My Body, My Self: Posing for Kate Sweeney

After a series of miscarriages, I lost trust in my body. A compassionate photographer helped me regain it.

Zoë Brigley
Zoë Brigley

On a frosty, winter day, I drive down to Clintonville with my passenger seat piled high with lingerie, stockings, underwear. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m on my way to an assignation. But no, this is an appointment with myself and a woman with a camera, and it is to test how far I have come in learning to love my own body. I am about to pose completely nude in front of a stranger. 

It has taken many years to come to this moment of reclaiming my body. At the time of this appointment, I am recovering from a miscarriage. I have had four miscarriages in total, and the doctors have never been able to explain why, despite all the tests. It is a great joy to me that out of six pregnancies, my two sons did survive. But still, I have in the past blamed myself for the losses and asked why my body had to fail while others’ succeeded. I have never been a churchgoer, but there were times when I began praying because I was so afraid that my body would let me down again. 

My lost pregnancies are not the only time I have felt my body was hijacked. It began as a teenager with body dysmorphia, a condition where a person cannot stop thinking about flaws they perceive in their body, which may be minimal or invisible to other people. I didn’t know it then, but I was suffering from quiet borderline personality disorder, a condition that causes not only body dysmorphia but also extremely low self-esteem, fear of abandonment and mood swings. My experience was different from regular borderline personality disorder, because there were no angry outbursts. Instead, I turned a withering dislike on myself. Looking in the mirror, I believed I was monstrously ugly, although I know now that I was just an average, awkward teenage girl. 

The condition often causes people to go to great lengths to prevent abandonment or separation. At age 14, I fell under the spell of an older man who would exploit that tendency. The abusive behavior started only when I was completely dependent on him, and it meant having sex whether I wanted to or not. For a long time, because of my disorder, I couldn’t leave him, no matter what he did. Despite the coercion and violence, I thought I would die if he left me, so I sacrificed my body, and it was mine no longer. 

But I did escape, with the support of family and friends. I reclaimed my body. I fell in love and got married and was happier than I’d ever been. When I first moved to America from the UK, I was pregnant, and everything was in place to create the beautiful life I dreamed of. Then, in the second trimester, I had a miscarriage. Shattered, I had to rebuild myself with only my partner to lean on, no family or friends in the new town. And the miscarriages kept coming. 

During those high-risk pregnancies, my body was not my own: poked, prodded, probed and tested. These were the days of bed rest and fetal movement checks, of trying to do everything right, of regulating everything that went near my body. I got through it by thinking of the babies. There was nothing I would not have done for them, and that motherlove made me strong. I thought I could weather anything, but when my sixth pregnancy ended with a second trimester miscarriage, the old grief returned. I felt like I was being haunted by what had happened to me as a teenager. All these feelings suddenly appeared again. Had my body failed me? Was it marked forever by what had happened to me? Would I never escape it? 

But I tried to be brave and asked myself: If I couldn’t have the child I had wanted, what new story could I write for my body and my life? The first step was to remember that my body was not failing me; in fact, it was sustaining me every day. Whatever it had suffered, and despite the miscarriages, my body was doing its best. I started swimming, the water bringing me physical sensuousness. I took up aerial hoop classes, amazed at what stunts I could teach my body to do, how strong it became with practice. And then, at just the right moment, Kate Sweeney came into my life. 

After following Kate’s Instagram feed, I found myself looking out for her nude or semi-clad photographs of women of all shapes, colors and sizes. I noticed them hanging in Virtue Salon, the vegan hairdresser where I have my hair cut. Kate minimally edits them, and though she draws on fine art—Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” or Goya’s “La Maja Desnuda”—Kate’s women are more defiant. Their bodies are fleshy, pendulous, freckled, cheeky, but not contorted for the male gaze—not tense, not self-conscious. Kate’s photographs rely on a trust that the male gaze—assessing, measuring, judging—cannot provide. “I just thought, these women are so beautiful,” Kate tells me during the shoot, “and I realized that if I found beauty in all these different women, I should start to extend that same kindness to myself.” 

Like me, Kate suffered as a teenager from body dysmorphia, in her case linked to an eating disorder. “It wasn’t even that I felt like my body was bad,” Kate tells me later. “I just wanted to disappear. We have to change the message that the more attractive you are, the more valued you are.” Kate is Columbus-born and -raised, though she spent some years in New York. When she found herself in a toxic relationship with a man she describes as “a gaslighter,” she returned to Columbus and began taking photographs of women in the local community. Like a magic anti-venom, Kate’s photographs take us on the journey that healed her: In seeing how beautiful real women are, we also come to terms with ourselves. 

On the day of the shoot, I am determined to accept my body, even when naked. I am terrified, but Kate welcomes me into her cozy house and leads me to the studio with her beautiful rolls of colored paper backdrops. She asks me what music I would like to listen to and she shows me her camera, which is purposefully small and unintimidating. 

We try lots of shots in different dresses and lingerie. She helps me to overcome my shyness by talking me through poses. And none of it feels sexualizing, because it is not the male gaze looking at me, but the female gaze, and so I don’t worry about what I look like—it feels like acceptance rather than having to perform. “I’m so grateful and honored that so many women trust me,” says Kate. “I wish that all women would document their bodies. Because aging is a privilege, and to see how the body changes is really cool.” 

But I am a 38-year-old and have had two children, and when the time comes to take off all my clothes, I am nervous. And why is it so hard? Why does it feel frightening to be under someone else’s eye? A minute before, in my underwear, I was completely comfortable. Why, I ask myself, is this suddenly so scary? I lie down in front of the camera, and it feels painful in a good way, like massaging a sore place. I can’t say that I feel ashamed or proud—just vulnerable, and I realize that I am still looking to other people for approval, when I need to find that approval within myself. 

The final part of the process only happens some weeks later, when the photographs arrive. I look at the nude shots and laugh that in some pictures I do look absolutely terrified. But I take this as a sign of bravery—that I did something hard despite the fact that it scared me. In others, too, I look calm and hopeful, at one with myself, and I take that as a victory, because that is where I aim to be. I look at my body completely naked, and I quite like myself. I remember what Kate said to me before I left: “You see? The body can be art.” 

I realize now that before the shoot I would hardly ever actually look at my own body, probably because I did not feel pride or joy in it. I look at it now with compassion. I take care of it. I pay attention to it. I dress it carefully. To some extent, I have learned to love it, and when I walk out the front door, I feel happier in my own skin. 

If I—who believed myself to be a monster—can love my body, then probably you can too. What if we were to say that our bodies are beautiful just as they are? What if we embraced our bodies as unique? What if we refused to be controlled by images that are an illusion of digital enhancement, that were never achievable in real life? What if we too did the work of Kate’s magic photographs and noticed the beauty of real bodies around us? Could we perhaps glimpse the power and beauty in ourselves? 

It’s a mindset that could change our lives completely, if we could just say:?This is my body, and it is amazing.