Please enjoy this month’s article (below), from guest author Anna Strickland, a former client and current photographer whose work centers around helping people see their whole humanity through empowering photoshoots!
(Wanna connect with Anna further after reading? Find her on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, or head over to her website to grab a free body image workbook!)
My name is Anna.
I am a photographer, confidence coach, and body image educator who lives in a fat, disabled body, and is dedicated to working towards creating a world where people feel more at home in their own bodies. I’ve spent most of my life working in the circus (strange but true!), social justice movements, and finding creative ways the arts can help people work with their bodies.
I work with self-defined Survivors who are looking for ways to reclaim their body, and photograph issues of social justice to make sure the full stories are told. I strive to capture the details which make the full spectrum of this life glorious, in the hope my subjects don’t miss them.
I’ve learned that photography can be a powerful tool to be able to show yourself tangible evidence that the mean things you tell yourself in the mirror may not always be true. My aim is to invite my subjects on this journey, so they can free up some of that negative energy for the things they really love.
(Full disclosure, several years ago I did a body image coaching course with Jessi– often we hear about why it may be good to do these kinds of courses, but rarely do we hear about how the transformation keeps building and what life can look like a few years down the line, and I wanted to share a little bit about my journey to the other side.)
Let’s go back to the beginning.
I tried a lot of different things to bully my body into shape. Like most fat people, I had yo-yo dieted my whole life and nothing worked (obviously). When I found Jessi's work, I found someone who was speaking to the socialization angle of body image, and how the Patriarchal world we grow up in impacts the way we feel about ourselves. That said, I secretly just hoped that if I could just stop hating myself, then magically, I could drop four dress sizes.
I don’t think I’d ever fully understood how much my obsession with solving my body inhibited my life (even though I absolutely thought I did). But it was only when I stopped looking for the magic answer to fix my body, that I was able to acknowledge that, grateful as I am for my body, it is the least interesting thing about me. And it is definitely not what I want to be spending so much energy concentrating on.
There were a few key turning points on my journey, including when Jessi talked about the importance and belief behind body neutrality. This led me to question myself as to whether this could be possible at any size, which led me to the mic drop moment of asking myself if I could believe it was possible to love myself if I was ten times fatter?
This question blew my mind. I had spent as long as I could remember trying to manipulate and punish my body into being smaller. Could I believe that love, care and compassion are more important than my infatuation with arbitrary numbers? Could I spend less time and energy focused on restriction and control, and more time discovering and loving myself?
The potential this opened up was astounding.
In parallel to Jessi's course, I began chatting to a guy I thought was amazing, which felt like a big thing for me, as I had been single for thirteen years. He was kind and loving, considerate and gentle. Former food-obsessed me would have wondered what was wrong with him that he wanted to be with me, or tied myself in knots trying to work out how to hide what a secretly unworthy person I was.
But something began to shift. When I stopped spending all of my energy trying to hide my body, I realized I could also find ways to stop hiding the rest of me, and I let him see me. At the same time as I was learning to see myself. (We have just celebrated our five-year anniversary, by the way!)
Establishing more body peace gave me more time and energy to create more important things.
During the lockdown part of the pandemic, many of my friends talked to me about how they found themselves reverting to old coping mechanisms to survive. The pandemic isolated us, separated us from our communities, and removed a lot of our self-care options and routines. It also made us stare at ourselves on screen more than we have ever done before. In the midst of all of that, a lot of folks seemed to feel like their bodies were the only thing they could control, and spiraled into unhealthy habits. From my newly rooted confidence, I saw what was going on and realized I had some tools to help. I've taken photographs my whole life but had been afraid to call myself a photographer because I struggled with the technical stuff. But as the world began to crumble around us, I realized we did not have time for my insecurities.
I started to offer people “empowerment photoshoots,” to celebrate the body they have, rather than one that they fantasized about.
From there, a whole new world opened up; I was helping people to see themselves with the kindness that they wish to see in the world. When we say cruel things to ourselves in the mirror, we tend to totally lose touch with the fact that what we’re looking at is a human. And we rehearse this so often, we come to think that this is how other people see us, too.
But there are so many versions of us. You probably have no idea what your face looks like when you're interested or bored and want to interrupt. You have no idea what you look like when you're grumpy and trying to hide it, or trying to suppress a giggle, or learning, loving, or being compassionate. You don’t know how you look when you’re bemused or elated, and you've never seen that face you make–the one that people who love you love– when they’re in the middle of a story and just about to get to the juicy bit.
There are so many different facets of each of us that make up who we are, that we never get to see. Worse than that, we imagine ourselves to actually be the one-dimensional presentation we berate in the mirror.
We worry that everyone else receives and judges us the same way we judge ourselves. We don't even allow ourselves our own faces because we manipulate our image with filters and Photoshop!
(Note: there is a lot of talk out there about how harmful filters are for other people who may compare themselves to you, but we rarely acknowledge how harmful it is to ourselves. But as a culture, we have a habit of producing and editing images which we then find ourselves comparing ourselves to. If we’re not careful, we can very easily find ourselves thinking "oh my god, I don't look like that anymore. And that was only just a few weeks ago." And the truth is you actually didn't look like that in the first place.)
Anyway, by helping people see themselves in this way through photoshoots—as a whole, multi-dimensional human, rather than a one dimensional reflection—I’ve become a believer in its healing power.
Here’s what one woman wrote about the experience:
“I was really struggling with my self-image and feeling pretty after going through a traumatic experience. But during the shoot, I got to choose what clothes to wear, how to pose, and even the expressions on my face. It felt like I was finally in control of the narrative of my own story.
The shoot reminded me that I am more than my trauma. I am a strong, beautiful, and resilient person who deserves to feel good about myself. Through the lens of the camera (and through Anna's point of view), I was able to see myself in a new light.”
“I am a Survivor. I've been through a lot in the last 2 years, this photoshoot is a mark in the sand embracing a new me. I can go back to these images and remind myself any time of this feeling of beauty—not just physically, but on the inside too. I can see the strength and determination in my own eyes.”
If you struggle with body image, and have the opportunity to do a photoshoot with someone that you trust, who can show you all the beautiful, complicated, full and fabulous, warm, loving, lumpy parts of you, I highly recommend it.
You might begin to see yourself as the incredibly unique complex being that you are, not just as a one-stop negative narrative in the mirror.
And even if you don’t have this opportunity, you can still use photos to heal. Practice taking selfies from "unflattering" angles, and remind yourself that the body is just a body. You can even recite this to yourself as you look back at the pictures you’ve taken: "this is a human body."
Normalize being human, rather than being beautiful or desirable. Normalize allowing all of yourself to feel welcome. Because more space is created for all of ourselves, the more space we create for people who look a bit like us. And together, we can create space for more people in more bodies to feel seen, safe, welcome, and worthy of taking up space.
Personally, I've learned that the more I'm willing to show up for myself (by putting my face on social media, starting a podcast, speaking up, and standing out), the more people around me feel safe to do the same.
Have you ever shied away from the limelight because you don't want to take up space? What might have been created if you did? Who else might be empowered to shine when they see you embracing all of yourself?
As I write this, I am sitting on a beach ten minutes away from the exact spot where I shared with Jessi's coaching group that I was trying to build up the confidence to go to the beach wearing shorts, all those years ago.
A whole pandemic later—including three and a half years in and out of hospital with a body that is considerably more disabled, immobile, and four full dress sizes bigger than it was that day—I'm sitting here in a bikini, more content in my body than I have ever been.
When I stopped spending my time constantly criticizing myself, I suddenly found the time to create meaningful projects that center on inclusion and equity. Imagine the kind of world we could create if everyone did that.