In the flesh

‘Women We Are’ photo exhibit tackles body image and femininity

Melissa Hill has a handful of her right breast, the flesh taut in a stranglehold of frustration. At the same time she is pulling a fold of skin from her left hip in a wrenching motion resembling kneading bread dough, full of loving determination.

The image, frozen in black and white photography, brings home the struggle Hill faces inside her skin.

“It was very emotional,” said Hill, 37. “She asked me to really kind of focus on what I saw as my flaws, and I mean after weight gain and weight loss and babies, I don’t look like a 20-something anymore, you know? And so I just went with the frustrating feeling that I get sometimes about my body and tried to express that in a kinesthetic way.”

Hill is one of several subjects in a photo exhibit opening in February, “The Women We Are,” at AA Creative Corridor. The work is by Amanda Grieshop, a local documentary photographer.

“It’s been a challenge to say OK, yes, use that one where I’m tugging my boob one way and my belly in another way, yeah, that one,” Hill said.

The project will display images of women who are everyday neighbors from the Lansing area fully nude in postures and settings they often chose for themselves. Most are of childbearing age. One is very thin due to a genetic condition. Another is robust and full-figured. Some have scars from surgeries, others stretch marks and sagging skin.

It’s a project that turns body image and body image issues into art and therapy and meditation all in one.

It tackles beauty and self esteem in a public way. And it does it with an all-local cast of participants, something those involved take pride in.

“What my project does is it brings it home,” said Grieshop. “These aren’t celebrities. … These are women in the Lansing area. The real beauty is seeing this cross-section of America. All these people live and work in our community. They have a voice too.”

Positive body image movement

You don’t have to look very hard for a positive body image catchphrase or campaign nowadays. Hashtags ripple across the digisphere: #BodyPositive, #LoveYourBody, #BodyConfidence, #AllBodiesAreGoodBodies, #NoWrongWayToBeAWoman, #beYOUtiful.

Some companies, like Dove, have latched onto the trend for a marketing campaign. Jamie Lee Curtis helped pioneer the 21st Century movement appearing without makeup in a sports bra and briefs in 2002 on the cover of More Magazine, and topless in AARP The Magazine in 2008.

“There are a lot of contributing factors to making it seem there’s heightened body image vernacular,” said Lydia Weiss, educational program coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center at Michigan State University.

“The feminist movement has been advocating body pride or being more comfortable with the body you were born into for a long time, decades,” Weiss said. “We’re just now seeing it in the mainstream. Part of it is a marketing response. Women are responding well.”

Some companies are taking that message with the hope “maybe they’ll buy our product.”

The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which uses ads that feature real women rather than models or celebrities, has sparked controversy. Some have hailed Dove as progressive and others consider it hypocritical.

Grieshop said her documentary art project offers an honest look at femininity.

“It’s the contrast between the stark reality of what we are and what we look like,” Grieshop said. “Whether we’re mothers, with tattoos or piercings. It’s very honest, very up front.”

The exhibition, which opens Feb. 6, will include a special speaker event Feb. 19, with Tara Scott of 3 Jewels Yoga in Lansing. Scott will lead a discussion about mindfulness and mind-body connection. Several of the local “models” will attend and be a part of a panel discussion.

“It will be around reconciling the body,” Scott said.

“Reading their stories I could see everything is converging. They are reconciling with the body, and it takes a lot of courage to trust the person behind the lens. What showed up for me in her project was the willingness to embrace ourselves and muster up some amount of self love. How do we awaken that voice of self-love?”

No glossing over it

Amy Castner looks over her shoulder through the lace curtains at the window, soft light from outdoors highlights her full breasts and belly. Her face bears a sweet discreet smile relaying a sense of peace and calm.

Castner, 35, of Lansing, is a large woman.

“Being part of the project has really helped me to think consciously about how I view my body, and has given me a pretty glaring view of the reality of what I look like in a way that I can't gloss over with some pretty clothes,” she said. “It has made me think about how I've limited myself because of my weight, and helped me to realize that even if I always stay at the weight I am right now, I can be proud of being strong and healthy.”

Castner, a friend of Grieshop’s, used the project as a challenge to see herself differently.

“Seeing the photos was hard, because even though I am at peace with my body, the ‘me’ that is in the photos doesn't necessarily match how I feel they should look when I think about the ‘me’ in my head,” Castner said. “The hardest thing, I think, will be being at the opening and watching people see unclothed photos of me while I'm standing there.”

Weiss said projects like these have multiple benefits.

Certainly as art and a conversation starter for the community. But it’s also healing and helpful for the participants.

A major benefit is “breaking through some of the shame that people feel about their bodies,” she said. “When you are looking at the vast majority of media or magazines or what we’re encouraged to think about our bodies ... when you have a counter to that message it can be positive to see that you’re not the only one who has fat on their bodies or scar tissue. When you have access to an alternative to the mainstream skinny ideal or whatever that may look like, it’s positive because it breaks through the shame.”

Meant to be

The project is actually a salvage job of one that fell apart. Grieshop, 37, connected with a woman via Tumblr who was looking for photographers to help her on a project on women’s relationships with their bodies. She said she got into the project as one of 12 photographers at the last minute.

Grieshop said the project involved her documenting three models, of which she was one. In three months she said she submitted 85 images.

“Her idea was grand” — involving a book and a blog, Grieshop said.

But the others photographers didn’t submit enough work and the project was canceled.

“I was devastated,” she said. “I hadn’t put so much artistic energy into anything in 10 years’ time. I was a bit crumbled.”

She said her friends and those who had participated rallied around her.

“They said, ‘You can’t let it be untold,” she said. “I realized this has been gifted to me. So I decided, ‘Let’s do it.’ I started photographing anyone who would let me and it turned into it’s own project.”

Grieshop received degrees in both photography and art education from Montana State University in 2001. She said she taught for a while but quit about 10 years ago when she had her son.

She describes her jobs today as “mother, farmer, photographer.”

She said she lived around the country, moving with her husband. They settled in Lansing in 2007.

“I always saw myself as a documentary photographer,” she said. “This is what I always thought I would end up doing. It kind of got derailed with motherhood. This is my chance.”

Unfolding the layers 

Grieshop said she would like to continue this project for males.

“I’m curious about it,” she said. “I don’t feel men are represented at all. They are thought not to have body image issues. I’m really excited to look into that component.”

She said a transgender project is possible in the future as well.

“I feel fortunate I’m in a place in my life where I can explore these social components that are important,” Grieshop said.

Weiss said extending the conversation “about the same cultural soup that we’re born into” for men and transgender people is important.

“Those same messages are being put onto men as well,” she said. “There’s not really a conversation about masculinity and what does that mean. Think about the term ‘man up,’ it can go all over the spectrum. It is important to have conversations. Everyone has body image issues. We all have a thought about the body we live in. Unless we’re talking about it, there’s no way to understand it.”

Weiss said she hopes the focus on positive body image isn’t a fad or a trend, but something that creates lasting change in breaking stereotypes.

“I think it’s important to continue drawing attention to body love and living as your whole self and having the courage to do so,” she said. “If you’re happy with how you are, take courage and strength in that and don’t feel like you have to align with how others think about your body.”

She also emphasized that while body pride is important, we should strive to be sure it’s healthy. “Another piece I don’t want to oversimplify or overlook we can have a very strong body positivity body pride movement but it won’t address the mental health aspect of those who struggle with disordered eating and body dysmorphic disorder,” she said. “It’s not that simple. It’s not like if we all join this movement it will all be hunky dory. It’s not. We can use this photography exhibit to starts a dialogue of mental health concerns for those who do struggle.”

Feeling empowered

The project had several shoots allowing the women to explore how they feel about their bodies in image and words.

Grieshop also interviewed each of the models. “They talked about their body image history, their childhood, things they loved about their bodies and things they didn’t like.”

Grieshop then tried to have the photographs artistically “accentuate both sides,” what they liked and didn’t like and the beauty in both.

“I used what they spoke about for inspiration in the shoot,” she said.

She also allowed the models to help direct the project.

“One woman felt connected to Lake Michigan,” Grieshop said.

So in late August Grieshop and five of the subjects spend a day on a nudefriendly beach on Lake Michigan.

“We spent a day shooting out there,” she said. “We tried to give the models a voice in that respect, and to feel the most empowered.”

Hill said she knows she has made some lifelong friends with the women involved in the project. The level of vulnerability they shared created a sisterhood. It means a lot to her that everyone in the project is an everyday Midwesterner.

“I think there’s something to be said for looking at people and sharing ourselves as Midwesterners, as people who live here, right here, not in New York City not in L.A., right here in Lansing,” she said. “It’s good to be who we are and to be beautiful and to struggle and to own that.”

Hill said that’s what she learned most: ownership.

“Own your body and love your body,” she said. “This is your journey. We have this idea of the mind-body divide. That’s not real. We are our bodies. Even though I can get critical of myself. I have to own that journey.”

Hill won’t be at the Feb. 19 discussion event. But Castner will. She has a little fear but she wants to confront it.

“Frankly, I'd rather stand there naked and let them critique me in person than the photos — at least then I feel like I'd have more control and could go hide if I needed to,” she said. But there's no hiding here, so it's time to show up and stand proud."

‘Women We Are’ Documentary Portrait Project

AA Creative Corridor 1133 S. Washington Ave., Lansing Feb. 6-28 Cost: Free


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