Exposure Therapy, Self-love & Beauty

Beauty | noun: the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. Typically, we think about the aesthetic qualities that make someone beautiful. A woman’s full, pouty lips, glowing skin, alluring eyes. Her perfectly sculpted body accentuated by just the right curves. We as a culture spend the majority of our time thinking only about the surface layer of ourselves about appearances. And what a shame; we are such complex creatures, even the brightest of minds haven’t fully figured us out yet. The beauty we hold runs much deeper than what can be seen at first glance.

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I know this might seem counterintuitive, as a photo does seemingly reveal only the surface layer. But again, that is just at first glance. Behind the photo lies a human who had to overcome obstacles to get in front of the lens. A human who had to expose themselves to a situation that might frighten them, excite them, incite shame, bring up insecurities any number of circumstances can drive a person to strip down and pose down for all (or none) of the world to see. That’s what I’m going to talk about today, how I came to be in front of the lens and why these photos are important to me.

Through the course of my 29 years, I’ve struggled to find my beauty. Sure, I’ve been called attractive, beautiful, etc. by others, but it never sunk in never permeated the surface. In fact, my quest to find beauty generally left it buried deeper and deeper until there wasn’t a glimmer left. So, for most of my life, I’ve been afflicted with a deep insecurity. I had this feeling, and still do on occasion, that I had more to give, but couldn’t figure out what it was or who would want it. Eventually, the insecurity manifested rather than my brilliant ideas. It buried me in an unhealthy romantic relationship for much too long, and essentially culminated in a struggle with anorexia nervosa which took over my life for the better part of eight years.

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Just when everything was about to get much worse and much more permanent, my body, in its infinite wisdom, gave me a sign a sort of pulsing and fluttering, quite like the “fight-or-flight” reaction, that told me I needed to get out of the relationship immediately and get on with my life. Take care of my SELF for once. For all those years, I merely existed, ignoring my own needs and desires, numbing myself to any emotions that came up. I felt ashamed of myself for simply being a human with wants and needs. I felt ashamed to exist because I didn’t know what I was doing here.

But my body, my absolutely beautiful body, wanted me to thrive. I remember repeating to myself over and over during those years the word, “vital,” which is defined as “having active strength of body or mind.” Somewhere within my consciousness, I knew that while my mind and body were quite active I exercised obsessively, thought in the same circles every day, ruminated over every choice, no matter how insignificant I was certainly not strong. I was not thinking for myself my eating disorder had been doing that for me. I was not exercising to build a powerful, useful body, I was exercising to make myself ever smaller, ever weaker, and ever more useless. I was sick of being here for nothing, and I was sick of letting my anxiety be my guide. That realization is when it all started to turn around.

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One day, I started sharing pictures, mostly of myself doing yoga, on instagram. People noticed, I kept sharing, and eventually it became quite therapeutic. Putting a photo out there for all to see. Expecting negative feedback. Not receiving it. It was, perhaps, not the healthiest mindset, but rewarding nonetheless. About two years ago, (right after all the nonsense started to subside) Marco reached out asking if I’d like to do a shoot with him. I felt that same pulsing and fluttering but this time I went in the opposite direction. I, who spent years tearing myself down and picking myself apart, couldn’t believe someone thought I was a worthy subject. I said “yes!” and a week later, there I was, stripping down in front of a camera, trying my best to look the part and hide the fact that I was absolutely terrified. I felt so exposed, vulnerable, disappointed in myself. I still didn’t think I was worthy. I didn’t look how I wanted to, and I certainly didn’t feel how I wanted to. But this was an incredible first step.

Exposure therapy, we’ll call it. I was afraid, and I was still reeling in the pain from years past. But I got some momentum, and often that’s all you need. I was actually delighted to see myself in the photos. I looked, physically, entirely more convincing than I felt. But that was the problem: I was approaching the photoshoot from a mindset that focused only on aesthetics, when in reality, it took a great deal of mental strength for me to get there in the first place.

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In the two years between my first and second photoshoots, much changed. I started working with a dietitian to help address and improve my relationship with food and exercise. I started lifting to create the strong body I desired. I made new friends who taught me how to value myself when I saw nothing within. And I started dating a beautiful man whom I can genuinely call a partner, lover, and friend. I created a support system. A network of people who make clear to me the strength, talent, and beauty I possess. People who want to share in my gifts. How incredible the web of life became when I admitted my very own human-ness.

And what better way to punctuate this newfound desire to fully embrace my humanity than with a photoshoot? What better way to encapsulate my emotion, my sensuality, my drive, my innate power, than by stripping off the layers once again, and getting in front of the lens. And what better form in which to showcase my progress than a strong, active body that I am immensely proud of.

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When Marco approached me about the second shoot, something must’ve been in the air, because I was just on the verge of reaching out myself. I came with an entirely different mindset. One of compassion for myself. One of appreciation – for all I’ve accomplished so far, and for all I know I’ll do moving forward. I came into this knowing myself better than I ever had, and that is what I wanted to create with these images: a vision of a woman who knows and loves herself.

The shoot itself was a delight. I felt more comfortable in my own body than I ever had, and could barely contain my excitement. This is not to say I am worry-free 100% of the time, but when I do find myself ruminating or obsessing over something completely useless or unfounded, I am much more inclined to deal with the thoughts in a purposeful, supportive manner. Which brings me to the day I looked at the photos. I literally could not believe my eyes. The woman in the photos looked so alive, so vibrant, so in tune with herself. She looked adventurous and sexual and downright delicious. And that woman is me.

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These photos are so valuable because I can come back to them on the days I’m struggling. They are a constant reminder of what I can achieve – of what dedication, drive, and emotion can get you through. And while some may look at photos like these and disregard them as vain or inappropriate, they’ll never get past the surface. To them, I say this: our bodies are our most inherent form of expression. We can create art with nothing other than our own spirit. There is no shame here. It is innate, our need to express our inner-workings. Whether we recognize that very human need is all up to us.

On my worst days, the ones when I can’t scratch the surface to see my own beauty, not even in a mirror, these photos remind me of who I am and what I'm capable of. Of a woman who is not afraid to express herself. On my best days, I am an embodiment of vitality. These photos capture just that.

P.S. Seeing the hot bod doesn’t hurt a bit, either

Marco ibanezComment