January 24, 2012

See Me! Hear Me! This Is Who I Am: The Century Project

Rachel (17), a cutter on the path to healing
Girlhood in America is wrought with insecurities and complexes, wounds and shame, haunting many through womanhood. It can also be inspired by hopes and dreams, rebellion and empowerment. For two decades, photographer Frank Cordelle has given voice to the many silenced stories of numerous women’s all-too-real experiences with the disgrace and injustice done to them as girls and women, especially as they pertain to the women’s body image. The Century Project, a chronological series of nude photographic portraits of more than a hundred diverse girls and women ranging in age from the moment of birth through one hundred years, and accompanied by the women’s personal statements, is Cordelle’s magnum opus.

The exhibit has toured college campuses and galleries across the nations for nearly two decades. The book of the project, Bodies and Souls: The Century Project was published in 2006. Through the women’s own words and naked portraits we learn their powerful accounts of their conflicted feelings about their bodies and their vows to own and celebrate them.

The project is heart-wrenching and uplifting at the same time, and a very important contribution to our body-negative culture with its unrealistic beauty ideals and warped ideas about sex. Opposed to those, the participating women shed their clothes in defiance, not because they are exhibitionists, but because they refuse to be censured and dismissed, demanding to be seen for who they are. Real women, with real bodies and real issues, because we all have them, to a varying degree, whether it’s beating ourselves up for not looking just right, or the shame we feel for what has been inflicted upon us, by others or ourselves.

Christina (44)
The agony is most deeply felt in the stories of the younger women, many of whom describe experiences with anorexia, bulimia, and self-mutilation. But even among the more mature women there are wounds and issues, also including eating disorders and shame about their bodies. Christina (44), for instance, a successful businesswoman, pictured in front of a mirror looking deeply into her own eyes, recounts her twenty-year history of bulimia, “a constant hour by hour, day by day struggle.”
Power and success in the boardroom countered by lonely all-night eating binges. Purging, kneeling in tears, trying to cleanse myself again and again. Desperate to be thin. Looking at myself in the mirror afterward, promising never to do it again. Hating myself even more because I knew I would. I couldn’t stop.
Christina then describes what standing during the photo shoot in front of another mirror did to her: “naked and alone, and for the first time in years, I had to see myself. It was terrifying!”
At first I was repulsed, I wanted to turn and run. All I saw was fat, undesirability, flaws, and failure.

But the more I forced myself to look, the more I began to see her. She was reaching out to me and I was willing to see her.
For Christina, posing for the project and forcing her to really see herself provided an opportunity to accept who she is, realizing that she is the one who has to give herself “permission to be content with who you are.”
Katie (16)
In fact, many of the featured girls and women describe finding the photo session to be an opportunity to come to terms with their bodies. For Katie (16), a self-proclaimed “recovering anorexic” at the time of the photo shoot, though in fact in denial/relapse, posing for the project became one of “the greatest experiences in my life, though I didn’t realize it at the time,” helping her arrive at a place of self-acceptance.

Brooke (19) describes how for years she used to hide all her scars from self-inflicted cutting, the shame and denial sucking the pride and life out of her. Posing in the corner of a bathroom, she displays the scars on her thigh and vows to take pride in her body, including her scars. “Whatever your story, it’s yours alone; whatever your struggles, they’re only yours to fight and win; and no one ever has the right to make you apologize for who you are, what you are, or why you are.” Explaining why she wanted to pose, she concludes, “This is my body and these are my scars and that is why I’m here.”

Kana (52)
This expressed desire of these women to want to be seen for who they are is a central thread. Take Kana (52), who poses outdoors, sunrays on her body, one arm lifted up, the other hand on her hip, a dignified look on her face as she displays the scar from a mastectomy, leaving one breast intact, the other gone – “sliced off, cut up, and discarded.” “Look at me. Listen to my life,” she implores us. “I am. Funny old, freaky old, scarred old me … A Woman. One of the hundred.” In fact, the Century Project features several other women marked by breast cancer, which accounts for nearly one out of every three cancers diagnosed in American women. And there are women featured with scoliosis (spinal curvature) and muscular dystrophy, large facial marks and scars from birth defects, all of them demanding to be seen for who they really are and not be reduced to their imperfections.

Many of the women report seeing themselves as somehow imperfect because of what they were told by their mothers and partners. Mondy (50) for instance, a beautiful woman pictured outdoors proudly displaying her fake breasts, shares a history of “cosmetic surgery as a beacon of hope” in her efforts to look “lovable.” As a child “there was hardly a day that my mother didn’t tell me how ugly I was,” she explains.
She ridiculed my face, my hair, and my body, especially my flat chest and my pouchy tummy. When I cried, she took me to the mirror so I could see just how horrible I looked. She never displayed a photograph of me, nor did she ever touch me except to slap my face. My mother made it clear to me that because I was so ugly, I was unlovable and unloved.”

Lumina (54)
Lumina (54), pictured quietly crying in front of a deep-blue backdrop, had breast implants over twenty-five years ago after accepting “my then husband’s verdict that my breasts were no longer as firm and attractive as they had been when we were married.”
For all those years I had never come to terms with this, so, for me to stand naked facing the camera—no props, no poses, just me—was painful at first. A deep sadness, along with some anger, wells up in me over what had been done, what I had allowed to be done to myself over the years ... and I wasn’t able to hold back the tears.

I found, though, that by the end of the session I was able to acknowledge to myself the hurts and disappointments I’ve suffered in the past, but no longer feel defeated or separated by them.
For Lumina, posing for the project became “a healing and freeing experience,” “this from a woman who has for years tried to avoid being photographed at all costs.” She concludes on a note of empowerment, joy, and gratitude.

The stories of sexual abuse were the hardest for me to read. There are several, in particular incest, statistically the most common form of abuse. Brenna (22) was nine years old when her cousin began molesting her and then her older brother’s friend, and Winnie (39) was eight when her uncle began molesting her while her “mother lay asleep (passed out) in her bed while he carried me past her open door.” A history of prostitution, heroin use, and abusive partners followed, leaving her scarred in many ways as she sought the comfort and love she didn’t receive as a child. Yet she ends on a positive note: “Today I accept my body as it is. My scars are my medals. I’ve earned them.”

Calista (30)
Calista (30) was only 6 months old when her half brother took her virginity: “That is when he claims he saw the spark in our eyes meet and he knew what had to be.” A terrible history of abuse continued in which she was sold by her half brother to “whoever would pay for a small girl with long black hair and big brown eyes and a vagina.” She was tortured in many ways; some she doesn’t remember. However, she does remember being “burned, gagged, fucked, sucked, rubbed, forced to watch adults mate, forced to rut with animals, and beaten.” Nevertheless, like Brenna and Winnie she refuses to let an abusive past define her and concludes on a note of pride in herself and love for her children. As Chris (52), who was severely abused by her father, explains:
We tell our stories not to shock anyone, but to let others know that despite the fear, the self-loathing, and the hate, we have chosen to finish our path; that the survival of a soul that has been battered beyond recognition is a triumph that needs to be celebrated.

Our pictures go beyond the scars and the stories; they shout about more than survival; they roar of strength and of hope that the next sunrise won’t be as difficult as the last.

What the Century Project so beautifully captures is the power of the naked image and word, the candid personal story and its capacity to transform. If these women can overcome the injustice done to them, after all that they have endured of sexual abuse and body shaming, so can you and I and all of us.

Ariel (18)
The Century Project reminds us too that it doesn’t need to be so difficult or traumatic to grow up to be a woman. “I’m so lucky to be a woman/girl!” exclaims Ariel (18), a big grin on her face.

Explains Mayé (36):
I see the human body
As a marvelous creation of nature […]
I am not ashamed of my body.
Through it, I gave life;
Through it, I create.

States Antrece (45) simply: “I am a goddess!”

A grounded and lighthearted energy radiate from the portraits of the older women, brining hope of perspective and peace as we age. “What’s wrong with a little sex?!” asks Eve (79) with a smile on her face, naked in the woods.

Nora (11)
And not all of the younger girls express discomfort with their bodies; some come across as delightfully free and comfortable in them. Nora (11), pictured smiling in the yard by a swing, explains that she wanted to participate in the Century Project so that people could see that she is not abused; that being pictured naked is not tantamount to abuse. When Nora was eight years old, her mother was charged with manufacturing child pornography for taking pictures of Nora in the bathtub and was not allowed to photograph her naked after that. Nora recounts how she was shamed, not by her mother, but by the prosecutor and other kids; how scared she was during the lawsuit. “Look at my picture,” she entreats us; “do I look abused to you?”
Or do I look like a happy child with wonderful parents whose only ‘abuse’ has come from those who have tried to take away our right to live the way we do.

For me, my naked bodie is normal; for me, my naked bodie is wild and free; for me, my naked bodie is being proud for who and what I am.”

Explains Jessie (14), pictured in her room blowing bubble gum wearing a polka-dotted cap sideways:
The reason I agreed to have my picture taken was, I am tired of the stereotype that all nude pictures are dirty.

These are the kinds of positive and empowering message we need to instill in today’s younger generation of women and reinforce in ourselves. Give yourself the gift of Bodies and Souls: The Century Project.

Frank Cordelle: Bodies and Souls: The Century Project (Heureka Productions),
ISBN: 978-0-9730270-3-7 (0-9730270-3-7).

(Photos copyright 2006 by Frank Cordelle. Used by permission.)


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