Two years ago, if someone had told me I would be reflecting how I came to be the subject of a nude painting in an art exhibit, even a student one, I would have told them they were mad. I only broke the shorts barrier the summer before that, and then only for the hottest week of the year. My body was not a thing I was willing to show. I didn’t even like showing my arms and, until a few years before, would always wear a loose flannel shirt over my t shirts. So nineties grunge, it hurts. Eventually the shirts wore out and finding new ones was difficult, so out the arms came. I wasn’t happy about it.
I responded to Daisy Cox’s request for participants because I wanted to determine if she was friend or foe. As I said on Friday, she was very much a friend. I agreed to pose for photographs to see if I could do it; a personal challenge. One of those crazy dares to oneself. I didn’t know how much of my clothing would come off when I walked into that studio, and I was a bit shocked at how almost all of it did.
Once the initial shock wore off, it was fine. I was there, she was there, nobody was freaking out. I was just holding a pose - or not - and letting her do her thing with the camera. My reaction to the photos was mixed, but actually quite positive: I liked my body. I liked my body. How the hell did that happen, when less than two years before I wouldn’t dress for the heat out of unhappiness over my body? Estrogen is amazing stuff.
"MY BODY CHANGED A GREAT DEAL IN THAT YEAR AND A HALF FROM COMING OUT TO THE PHOTO SHOOT, BUT IT TOOK MORE THAN THOSE CHANGES TO MAKE ME WANT TO SHOW MYSELF."
The obvious things (boobs, weight loss) helped me along. My body changed a great deal in that year and a half from coming out to the photo shoot, but it took more than those changes to make me want to show myself. I was eager, in a way, to show the world. I sought validation, and I saw an opportunity to show myself that I was getting better. Hating myself is a sickness that poisoned me for years; transitioning broke me free of that. Posing nude was symbolic of my newfound freedom. In its way, it shed the last fetters and let me celebrate what I am. I wasn’t ashamed anymore.
Body shame is a widespread, often debilitating problem - particularly for women. Transgender people tend to have a tricky time with this as they have the symptoms of hormone poisoning layered onto a web of imposed social barriers that come with being divergent from one’s assigned gender. We’re told we must be a certain way while also being told we can’t be the way they want us to be.
It’s a no-win scenario. As a perceived male, this was true before being transgender figured into it: I was told I must be this image of manhood, but also told I was too fat and had the wrong hobbies. Being transgender meant I responded strongly to messages about what women should be, reacted to toxic masculine messages as girls do, and was excluded from the groups that responded to the messages as I did. The result was a general rejection of everything slathered in self loathing over my inability to join in.
"MY DYSPHORIC TRIGGERS WERE INITIALLY SOCIAL; THAT EXILE WAS PARTICULARLY DIFFICULT FOR ME."
My dysphoric triggers were initially social; that exile was particularly difficult for me. A potentially interesting side effect is that I made only superficial efforts to fit in with social groups when I was younger. It could be that I was so busy gender blending that my energy for fitting in was exhausted, so I didn’t bother. Body issues were constant, but only cropped up as an explicit dysphoric trigger after the social triggers were resolved, or so I thought. Hindsight tells me more about my extreme discomfort with my body than I was able to face in the moment.
My feelings entering the building were fairly mellow. I was with another participant and my fiancée. A third participant met us there. We went to the exhibit straight away; it was upstairs. Four paintings. I smiled. I remembered telling Daisy that her initial thought to paint six to eight was far too ambitious. We each had a statement printed on the wall above: messages of affirmation, validation, and normalisation. The most prevalent message was one of gender’s unimportance, as was mine:
My greatest desire is to be remarkable for reasons other than my gender. Let me be remarkable for my looks, my bearing, my intelligence, my talent. Let me be extraordinary for what makes me a person. Being transgender is, in many ways, only important because the people around me make it so.
This development was later in the project. The idea of challenging stereotypes was still there, but the message shifted from ‘we belong’ to include ‘this is ordinary’. My reaction to the painting itself wasn’t the emotional turmoil of the photo shoot. I was quite pleased with the result, though I worried that I might come across as boyish in the face. My fiancée poked fun at me when I said so, and she’s probably right. Despite the milestone this project represents, my brain is still catching up.
There was a book bearing the title Everywoman. Another message of normalisation. Daisy and I came up with the title off the back of a conversation following a second photo shoot that didn’t feed into this project. Flipping through the book, it was gratifying to see the our words twining with her images: our bodies, our words. Her vision. It was a quiet message; a whisper. As though we weren’t really allowed to say it aloud: “We belong, and that is ordinary.”
I plan on displaying the painting in my home, a decision met with humour and respect from others. It is a bit funny having a nude of oneself on the lounge wall, but it’s too important to me to hide. I’m happy in my skin, mostly. As with the picture viewings, I find myself part of an exclusive group that is comfortable with their body enough to display it. My only hope is that more are able to find a way to show themselves and be secure in what people see. Clara: 1. Outside world’s toxic body shaming agenda: down another peg. Countless to go.