Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Image wars

The self-esteem struggle is explored in film, artwork

Express Staff Writer

“Rebellious” a self portrait by Amanda Stelling. Describing herself as “teeny,” she admits she wishes she could pump up more like her ski teammates. Courtesy photo

March is roaring in like a lioness.

On the heels of last week's Family of Woman Film Festival—with five films focused on the challenges of women in other cultures—this weekend there'll be art on display at Friday's Gallery Walk exploring perceptions of the female form and the return of Lunafest, a film festival which is devoted to promoting awareness of women's issues using the girls' self-esteem-building Girls on the Run program as a conduit.

It makes sense that those seeking a solution to worldwide perception issues are led by women. It is the she lion that is built to be the hunter. She lacks the ornamental mane of the male because it would impede her hunt. Like her human counterpart, vanity doesn't get in the way of the job at hand.

When gallery owner Gail Severn heard I was working on a story about body issues, she submitted some nude photographs by Alan Finneran. The stark photos feature a somewhat androgynous and tattooed model melding her body with whatever surface is beneath her— a chair, a wavy sculpted bench.

Severn said that while the artist has explained to her the intent of his work—to expand the world view of what is beautiful—her clientele's reaction went from intrigued to aghast.

And we wonder why we are so confused about the "ideal."

I pondered if I should have gotten shot au natural at some point. I had plenty of artistic friends. It could have been tastefully done and, as my driver's license pictures have long attested, I have the ability to look better in pictures than in life, so the odds were in my favor.

The problem was, in my precocious 20s, while I was outwardly sassy, it was a bluff that I conveyed for my lack of self-confidence. When I look at pictures from those years I think I look great, even though I know at the time I didn't feel great.

There's a quote circling Facebook to the effect of "I wish I were as fat as I used to think I was." There you go.

Even now, in my late 40s, when Oprah says I should be embracing and loving me, and I am preaching to my friends and daughters to love themselves, firing off supportive missives and pithy quotes for emphasis, I'm still bluffing after all these years.

When I posted my musings on Facebook, I got the expected, blind supportive flattery we all throw out, but some real surprises too, from men. Granted, I tend to run in a circle of more enlightened/artsy men, but it gave me a new perspective on the topic—men are often just as confused as women.

It isn't all about woman and girls, turns out, men are confused and self-conscious. My father's own fragile narcissism as the aging dashing jock and power broker drove him to suicide at 67.

"This issue of not accepting ourselves is hellish," said colleague Charles Boisseau, a journalist and

actor. "We imprison ourselves. Don't think that males don't have issues with this stuff. I was always insecure about my height. I was 5 feet, 2 inches when I was 16. Grew 6 inches in the next year or so, but still there is a sense I don't measure up, in this case literally. It goes to core growing-up issues in many areas. I felt I learned to put on masks that only now in middle age am I willing to shed for the sake of freedom."

He admits he's still in the bluffing stage of acceptance.

"I went skinny dipping last year—impromptu—and it was thrilling but uncomfortable. That shyness and feeling I was less than ... less than what?"

Writer Deborah Quinn Hensel said, "When I was a size 6, I thought I had no breasts. I got constant compliments on my legs. Now, two kids and about 40 years later, I have more décolletage, but it comes with a muffin top around the waist and the legs just don't have the same appeal. We're never happy, are we?

"I don't think any woman ever feels 100 percent confident about her body. Look at all these absolutely stunning movie stars and models. Most of them have it all and I think there are very few who believe it. It causes them to act out in other ways—eating disorders, reliance on totally clueless stylists, alcohol and drug abuse, plastic surgery, excessive exhibitionism."

Amy Bowman, who played basketball in high school, her long legs carrying her effortlessly across the floor, shared this:

"Last year I gained 50 pounds due to a medical issue. Once I resolved the issue and lost the weight, I felt like I emerged from an alternate universe. Heavy Amy wasn't me, and the real

me had returned. I'd pass a mirror after I lost most of the weight and think, 'Oh, there I am. I'm back.' That's how mixed up I am about weight. I'm only myself at a certain weight. Otherwise, it's not really me."

The fact that people don't fit our preconceived notions of how they should feel about themselves, like the contradiction of the oft-validated celeb who claims raging insecurity confuses too.

As Bellevue sculptor Mark Sheehan found in an early art class, those who "should" be self-conscious aren't always.

< "I took life drawing classes every semester for three years," he said. "The instructors brought in all kinds of body types, both male and female. A pair of models stand out in my memory. They were lesbians in a relationship and had to weigh between 250 and 300 pounds. They were quite proud of their bodies and comfortable with each other. They were the most fun to draw. This was an eye opener for me. It showed me that beauty is between the ears."

Boston artist Jane Maxwell, who will be in Ketchum this weekend at Gilman Contemporary for a reception and to participate in Friday evening's Gallery Walk, uses her creations to convey her inner dialogue as well as the outside forces that feed on society's attempts at reconciling perceptions with their realities.

The mother of two teen girls, Maxwell worked in public relations before embarking on an art career.

"I was exposed to how one article or one feature could send an entire trend in motion," said the pop-culture junkie. "The power of the media is astounding. I draw emotional fuel from what I read and watch. While I struggle with our culture's insistence on the body ideal, I also thrive on it. It's complicated stuff."

It's something that I spend a lot of time reflecting on, and I certainly find it at times really, really exhausting. My goal is really less about changing the feminine ideal and more about a personal expression of how complicated this quest for the feminine ideal is."

Her silhouettes are filled with a collage of ephemera. Lately, instead of the sashaying women usually featured, she has them in contemplative poses. Not a resting-on-their-laurels pose, but more a we-keep-talking-the-talk-but-we're-not-walking-the-walk posture.

"I strive every day to be that ideal woman," she said. "I read the magazines, I buy the clothes, I count the calories. I spend all day long carving her form onto my canvas. At the end of the day, I have a deep ambivalence about this ideal woman."

She admits that trying to model her perfect world view to her daughters from such a precarious personal spot is difficult.

"Since I had such a difficult body image growing up, and it has been an issue that is still with me today, I was determined to do whatever I could to create healthy images in both of my teenage girls."

Because her art is like handing her personal journal over to the girls, she has had to try and explain her apparent hypocrisy.

"I have talked openly about my struggles and what I've learned on my journey."

Mary Fauth, executive director of Girls on the Run of the Wood River Valley and host of Lunafest, said she also struggles with this issue herself, but strives to emphasize self-confidence-boosting tactics to young women.

"It's when we're doing things we love and being truly happy where we are that our beauty shines through no matter what our body shape is," she said. "It's a constant problem for women, and no matter how much you work on it, we all fall victim to bad self-image. I've been disappointed with myself only after I looked in the mirror—which makes me wish I'd just kept going with my true mental image."

A Facebook image of a friend looking serene wrapped only in a sheet led me to Wood River High School senior Amanda Stelling, a photographer who devoted her senior project to documenting "Real People, Real Beauty," which had subjects stripped to the least possible, with a simple sheet or scarf as a wardrobe.

Stelling doesn't lack self-confidence, though she is smaller than she would like to be as a ski racer for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation alpine team. But she resists complacency when it comes to self-image.

"For me, real beauty is being approachable, walking around with a smile on your face—it makes people see your beauty in a different way," she said. "I could have gone to Curves and shown the beauty of empowered women, but I wanted to show beauty in a variety of ways."

Her subjects included all ages and both sexes.

She saw the inner conflict in some of the posers when they resisted the project and in others once the camera was on them, but many were incredulous at the beauty that Stelling was able to capture with her unaltered photos.

As a girl who always pushed against the status quo, Stelling said she hopes to continue to contribute to changing self-images, one click at a time.

In a recent talk here on depression, actor Ashley Judd said discussing a problem without a solution is abusive, but it appears that in the case of body image and living one's authentic life, be it at 500 pounds or as a different gender than we were assigned at birth, we've got a long way to go, baby.

Like most things, change comes from adversity turned advocacy, and there's plenty of both on this issue.


What: Short films by, for, about women.

When: Friday, March 9

5 p.m. Free Kidtube fest showing inspirational films for young people by local youth.

6 p.m. Silent auction to raise money for Girls on the Run of the Wood River Valley and the Breast Cancer Fund. Preview bidding for trips, snowshoe and ski pass packages at

7 p.m. Showing of Lunafest films.

Special honor: Sophia Sturgeon, Hailey Elementary School fourth-grader will read her winning essay on "How Girls on the Run has made me fearless."

Where: nexStage Theatre, Ketchum.

Tickets: In advance at all Sturtevants, Chapter One Bookstore and online at Students and seniors $10, adults $15, $20 at the door.

Info: Mary Fauth, or 788-7863.

Meet the artist: Jane Maxwell

When: Thursday, March 8, 5-6:30 p.m.

Where: Gilman Contemporary, 661 Sun Valley Rd., Ketchum.

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