One of the main themes of my life has been about coming to terms with existing in the physical form; i.e. coming to terms with being in my body. To me, this is the fundamental difficulty of human existence.
Body = pain / difficulty. No body = not here / death. It’s an age-old theme, of course, Human Body Project being my own personal take on it.
When I was in my early 30s I was visiting my hometown and ran into the mother of one of my old school friends. I told her that I was now an artist and had been selling my paintings. In a deeply condescending tone—a tone she might have used to say, if not for the impositions of appearing polite, “You always were disgusting, weren’t you?”—she said, “You always were a free spirit, weren’t you?”
That encounter sums up my perception of the environment I grew up in. I wasn’t always an artist but I definitely understood from a very young age that I was a freak. “Free spirit” is not how I would have described myself. Tormented spirit would be more like it. Before I even knew the words, I knew that who I was was offensive.
I grew up in a time and a place (Calgary) where emotions and self-expression clearly belonged only in the internal world. I learned not to express or even acknowledge what I was feeling, especially if those feelings were “negative” such as sadness and anger or just over the top.
But one of the main issues I deal with as a human being is feeling so much. I didn’t understand or give it a term until my 30s. That is, I can now say that “I have a vast emotional range.” As gay people have practically no role models to help them grow up, neither did I.
So I was a really messed up adolescent, teen-ager and twenty-something. I had some cliché issues: desperate desire for male approval, attachment to academic and professional status, deep self-loathing of my non-perfect body and deep self-loathing period, to name a few. I began drinking and smoking and binge eating and used those excellent pain mediators in one combination or another for the good part of two decades.
By my early 30s I had started painting, I started doing yoga, I had some painful relationships, and alcohol stopped being fun. In my 30s, very little was fun, actually. By opening myself up to self-expression through art, yoga and relationships while not abusing substances, my sensitivity and emotional life became more external. I went through some severe depressions and began what has continued for more than a decade now of sometimes seriously fragile physical health.
At the age of 44, I have figured a few things out: How I feel is real. My body is where I feel how I feel. When it comes to being in this world, my body is where I dwell. No matter how I have wished or still wish to get out of feeling like I do, I cannot escape the physical limitations of being in a body.
But also, at the age of 44, I am the mother of a beloved daughter. I am the happy partner of a loving man. And I am done with hating the way that I look. For much of my day, along with the ailments, crabbiness and whatever else, I feel profound feelings of love, joy and gratitude. The reason I feel those beautiful feelings is because I have finally allowed myself to inch toward accepting the freak that I am.
What’s all this got to do with standing naked in a room, you may be asking?
It feels important to me to use my body as a representative human body. I cannot say how you will feel if you decide to participate in this project. What I hope for is that by witnessing another fragile, imperfect, mortal human being in a state of some vulnerability, that you will realize, if only briefly, that you too are a fragile, imperfect, mortal human being. What I hope for is that we all see how beautiful we are within this human framework.
Also, it is impossible to escape the fact that as a non-nubile but very real 44-year-old, I am standing in for women. Part of what I am saying here is: This is a real body. (And: I am angry about porn, models, Photoshop and plastic surgery.) As well, I think my out-there sensitivity and emotional range can be seen as a very female experience of living in the world.
Understanding that you are mortal, fragile and imperfect is a difficult idea to accept—as a culture and race we are nowhere near absorbing that concept. But much of my own pain has come from not being acknowledged and not acknowledging myself as that fragile, imperfect, mortal and beautiful freak.
That lack of common acknowledgement and its corresponding lack of care (for ourselves, for the Earth) seem to me to be more painful than the actual knowledge of our physicality and its limitations.
The non-verbal nature of Human Body Project 44 is important. What we feel is so watered down by social convention. To quote playwright Harold Pinter: “One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” But the self-expression activities (drawing, painting, writing, speaking into the microphone, photography) are there for you to mediate your raw experience in some way. Like me, what you feel may be something that is not immediately obvious. By giving yourself the opportunity to take part in creative self-expression, you may find you are allowing yourself to feel. To me, self-expression is one of the strongest forms of self-love.
By providing the experience of being with a fellow human being who is very much exposed and defenseless, and by giving you tools for creative self-expression, I am hoping to provoke a serious consideration of vulnerability—our own, as humans in a body, and, by extension, the troubled planet’s. The only way we will ever find ourselves living in a world of peace and compassion is by learning to love the flawed freak that is our own human self.