What a photo shoot taught me about being human and feeling beautiful

May 22 | Guest post by Michelle
Photo from A Beautiful Body Project by Jade Bael.
Photo from A Beautiful Body Project by Jade Beall.

A few years ago my dear photographer friend Jade Beall mentioned that she would love to take my picture for her A Beautiful Body Project. [Editor's note: You may have seen a post about this project over on Offbeat Families.] This invitation was the beginning of my journey not only with how I felt about being witnessed but how I felt about being seen in a whole new human kind of way.

I was excited and flattered by her suggestion. And terrified. I had never been in front of a camera before where the focus was so much about me. I had never been too fond of "seeing" myself in mirrors, or through a camera lens. It always brought up my inner critic, so I figured the best remedy was to minimize the cause for judgment.

It took me many months to think about Jade's invitation and photographs of myself. I don't know the exact location or origin of the fear, but it was very much about being seen, and what that meant. I had to look at what I might be so afraid of.

My ego struggles with wanting to be more than good enough, but not too good to upset anyone. I have been unlearning perfectionism. And unlearning the messages that I need to appear like some false images that made their way into my mind around puberty. I did not realize until now how much I have expected myself to be super human.

Even though self-acceptance and compassion are essential to my physical and mental health, my story had always defaulted to one centered around body-image, and an inability to see myself clearly. But then came inner voices of curiosity. What might happen if I faced a big fear?

Once I decided to face that fear, I needed a few more months before I could actually call Jade. Once we set the date, my worries amplified and my fears festered. Being photographed became something I had to confront, as well as my fear of being seen, and of potentially not liking what I might see. Which I might use to further validate my egocentric story of not being good enough. And accepting that this process, which might have been so simple for others, was, for me, like jumping off of a cliff.

The day of the shoot came but I had already been through a huge process before ever standing in front of Jade, or her camera. Jade immediately created a safe space for me to start to let go from my contracted state. She seamlessly welcomed me to begin to unwind. At first, I found that I covered myself, my face and body. I did not know how to look at her, or her camera. I was awkward with myself. It was the kind of insecurities that you learn and practice over time.

It was as if she was challenging me to move past the self-perpetuating drama of inadequacy, but with kindness. When she told me I was gorgeous, I believed her. I actually began to feel delighted. I started to ease up on standing strong in my conviction of ugliness, gross modesty and shame and felt that it was time to embrace my goddess warrior, feminine, bold, bad-ass self. I dropped the tagline that I was a narcissist for letting myself feel beautiful.

Some of what I experienced that day was fear, insecurity, bravery, doubt, pride, joy, unfolding and a taste of freedom that came through acceptance — and all in just a couple of hours.

I left that photo shoot exhilarated. I thought to myself that even if I never saw the pictures she took, I had received something great. Just the act of being photographed was immensely healing. I had moved through so many stages of meeting myself and my experiences fully, while witnessing the conditions I put on myself, and more than likely, others.

The day came when my pics arrived in my inbox. I cried. And then I cried some more. It was amazing to see myself in this brilliant way. Captured in a photo. Why had this taken me over 36 years to allow myself to be seen? I saw that I was beautiful and so very human. I saw my family members within myself in those pictures. I saw my insecurities in those pictures. I saw my aging, my blessings, my burdens, and my uniqueness, and my light beginning to emerge. And I began to catch a glimmer of my beauty.

I had exposed myself to Jade — not just my flesh, and typically hidden parts, but the angles, and lines and aspects of me that came with being a mother. The exposure called to light remembrances of how my body changed shape over two different pregnancies, and two births, and the stories that my body has stored from the act of surrender to motherhood and the unexpected life that has become mine since taking the leap of faith into motherhood.

I remember writing to Jade afterwards pouring out my experiences of feeling human and connected to all beings in their most exposed places.

Today I ponder: is there something special that we need to do to embrace our humanity? Is it just about accepting the cycle of doubt and instability only to sparkle in acceptance of beauty and light? Is it about when we slip back into the stories and what we do with them? Does being human have to do with remembering our courage? Is it our practices of staying with ourselves as we discover who we are, inclusive of our lessons, our imperfections, and our unique brilliant essence? How do these courses of development show up on our faces? In our bodies? In how we put ourselves out into the world?

Why would I expect that I would ever have it all right? Perfected?

I will continue to return to my practices of meeting each moment, with a practice of not shutting down, whether my clothes are on or off. Whether I am in front of a camera, in my garden or, on my meditation cushion. With friends or solo.

May we all remember this being human thing is a precious gift. And may we honor who we are in our light and our radiance and all of those around us on their own journey and struggles and acceptance of this sacred remembering of what it means to be human.

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

    "I dropped the tagline that I was a narcissist for letting myself feel beautiful."

    I teach burlesque classes, and I come across this all the time from my students. As women it seems we are brought up thinking it is bad to call ourselves beautiful. But they are our bodies and our stories and they are all beautiful darn it! I will definitely be sharing this article with them.

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  2. Congratulations! I'm so glad to hear that your experience of being photographed was a positive and beautiful one. I've been on both sides of the camera and find that I learn something about myself each time I have a really engaging photo shoot with someone who is open and honest. Thank you for sharing : )

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  3. Beautiful. :) As the person who is usually behind the camera, reading this has made me want to have similar photos done, even though I'm a little more self-conscious of my body than I used to be. Thank you for the inspiration and for sharing your courage and experience. :)

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  4. Thank you for sharing this…I think so many of us can relate! The pressure to be perfect without being offensive…we hide our true gifts because we are taught to be humble, but then we end up forgetting we have them.

    Thank you for sharing your story! I hope many women read it and relate the way I do!

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