Event Review: Beyond Barbie – Caught in a Fun House Mirror

Update: An extended version of this review was published for RVA Magazine. You can access it here.

Last week, my good friend and fellow Junior Board member of the Eating Disorders Coalition Karen Morris took the spotlight in a series of art shows that started in September and will run through November 3. The shows focus on the work of Richmond artist Susan Singer, who has spent the past two years painting nude portraits of all shapes and sizes. Each weekly show has had a different theme, such as body modification, birth stories, surviving domestic/sexual assault, and of course, eating disorders.

Nudes? In an art gallery? Oh my!

I went to support Karen and knew I would enjoy whatever they had put together, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much I appreciated the show. Susan truly has painted a diverse group of women in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and through the paintings, something really incredible happens. So much time is spent critiquing our bodies and identifying supposed “imperfections” that we usually don’t stop to appreciate anything we actually like about our bodies (what a concept!) Put onto canvas, though, the very idea of imperfections vanishes, and we’re left with the stunning and unavoidable reality of the beauty that is the human (and, in this particular case, female) body.

This realization was a huge part of Karen’s recovery. She opened the event sharing her story to an audience of about 100 people, which was apparently the first time she had ever done so publicly to an audience (go Karen!). She was friends with Susan and knew of this project, and called her up one day and said, “I want you to paint me nude.”

Susan Singer next to one of her paintings.

The original intention was to create a painting without her face, just her body. Out of all the photos Susan took to decide on one to paint (some of her models were photographed over 300 times), the one they liked best included Karen’s face. Despite her apprehension, Karen agreed, and upon seeing the finished work, she was completely awestruck by what was on the canvas. After 30 years of hating her body and trying to manipulate it into being the way she thought it should be, she was granted a view of herself not through a mirror, but through an artist’s eye and paintbrush. This opportunity to see herself through someone else’s eyes was cathartic, and helped her develop a further sense of self-love and positive body image she never thought possible.

There were two other presenters in addition to Karen, who’s names you’ll recognize if you’ve been reading recently: Rachael Laura Stern of the Eating Disorders Activist Network and Kathleen MacDonald of the Eating Disorders Coalition & FREED Foundation.

Both shared about their experiences with eating disorders and their recovery. It would be very difficult to summarize both talks, but they were both fantastic. This was the first time I’d ever heard Rachael speak, and I was very moved by her story and attitude. Concerned by how quickly she was growing as an infant, her parents and doctor put her on her first diet at only six months old. Her adolescence was spent focused on watching her weight, going to see dieticians, and exercise programs. This overt concern over her body image and weight contributed to what became a full-blown eating disorder. Her story is a perfect example of how subscribing to societal constructs of body image and beauty, instead of focusing on health and being comfortable in your own genes, can contribute to disordered eating behavior.

I’ve heard Kathleen speak quite a few times before, but this was probably my favorite talk I’ve heard her give. At one point, she asked the audience (which, given the focus of the show on women’s bodies, was about99% female) if they had ever wanted or attempted to change certain parts of their bodies.

Most, if not all, raised their hands.

Then she asked what people had tried to change. Random voices from the crowd called out:

“My arms!”

“My thighs!”

“My feet!”

“Boobs!”

After seemingly every part of the body had been called out by various audience members, she asked another question:

“What have those attempts to change your body brought you?” A silence fell over the crowd. Someone called out, “Unhappiness.” Then another: “Misery and self-hatred.” Kathleen spoke awhile about how it isn’t necessary to conform to societal standards of beauty and how she learned to appreciate herself without comparing herself to anyone else.

She made one final point that really resonated with me: that if any of us lost the various body parts that had been called out through some tragedy, be it a foot, arm, leg, etc – we’d suddenly wish we had them back and have a new-found appreciation for them. It reminded me of something I read from Thich Nhat Hanh, where he was talking about how people in general spend so much time thinking about what they don’t have that they never stop to appreciate all that is right in their lives. He used the analogy of healthy teeth – no one stops to think how happy they are to not have any toothaches, but once a tooth starts hurting (a pain which is pretty hard to ignore!) it’s all we can think about and how much we wish we could return to the state of not being in pain. He concludes: “A non-toothache is a very good thing to have.”

Too much love to put into words: (from L to R) Karen Morris, Kathleen MacDonald, Rachael Stern, and myself after the event.

What do you think? What kind of things have you wanted or tried to change about yourself? What has it gotten you?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Event Review: Beyond Barbie – Caught in a Fun House Mirror

  1. Completely agree. It’s one of the symptoms of living in the first world: a lack of appreciation for what you have. This eventually turns into a loss of perspective. I think we have to do more to remind ourselves how lucky we are, and how wonderful our lives and bodies actually are, and we’d be a lot happier.

  2. Lovely, Matt, just lovely. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. What a masterful job of capturing the spirit of that evening! Thank you!

  4. I always love to see what happens when we get out of our ego mind and allow our soul to soar. Kudos Karen, Susan, Kathleen, & Rachael, because you rose above with strength and conviction, it gives us courage to do the same.

    This was a brilliant post covering this event. I was so very disappointed that I was unable to attend physically (trust me I was there in spirit) yet after reading your heartfelt description, I felt like I was there. Matt, you have many gifts and we celebrate them.

  5. Anonymous

    Rachael’s story reminds me that of an old friend. I must have been 14 when I met her and she had already been enrolled into Weight Watchers. I remember going over her house and her mother lecturing her about what she ate on a regular basis. :( Thank goodness that we have people like you all who are helping to change the way people think about body image.

  6. Goodness me. I can’t imagine putting a 6-month-old on a diet! I’ve never heard of a baby’s growing too fast being a concern – usually doctors are delighted when babies are big and only worried when they’re not putting on weight. My little one was born big, has always eaten heartily, and at three is now tall for her age, but this has never been treated as any kind of problem – quite the reverse!

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