Recently, I have been working with the great acceptance of being human.
My dear friend, Jade Beall, felt I was human enough to make me a poster girl of this affirmation. And while it does turn out I am human, I am now sitting with the question—can I be okay with that?
My experiences with Jade and her medicinal photography is an example for me—and this acceptance of who we are theme—how it is an ever continuing process. A few years ago, Jade first mentioned to me she would love to take my pictures. She told me she liked my style. This invitation and affirmation was the beginning of my journey, not only with how I felt about being witnessed, but how I felt about being seen in a whole new human kind of way.
I was excited and flattered by her suggestion.
I had never been in front of a camera before where the focus was so much about me. I had never been too fond of seeing myself in mirrors, or through a camera lens. It always brought up my inner critic, so I figured the best remedy was to minimize the cause for judgment.
It took me many months to think about Jade’s invitation and how I felt about her taking my photograph. I don’t know the exact location or origin of the fear, but it was very much about being seen, and what that meant. I had to look at what I might be so afraid of—my ego struggles with wanting to be more than good enough, but not too good to upset anyone.
I have been unlearning perfectionism, and its messages, which became like irreversible imprints of false images which made their way into my mind around puberty—images I unconsciously yet ferociously clung to, and could never attain, because they were not real.
While I have studied and trained in seeing these illusions, they have stayed with me as reminders—sometimes more gentle, and sometimes more fierce—that self-acceptance and compassion are essential to my physical and mental health. My story always defaulted to one around body-image and an inability to see myself clearly. But then came inner voices of curiosity. What might happen if I faced a big fear?
Once I decided to face that fear, I needed a few more months before I could actually call Jade. Once we set the date, my worries amplified and my fears festered. Being photographed became something I had to confront—as well as my fear of being seen and of potentially not liking what I might see, which I might use to further validate my egocentric story of not being good enough—and accepting this process, which might have been so simple for others, was for me, like jumping off a cliff.
The day of the shoot came but I had already been through a huge process before I ever stood in front of Jade, or her camera. Jade immediately created a safe space for me to start to let go from my contracted state. She seamlessly welcomed me to begin to unwind. At first, I found I covered myself, my face and my body. I did not know how to look at her, or her camera. I was awkward with myself.
They were the kind of insecurities you learn and practice over time. It was as if she was challenging me to move past the self-perpetuating drama of inadequacy, but with kindness. When she told me I was gorgeous, I believed her. When she reflected what she was seeing I allowed myself to soften. When her partner, Alok chimed in with that brilliant smile of approval and love, I softened more. I actually began to feel delighted; surrender came with each click of the camera.
I started to ease up on standing strong in my conviction of ugliness, gross modesty and shame, and decided it was time to embrace my goddess, warrior, feminine, bold, bad ass self and drop the tagline I was a narcissist for letting myself feel beautiful.
Some of what I experienced that day was fear, insecurity, bravery, doubt, pride, joy, unfolding and a taste of freedom which came through acceptance—and all in just a couple of hours. Jade had a way of transforming each nuance of emotion with her devout presence into something I could meet and take on. She truly knows how to love people up with her camera, and with her heart.
I left my first photo shoot exhilarated. I thought to myself, even if I never see the pictures she took, I received something great. Just the act of being photographed was immensely healing. I moved through so many stages of meeting myself and my experiences fully, while witnessing the conditions I put on myself, and more than likely, others.
The time in between the act of being photographed and then seeing the photos was another journey.
What if I hate them? What if I don’t like what I see? Was that so vain of me to have my photo taken? Would having these pictures help me feel better about myself as a woman? Could they bring me happiness? Confirmation that I exist? And with value? What about my thought that never seeing the pictures would be fine?
Then one day, the pics arrived in my inbox. I cried; and then I cried some more. It was amazing to see myself in this brilliant way! Captured in a photo. Why had it taken me over 36 years to allow myself to be seen? I saw I was beautiful, and so very human. I saw my family members within myself in those pictures. I saw my insecurities in those pictures. I saw my aging, my blessings, my burdens and my uniqueness, as well as my light beginning to emerge; and I began to catch a glimmer of my beauty.
Another opportunity to experience my edge came a year later when I posed for Jade’s A Beautiful Body Project. In this shoot, confronting my vulnerabilities took on a whole new shape. I exposed myself to Jade—not just my flesh, and typically hidden parts, but the angles and lines and aspects of me that came with being a mother. The exposure called to light remembrances of how my body changed shape over two pregnancies and two births, and the stories my body has stored from the act of surrender to motherhood and the unexpected life that has become mine since taking the leap of faith into motherhood.
I remember writing to Jade afterward, pouring out my experiences of feeling human and connected to all beings in their most exposed places.
Jade shared a few pics with me after this shoot, but since it was her project, not mine, I had to let my curiosity subside at not being able to access all the photos she took. Still, I thought maybe I could learn more about myself if I saw them.
I wondered if I would like myself more or less? Could I even heal the wound of a dissolved marriage by seeing myself so exposed? Would I see the pictures and think I was beautiful? Enough? Worthy? Or would I find a reason to continue to oppress myself and prove I am less than? Would I finally be able to accept myself as I am? And all the changes in my life?
Then, last month, I received a text informing me a friend had seen my photo on Jade’s postcard for her upcoming collaborative show Turns Out I’m Human. On the front of the postcard was one of the photographs she had taken of me, with all of my lines and angles and hidden parts. I was amazed. I again saw my humanity and could recognize my beauty without hesitation. I actually giggled.
Today I wonder, is there something special we need to do to embrace our humanity? Is it just about accepting the cycle of doubt and instability, only to sparkle in acceptance of beauty and light? Is it about when we slip back into the stories and what we do with them? Does being human have to do with remembering our courage? Is it our practice to stay with ourselves as we discover who we are, inclusive of our lessons, our imperfections and our unique brilliant essence?
How does the course of development show up on our faces? In our bodies? In how we put ourselves out into the world? Is it enough just to show up? To sit with the questions? To let ourselves fall and then get back up? Why would I expect I would ever have it all right, or perfect? Is it this just being human that sparks the question, is that enough?
I will continue my practice of meeting each moment and not shutting down—whether my clothes are on or off; whether I am in front of a camera, in my garden, on my meditation cushion, with friends or solo.
May we all remember this being human thing is a precious gift. And may we honor who we are in our light and our radiance—along with all of those around us on their own journey and struggles—and acceptance of this sacred remembering of what it means to be human.
My name is Michelle Holly Marks and I am a mama/yogi/therapist/heart tender that is committed to creating and offering practices that lead to embodiment, personal empowerment, joyful living, and a return to radical self-love. I support folks that are ready to journey deep on a path of personal growth with a recognition that individual transformation can serve all beings and social change. I live in Tucson, AZ and have a practice, Temple Love Yoga.
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