Traveling is one of the most important things we can do in life; it’s the most sure-fire way to open the eye and expand the mind, and it does so in ways we almost never see coming. Last fall, at the flea market in Paris, I stumbled upon a vintage postcard featuring the photograph of a voluptuous nude woman, curled up Indian-style atop a square-shaped pillar, like a fertility statue on display at the Met. Thinking it was the most arresting nude photo I’d ever seen, I pocketed it for about 2 euros, later discovering that it was a quite famous picture made by the photographer Cees van Gelderen. I’ve had the little print on display in my home ever since; at first it hit me like a bolt of lightning, and it’s continuously seeped deeper into my psyche. Maja, the woman who modeled for it, is so moving to me. Her body is unbelievably beautiful, and the longer I’ve lived with her, the more I’ve admired it. Images have so much power, and this one really got me thinking about what a massive lie women today have been sold, about how destructive it is to have only one standard of beauty. Dealing in images of women is my job; I look at them all day long, so why is seeing this shape in a celebratory light such an anomaly?
Mainstream aesthetics insist that only skinny is sexy (at best, curvy girls are relegated to the fetish domain), and it’s not only arbitrary and untrue, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Studies consistently show that the majority of women are dissatisfied with their bodies ~ dissatisfaction is so prevalent in fact, that in the U.S. being worried about your body and your weight is considered an intrinsic part of being female. How is that okay?! Why have we agreed to conform to a narrow set of standards that allows for no alternative?
Personally, it took me a long time to feel comfortable in my body; to be honest, that’s still a work in progress. As a young girl, I only understood nudity as something sexual, and while I didn’t understand what that meant, I knew it must be bad. I was too shy to even be seen in a bra by my own mother, and to this day I haven’t fully shed that deep-rooted discomfort. I have always been a naturally thin person ~ but I’d love to lose 5 or 10 pounds.
“Gazing into the mirror, I see my flaws long before my beauty: my arms aren’t thin enough, my bum is a little too dimply. If I could shrink my ankles by half, I totally would. Our culture of unattainable perfection hasn’t taught us to celebrate ourselves; instead, we are constantly reminded that something needs fixing. Women are told to make themselves small (in more ways than one), made to feel apologetic about how much space we take up, apologetic for our very nature.”
Only in classic art do we see women at their Rubenesque best. The great Renaissance painters consistently revisited the image of a zaftig Venus, the goddess who embodied beauty, sex, fertility and desire. Her curves were her power!
We have conditioned ourselves to see the world as a series of dualities: black and white, good and evil, life and death, love and hate, true and false, right and wrong, yours and mine, pretty and ugly, fat and thin. Perpetuating these duplicities does not make them true. In ancient cultures, the entire universe was seen as a circle, not a set of opposing angles. In such traditions, the woman-as-goddess was revered, the curves of her body representing the entire circle of life, the whole heavenly sphere. A woman gives birth just as the earth gives birth; she gives nourishment as the plants do. The roundness of her being is emblematic of her magic.
Like most creatives, I work through what’s happening in my mind and heart by exercising it in my work. Deep in my soul, I needed to interpret (and thus digest) that postcard from Paris. I needed to take ownership over my way of seeing, to not blindly seek out what my eyes have been instructed to find. And the shoot that resulted from that impulse, the images you see on this page, genuinely shifted something within me. I’ve never in my life seen a woman as natural, as desirable, as beautiful as I did on set that day.
“My aim is not to exoticize or condemn any body type, only to remind us all that there are a million different ways to be womanly, and we should demand to see every one of them. This essay and these pictures only scratch the surface of a much larger story. The more we see, the more we know; the more we know, the less we fear. The less we fear, the greater capacity we have for love.”