Those of us on the outside don’t understand

WARNING: Discussion of Self-Harm

There are a hundred ways to self-harm, but most of those who think about it, will think about what’s shown in the images here: the use of a razor blade on your own skin. Burning, carving, pinching, self-hitting, self-biting, hair pulling, food restriction, foreign-body ingestion, over exercising, sleep deprivation, sitting outside without proper attire, repetitively engaging in unhealthy relationships, neglecting medical intervention.

There are even more reasons why someone would choose to do so.

We, on the outside, think they might be doing what they do to draw attention to themselves but more often than not what they’re seeking is far more internal. 

“Many factors play a role in their decisions to self-injure. These elements fall into four broad categories: (1) environmental influences, (2) direct media influences, (3) peer group dimensions, and (4) internal psychological elements.” But boiled down to simplest terms “It temporarily reduces tension and restores a sense of equilibrium. It has powerful communication aspects, provides a sense of control and empowerment.”

(From: Treating Self Injury, a Practical Guide. B. W. Walsh)

It’s entirely possible that they’ve lived a life full of pain. Pain from being abused in some way. Pain from a medical condition. Pain from abusing substances. They spend so much of their lives experiencing that pain that when it’s removed – something is missing.

It’s entirely possible that those who’ve experienced trauma in the past grow to feel that they don’t deserve good things, and when those good things happen, they retreat to return to what they know. 

If you’re like me, there’s likely been times in your life when you’ve done something in response to a bad situation. I remember pounding my fist on the steering wheel of my car over frustration from a job I once worked at. I was left bruised, and the steering wheel suffered as well, but under no circumstances did I feel like I deserved what I did to myself, it was a ‘vent’ to a bad situation.

Over the course of the time I’ve been making images for Woman as Art, I’ve seen this several times, as has been displayed here. What these strong women have told me is frequently what’s going on inside their world is so loud – that the only way to silence the noise, or calm the inferno, is to gain control through self-destruction.

To find relief. “It hurts but it doesn’t hurt, maybe because I can control it.”

In the end, it’s something that has clearly marked pain.

It’s something that’s written all over them.

It makes them Woman as Art.

Bilateral Mastectomy

I had to look up the meaning, and when I messaged my friend to tell her that if she wanted me to document this journey that had been forced upon her, I’d be more than happy to do so. She said thanks, and a couple of weeks later reached out with an idea that came to fruition this past weekend.
Noni has been in Woman as Art before and done boudoir, but this was the first time she brought her whole family, and friends, and clippers, and scissors.
In fact it was the first time I’ve photographed anyone getting their head shaved before starting chemo.

The process was later something that she described as ‘therapeutic for all of us’ and accomplished something that she wanted – to be in control of some part of the process. She said, “None of this was anything we have control of. I love that this is one thing I can do on my own terms and not be “the victim”. I guess it just kind of feels like if I can do this on my own terms then I’m almost taking the control back in a way.”

She entered my studio a fighter and left even more so.

The Scars of Life

TRIGGER WARNING – Self-harm discussion follows.

For those of us who have led what you might consider a ‘sheltered life’, the thought of someone intentionally harming themselves is likely something that we’ve heard about, but not spent a lot of time dwelling on.

It was inevitable that when I began my Woman as Art journey, I’d run into a client or model who bears such scars.

I have photographed several.

Self-injury Awareness Day was created to break down the stereotypes that many of us have about self-harm, and I chosen to support those who have been affected by wearing orange – and by posting this image of a beautiful friend.

Though remaining anonymous, she has graciously shared her story with me, much of it will be including in the forthcoming Woman as Art book.

2 million people in the US have injured themselves in some way, and there are a thousand reasons why – but the reason that I found that hits me the hardest is – they’ve just been numbed by everything else in their lives, and just want to feel SOMETHING.

Even after treatment, my friend still tells me she has wandered the razor aisle, fighting the urge not to fuck up.

For fighting a daily battle, you are Woman as Art.

If you want to speak with an expert, check here:
https://www.crisistextline.org/selfharm

My Story Has Been Written Into Existence

Like most people you come across, there are two Sides to Ms. “Anonymous”.
Hers are a bit more polarized.
One Side has a Master’s degree, is an accomplished artist, pianist, and writer. This Side flashes a beautiful, knowing smile and a quick, sharp wit.
That Side struggles with the Other.
The Other Side endured years of child abuse, substance abuse, medical trauma, and symptoms of various mental health disorders. The PTSD experienced by the Other Side controls every aspect of her life, from her sleep to her showers to her meals. It affects her ability to form relationships, fulfill every day tasks, and do many of the things that you and I take for granted.  It is also does things that the Side that everyone sees frequently has to hide from the public.
The Other side has caused her to self-harm, and sends her to therapy on a regular basis.
As you might expect, it’s the Other Side that reacted the evening of December 13th, 2018 when she got a notification that mistakenly said – that her health insurance had been cancelled. Without health insurance she could not continue therapy or get medication.
“A” related to me that ‘not being heard’ is something that is a ‘trigger’ over her life. And that’s what she was faced with again, soon finding herself lying on the kitchen floor of her apartment, with things running through her mind that you or I couldn’t fathom. It was, perhaps, an effort to regain control and be heard that led her to make a phone call looking for health insurance answers. Unfortunately, it was that phone call that led her to a place where she would not be heard. That phone call to a mental health crisis line, hoping to get help with health insurance, actually led to the police showing up at her front door for a welfare check. It led to a ride in the back of a patrol car to the ER. It led to her being presented with a clipboard. It led her to a form, signed in a moment of crisis. It was thought to be for a 24 hour stay in a behavioral health center.
That stay ended up being six days.
There she was only permitted to wear blue patient scrubs.
Those scrubs would become a symbol of losing control. And later in my studio, after much deliberation and discussion with her therapist, they would become a symbol of taking it back.
She would put the scrubs back on, willingly and of her own choosing – and pose for photos.
I was not aware of the entire plan before it happened, and I think that contributed greatly to the images that were made.
Now, in her own words:
““Why now?” my counselor asked.
““I’ve tried writing about it and I can’t get through a paragraph without crying. I can’t not express it. If I don’t do it now I’ll never do it. I will attempt to proceed with my life while tucking it away only to have it eat at me until I self-destruct. Plus, I’ve never had the opportunity to face something traumatic soon after it happened. I HAVE to do something.”
“I knew he was concerned. Fuck, I was concerned. We both knew I was risking my mental health by choosing to step back into a traumatic experience and recreate it. I had been alienated, oppressed, and subjected to dehumanization with no evidence of my damaged existence other than the memories that forge the words of my story. That story demanded to be heard.
(And now, in my studio.)
“I’m so nervous I’m already shaking.” He has no clue. As we get ready to shoot, I turn to ask, “Um, can we put on music?”
““Do you want me to put on something or we can use your playlist?”
““I’ll put on mine.” Cliff isn’t expecting what I am about to do and I am certain his music would not vibe with it. I struggle to connect my phone as my hands shake. I select “shuffle” and Only You by Selena Gomez plays. The bass vibrates the floor and shifts the emotional dynamic. I turn to say, “Just be ready to shoot.” It’s a warning. He moves across the studio to set lights as I drag my backpack to the bathroom, still concealing the items I had brought. I slow down to gain control. I take off all my clothes before removing the scrubs from my backpack. I take a deep breath and focus on the music before putting them on. I take a moment to adjust and reflect. I haven’t worn them since leaving the unit. I go so far as to tape on the hospital band I had worn that identified me as just another number in the system. This time is different. This time it is my choice to wear them. My mind is blank. Overwhelmed. Just do it. My legs are concrete. I open the bathroom door and expect to see him waiting in his office chair. He’s not there. I step to the corner of the wall and peak around in search of him. He’s positioned himself facing the wall, leaned back in the metal chair, legs spread, camera in hands at his lap. Waiting. His posture is too relaxed to be expecting what I am about to dish out. He sees me and lights up with excitement and curiosity. Hahahaha, oh shit. I step out from the wall and expose my wearing scrubs.  He immediately stiffens his posture upright in response to having realized the seriousness of the matter. He brings a hand to his mouth, and a sound escapes his lips, as he muffles his crying. Fuuuuuuuck. I look at my feet and step forward with caution, hesitant. I’m distracted by his reaction and avoid making eye contact, or I will not be able to reach the necessary space to bring the past to the present. I stop just before entering the space and rest my head in my hand. I fight my body’s response. I’m not ready. I maintain my composure and move forward, slowly walking the perimeter of the room to avoid his distraction while I reflect.

“I reach the other side of the studio and turn around to return to the space he created. He’s somehow managed to pick up his camera and follow. I step into the honeycomb light and sit on the floor with my legs crossed. I feel emotionally exposed, and I hate it, but I let it happen. I think of the untold story. I think of the paragraphs I couldn’t force myself to write. I think of the nights spent away from my dog, us equally confused without the presence of each other. I think of sights that will never be seen. I think of voices that won’t be heard. I think of footsteps pacing the long, sterile hallways. I think of yelling and loud thumps in the night. I think of medications forced to be taken. I think of being woke with a sharp prick in the crook of my arm. I think of those who visited, those who should have, and those who did not. I think of days spent alone. I think of familiar voices and their beautiful greeting as they answer my call. I think of the world outside my hospital room window. I think of a drug-induced existence. I think of history repeating itself. My cheeks are wet with tears, and I am a mixture of emotions. I bring my hands to my face and allow myself to feel it, to cry. “The past meets present, and I am caught in the in-between. I had never really left the unit. I’m lost. I don’t know where Cliff is, and I don’t care. My body is heavy and tired. I am tired. I try to resist, but I give in. I curl up on the floor, my universal sign for surrender. The floor is cold and hurts my body. I can’t get comfortable, but nothing about this is comfortable. I seek refuge in the space I’ve created, hidden behind the hair that covers my face. He steps into my vision and is with me, wherever that may be. He keeps a distance and continues to photograph my falling apart. I hug the floor and wipe my tears I as I have done many times before.
“Cliff then sits on the floor in front of me, uncertain. Eh. I tense up. He scoots closer and put his hand on my shoulder in an attempt to comfort. I don’t say it. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.  Don’t touch me.  Perhaps my feeling uncomfortable stems from the fact that most times I’ve found myself hugging the floor was after I’d experience abuse at the hands of myself or others. This is new, foreign. It’s a drastic system override. I let it happen. I am pulled up off the floor and held, supported. Dissociation initiated. I become a rag doll. I want to enjoy this, and perhaps I do, but my mind cannot process kindness or anything that isn’t a painful, firm, inappropriate touch. I want it to end for my sake and his.
“Time has no limit. I blurt out, “FUCK!”  and explain the story behind such random profanity. I share humorous stories of my experience in an attempt to lighten the mood. He listens. I hope he feels better because I don’t. I am consumed by emotions that are demanding to be felt, intensifying with each wave. He distances himself and respects the space as I continue to silently cry.
(At this point I excuse myself from the studio to attend to another matter, and it was probably a good thing for both our sakes that I did.)
“I remain seated on the floor long after he’s left. The wave I fought crashes, and I am I ugly crying. I am angry.
“I think of the scrubs, and the moment I first put them on while in the unit. Submission looks like the color blue, and there’s nothing more defeating than being forced to be someone you’re not. My words were wasted breaths of air. The more you plead innocence, the guiltier you become. The truth can’t help you when you’re surrounded by those who don’t want to hear it. It was all too familiar. Deja vu. History had repeated itself, and I thought I had broken the cycle. Too many times hope had arrived at my doorstep and knocked only to be dismissed. Hope looks like red-and-blue flashing lights announcing the arrival of a potential savior dressed in uniform. Hope didn’t come for me. I stood at the window and watched as it walked away. If anyone was to save me, it had to be me. It would always be me. Again, I had to save myself. “Play the part.” A fail-safe strategy for survival. The biggest risk was losing myself. My being forced to wear scrubs was symbolic of hope lost. They sealed my fate the moment I put them on.
“I bring my hands to my face and let out a loud wail. I rock back and forth at an attempt to soothe myself. I can’t breathe. I lean forward and grab at the floor. Everything that I had suppressed has breached the surface. Emotional barfing. I’m scared. I’m scared of what I’m feeling. I’m scared because I cannot see beyond this moment. I’m scared because I have been defined by this trauma and don’t know what my life looks should I let it go.
“Let it out. I emotionally barf until I have nothing left. I’m cold. I pull into myself, bringing my knees to my chest. Numb. I sit and wait for the next wave. Nothing. I pick myself up and grab my flannel. I walk around the studio in an attempt to ground and bring myself to the present.
“I am here.”
“He is here.”
“My story has been written into existence.”

My anonymous friend, you are Woman as Art

If you find yourself asking, ‘why?’

I ask client about a photo session.
Her reply, written later, “I found it awkward because any picture I do have of my self is for some sort of accomplishment. There is a reason or purpose in documenting that moment in time. I earned it. Never would I be photographed without reason and I didn’t have one. I felt to have a photograph of myself, aside from the usual selfie, would make me arrogant.

“If you find yourself asking why, here is my answer, “Woman by their very creation are walking, talking works of art. Way too many have lost the concept of their beauty. Woman as Art is a project that celebrates the masterpiece in all of them.”

Grace

Grace in women has more effect than beauty. ~William Hazlitt
I often tell the women I photograph, and they are usually surprised by it, that how a woman holds her hands and fingers gives quite the insight to a woman’s beauty. They usually say ‘these are just my hands’ and go on about how they, like the rest of them, are nothing special. It’s a simple thing but it seems to be present in every woman I’ve photographed in some way, and you can definitely see it here. Over the weekend in fact I saw that same grace in a young girl that I photographed as well.

Something to hide behind.

I’ve always used my eating disorder to hide. It’s always been something I could use to hide from my own feelings and my own personality. I used it to ignore feelings and I let people’s comments on my body and my size be the only thing I based my worth on.

This photo session made me feel like I was breaking free of all of that. Like I was done hiding behind a physical body and was ready to be a real human that deserves validation regardless of her body. Like someone who deserved to let all of that go and love herself again for who she truly is and not the person she hides behind.

In the model’s own words.