Oh my goodness, I just spent 30 days taking pictures of my nearly naked 311 lb body and posting them on the Internet. I just spent 2 hours a day for 30 days learning what my body looks like in its entirety while inviting the belief that it is beautiful exactly as it is. Holy crap! I took pictures of my nearly naked body in very public spaces while operating from the belief that I am powerful and beautiful. Sweet baby Jesus, I asked for support from friends, family and strangers to help me through the process of dismantling a core belief that I am lacking desirability because of the size of my body. Praise all things holy and sinful, you know what I figured out? I am indeed desirous, powerful, beautiful and capable of stepping into brilliance, completely rooted in love and possibility!
As a part of my regular art process, I walk through my neighborhood at night, listening to music, dancing in the streets and writing love poems in chalk EVERYWHERE! One night just over a month ago I was stewing in series of quotes and phrases, “I Dare U 2 Be”, “Be Brilliant”, “Be Brave”, “Remember the Magic”, “Tackle the Mother Fucking Shit Out of Love” (side note, Cheryl Strayed wrote the best definition of love I have ever encountered, read Tiny Beautiful Things and you will see). As I was walking I thought about my body and what it would look like to dare being brilliant, brave, magical and in love with my body. At first I wrote “be Vulnerable” across my stomach then I realized seeing myself as beautiful is one of my greatest vulnerabilities so I wrote “BE BEAUTIFUL” across my stomach snapped a photo, shared it and declared via social media that for 30 days I would redefine beauty. I decided to call the project the “BE BEAUTIFUL Project”. The project was largely influenced by “The Body is Not an Apology’s 30 day RUHCUS PROJECT”.
In doing the BE BEAUTIFUL project I dated my body for 30 days. I took it to all my favorite places, put it in juxtaposition with some of my favorite pieces of art. Every day I took time to recognize how beautifully fierce, and gracious my body really is. When it was in joy I met it there, when it was in sadness I honored its sadness, when it was sassy I bore witness to its sass. Each date commemorated with a photo of my body and the words “BE BEAUTIFUL” written on it. With every photo I found something new and inviting about the house I’ve been living in for 34 years; the one I never paid mind to. It was not easy at all, but love is not easy and learning to practice self love has been worth every ounce of the struggle. Challenging an internalized belief that I am lacking desirability because of the size of my body is a necessary service to my work, my community and myself.
Over the past few months I have been blessed to be part of a body politic think tank at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. As a group we are engaging the question “what sits on the other side of my body’s shame and joy?”, That is a hard question to answer. For me in order to understand what sits on the other side of body shame and body joy I have to engage my internalized body shame and invite the possibilities of body joy. Given that I have been a woman of size my entire life raised in poor, suburban, white, American culture my core belief systems are steeped in shame and invisibility. What better way to challenge those internalized beliefs than to examine images of my body on a social network setting. A place completely at the intersection of my given family, people I grew up with, people who only know me in the context of art, and my current chosen family.
The first picture I shared I was wearing a bright orange tight fitted slip, in black letters I wrote, “BE BEAUTIFUL” across my belly.[Image description: In this image, there is grey carpet on the floor. There is portion of a white wall on the right and a the border of a white mirror. In the mirror’s reflection is a large woman’s body from the waist down. Her elbow are up at her side. She is wearing a tight fitted orange slip that stops mid thigh with a flat lace orange panel on the front of the dress. She has fair white legs. She is standing.]
I wanted to vomit when I shared the image on my social media page. I was so scared of all the horrible things people would say in response to the picture. Contrary to the voices in my head, nearly all the responses I received were in love and support; all except one. A woman I do not know said, “I hate it when anyone wears skin tight clothing. There are so few people who can wear this kind of outfit.” I was crushed. I waited, terrified, to see if anyone would respond. Then my badass, foxy, fat friend Sara McChristian responded with “anyone can wear this kind of outfit—if its comfy then wear it—if it makes you feel good then wear it—if you don’t like it don’t wear it—but the notion of “so few” is invalid—pull it over your head or zip t up—put on some sexy shoes—accessorize—and rock on with your bad self”. All I could think was, “AMEN, thank you! Holy crap thank you, now I can keep going. I am not alone. I am not alone.” Thankfully, there weren’t too many more hater bumps in the 30 days. The few times there were all I had to do was ask people for support and knowing it was there made it possible for me to keep going.
My history and upbringing have made it hard for me to ask for help and support but it has been necessary in this journey and no time more than during my final picture. In early August, I was coming home from San Francisco to the East Bay on the subway and was harassed to the point of having to sneak off the train in order to get away from a frighteningly aggressive man. I have not experienced that type of harassment much in my life. One of the occasional privileges that come with being a larger bodied white woman is that I am often seen as a mama, best friend, or invisible. Which is to say, I am generally not sexualized. In shooting the final photo for the project I wanted to reclaim the subway as a safe space so I reached out and asked my community to join me for my final shoot on the train. I also asked my best friend and platonic life partner, Sonya Renee Taylor to help me get ready. Sonya, challenged me to engage a body ritual prior to the shoot. In the ritual she said a prayer for each part of my body; all the places I held shame around over this 30-day journey. She then wrote the word “beautiful” in bold black letters on each part. I wept, laughed, felt incredibly seen and awkward all the same time. It was grounding and powerful to exist in that vulnerability with someone. When I arrived at the train station I was so thankful to see such a broad spectrum of people come in support of my reclaiming. My friend Airial Clark took the picture, while a crew of badass friends stood in front of me keeping watch. Having them there made it possible for me to boldly stand in my lacy panties and bra with “beautiful” written all over my body. I felt seen, protected, powerful, vulnerable, and affirmed. It was a necessary completion and I am forever grateful .[Image description: In this image, a large white woman is standing on a subway train with her arms outstretched. “beautiful” is written in black marker across both of her arms, across her belly and down her thighs. Her hair is pulled up in a bun. She is wearing brown and silver framed glasses and large orange earrings. She is wearing a black bra and lacy black panties. She has on red shiny ballet slipper shoes. There is a man sitting on a subway seat to the left. His hand is near his face and he is looking away. There are several men in the background and a bicycle to the left.]
The active practice of loving myself exactly as I am is radical self love. It is loving all 311 lbs of my glorious body out loud in public. It is engaging, challenging and dismantling the story that I am lacking desirability because of the size of my body. Doing this work in community with people who not only, helped create that belief but with the people who have spent years loving me as my most powerful self feels revolutionary. My hope is that this project serves as an invitation for everyone to investigate their perceptions of beauty, in themselves and others. Most importantly, spending 2 hours a day for 30 days invested in seeing the parts of my body that have been made invisible and shamed as actually beautiful has made it possible for me to see others in full visibility and love. I am whole perfect and complete exactly as I am and exactly as I am not which is to say, I am absolutely beautiful and so are you.
To see the full 30 day project visit me at my website or facebook Fan page:
Denise Jolly is a Writer, Performer and Artist Educator. She is the former Executive Director of Seattle Youth Speaks and Vice President of Stronghold Productions. Denise’s work stands at the intersection of gender, class, sexuality, and body. She has taught and performed at colleges, universities, community centers, and public and private schools all over the United States, working with student populations in elementary through college and beyond. She likes doing great things with amazing people and being moved by art and community and how the two work together.