"If only our eyes saw souls, instead of bodies, how very different our ideals of beauty would be."
Sixty women, and counting. That's the number of women who have messaged, emailed, (and booked photoshoots) since I publicly promoted the Body Love Project. I had posted a thread on a few community noticeboards on Facebook, and had written that the aim was to "help women of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds, feel confident and proud of their bodies". Honestly, I wasn't sure if I would receive many responses at all; I understand it sometimes takes enormous courage and vulnerability for women to even consider letting a complete stranger, take their photograph - but I remained hopeful.
The next morning, I had awoken to an explosion of messages in my inbox. I scrolled through and read each message carefully, in absolute awe. I stared at my laptop screen as the messages continued to pour in. And in almost every email, these women began disclosing their deepest fears, self-doubts, and worries about their bodies. Some of them were new to motherhood and feeling lost in this new identity. While reading these messages, my heart broke as I read from girls as young as thirteen, admitting to their struggles with low self-esteem from severe bullying, and others approaching their 20's, desperately trying to overcome deliberating eating disorders. And in amongst these women, countless were battling depression or anxiety, and some had hardly left their houses in weeks. My heart ached for them; I wondered at what point of their lives had their self-worth fallen? Who had tried to break their spirit?
I spent nearly all morning reading and responding to an endless amount of emails and Facebook messages. I had just started booking dates for all these courageous women, and I suddenly realised the sun had disappeared and it was night time already. I turned to Pete and he could see the overwhelmed expression on my face. While I slept that night, he cleverly created a new booking system on my website so everyone would be able to book their photoshoot during the week. I was so grateful for Pete's help. I hadn't realised just how big this project was going to be, and now there was far less emails flooding in, everything seemed to calm down to a level I could handle.
Though I had intended to begin the Body Love Project in January, life somehow turned all these plans upside down, as I found out my heart surgery had been pushed back to the 30th of Jan. Now I had a dozen women booked for this project ONE week away the date of my surgery. Oops.
If you've ever walked into an exam room for something you hadn't even studied for - this felt like one of these moments.
I had this overwhelming fear that I wasn't going to be able to do it all. Or that my surgery would be cancelled again. I would over-think about everything that could possibly go wrong, and I really wanted to turn off my phone and hide under my blankets. The more I thought about my heart surgery, the more I wanted to curl into a cocoon and hide away. My dear, sweet friends would often tell me "You got this!" with such enthusiasm, and yet I didn't really feel like I "got" anything. Just a bubbling feeling of fear in my stomach. It wasn't that I was afraid of the surgery procedure, I knew I was in safe hands, with the best cardiologists in Melbourne. It was post-surgery. The promise of having a normal heart, and the uncertainty of it all.
I felt this enormous pressure to be strong. To keep my shit together. It was only an ablation after all, not open heart surgery. And it's only a "heart condition" (as I've been told before). The more I down played it into something as small as mending a broken toe, the more I felt overwhelmed. Each time people would ask me how I was, the words "I'm fine" would fall from from my lips as though I'd rehearsed it a thousand times. A robotic answer that I regretted straight after. I could blame the culture that I grew up in; where one had to be guarded and closed off from getting hurt. But that's not me. And deep down, not "owning" my vulnerability was eating me from the inside out. No matter what reactions I would receive, I had to be okay with not being okay all the time.
As I crawled into bed, I uploaded a photo from a past photoshoot onto my instagram with an update about my surgery, and this time I let the feels out. I stepped out of my safe little cocoon and admitted I was anxious. After hitting 'share', I let out a sigh of relief, and then let my overactive mind take a much needed rest. The following morning I was greeted with the rain softly tapping against my window, and I opened up my laptop to my usual habit of checking emails. One new email caught my eye, and it was from a client who had booked a photoshoot with me, and had read something on my instagram about my surgery. In her message, she thanked me for opening up about my surgery, and asked if I needed any support at all. I'd never met her in my life, and here was this beautiful stranger, offering to help in any way she could. Another messaged buzzed on my phone, and it was from one of my dearest friends offering to pick me up from hospital and look after me at home. More kind messages rolled in that morning, and my heart was ready to burst with happiness.
Perhaps if I had of hidden under my blankets until surgery, no one would have known at all, and I would have carried on struggling, but appeared as "fine". My mind flooded back to the endless women who had openly messaged me, so honestly and bravely about their own journey. I needed to be authentic to my journey too. Sharing from the heart is never easy, especially if you've been shut down before for writing or speaking honestly. What I do know though, is when you decide to truly live authentically, and unapologetically, you attract the very same "tribe" of people.
By vocalising what you stand for, you connect to like-minded people who are also experiencing similar emotions and vulnerabilities. Being passionate about a theme is, in many ways, a form of activism. Loving your own body, for example, is literally an act of resistance in a culture that so often tells us not to (or what we should 'change'). I may not be changing the world, or dramatically changing women's lives, and I'm certainly not the first to attempt such a project. But if I stay apathetic about a topic I feel so strongly about - loving ourselves wholeheartedly - then I wouldn't be committing to my own authenticity. And most likely would never have met these incredible women during my journey to photograph REAL people just as they are - in all shapes, sizes, and raw beauty.
Creativity and passion allows us to step out of our cocoon; the place we have grown to become so comfortable in, and step into something completely new. Perhaps a little daunting at first, overwhelming even, but I promise you it is SO worth it. Find your inspiration, your passion, immerse yourself in it, do what you love - and people will love what you do too.