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Thursday, August 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Show it like it is: A group of women bare everything to the camera to show that all bodies are perfect

I stand around in a group of women I have just met, and we make conversation. One is an acting teacher, and we discover we have a mutual friend. A woman compliments my necklace. Someone brings up French food, and we compare eating in Europe and in America. Not unusual things to talk about, really.

Except that we are all naked.

And we are having our pictures taken.

There are 22 of us, gathered in a SoDo loft last Sunday at the request of Sandra Marchese, a 31-year-old second-grade teacher, for what she called the "Take Back Our Bodies" photo shoot.

It grew out of an epiphany she experienced last February after watching a steamy scene in "Among Giants," an English film.

"I was shocked by the woman's body. It was not what we would normally see" in a typical American movie, she said. "She had really large breasts. Not large in a surgical way, but large in the way my mother's were. Not perky. She also had unusual pubic hair. It gave me a new perspective on my body."

Then she got mad. Where is this woman in our popular culture?

We are bombarded by media images of wafer-thin waifs. We are confused by mixed messages from magazines that promise us "Incredible Abs in No Time Flat!" yet cheerily advise us to love ourselves the way we are. We are seduced by aisles of goop to firm up, fluff out, shine, refine, buff, blush, tone, tan, tweeze and squeeze into ungodly tight clothing.

Marchese wants to fight those images with the images of real women and their real bodies. She plans to put the photographs from her project in public places: in galleries, in the media. Maybe she'll do other events like this in other places. Maybe there will be a book.

She found all the women by sending out e-mails to everyone she could think of, including women's organizations. But we each had our own reasons for being there.

A 55-year-old counselor I'll call Barbara, who works with anorexic and bulimic women and girls, said she came because "as long as there are 9-year-old anorexics, we aren't doing enough." The gathering, she said, "is a place for me to put my rage."

Mollie Caka, 23, is solid, boisterous. Strong legs. Belly that could take a punch. I am not surprised to learn that she's a rugby player. She expresses dismay that people focus on how the body looks, not how it works.

Jewel Perkins, 25, and Amy Hughes, 24, discuss the indignities of shopping: how "plus-size" models just look like ordinary women; how clothes aren't tailored to their full swoopy curves and instead just hang off the bust and hips in the most unflattering of ways; how there aren't any outlets for short, wide women.

As for me, my body-image issues peaked one morning about a month ago when my lover of three years and I were lying in bed. At the risk of sending the simmering pot of an imminent breakup to a boil, I said, "Every woman wants to feel beautiful around her boyfriend, and I haven't felt that way around you in a really long time."

There are a lot of ways he could have replied. He chose the wrong one. "Well, physical fitness has always been more important to me than it is to you. You know, you have gained weight."

Slam. Ouch.

This, despite the fact that I exercise every day. That I have lost 10 pounds in the past year. That, according to my rational feminist mind, I shouldn't let a man's opinion of me color how I feel about my body.

He was out of the house within the hour, never to return, but his words lingered.

For two weeks, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror without paying particular attention to my "imperfections": a slightly mushy, all-too-white middle that even a lifetime of ballet and yoga teachers haven't been able tame into submission; my 36-C breasts that began to slump in disappointment after a miscarriage last year; the fine lines on my face that come from 33 years of raucous laughter, occasional stress and a love of tropical places.

I came to the photo shoot because I wanted to retrieve my own body from the dark blanket of negativity that cloaked it.

First, the rules

As we settle into the large, brightly lighted SoDo studio, Sandra explains the rules. We need to sign forms giving consent to use our images. No one has to use her name. Anyone can leave at any time, but once the pictures are taken, that's that. If someone wants to cover her face with a mask or a scarf, that's fine too.

A quick inventory of the participants surprises me — mostly activist-type women in their 20s, most of whom would have no problem shopping in the junior department. A couple larger ladies who, if they'd asked for a size-22 leopard-print teddy at the mall, would most likely be directed to a plus-size store. Some women unsuccessfully tried to get their mothers to join in.

All of us come in shades of white, except for one black woman who joins in at the very end. Sandra later says she's disappointed by the lack of diversity in size and color.

I go to my bag, fish out an eyeliner and compact and begin to draw around my eyes. Then I think better of it, that I shouldn't give in to my vanity. This is supposed to be about the raw me. I wipe off the makeup.

A tight fit

Women's health data

• According to the National Women's Health Resource Center, the average weight of a model is 23 percent less than that of an average woman; 20 years ago, the differential was only 8 percent.

• A Harvard University study showed that up to two-thirds of underweight 12-year-old girls considered themselves to be fat.

• By 17, only 3 out of 10 girls had not been on a diet, and up to 8 of 10 were unhappy with what they saw in the mirror.

Web sites for further information:

National Women's Health Resource Center.

Mirror, Mirror: A Summary of Research Findings on Body Image.

National Women's Health Information Center.

We disrobe and file into a room where we'll spend most of our time, a whitewashed-brick affair with a fat shaft of sun flooding in through the skylight. We are asked to stand in a line, and can we squeeze closer so they can fit us all in? It's the locker-room experience: Everyone makes it an effort to make eye contact; we try to get as close as we can without touching.

One photographer, Amanda Koster, snaps pictures while another, Christine Taylor, documents the whole thing with a 35mm camera, down time and all. Barbara, for all her talk, keeps on a mask because she is part of a religious community and doesn't want to make waves. An hour later, she will dress and sit out for the rest of the day.

We become more comfortable as Amanda makes her way around the room. Barbara and Colleen compare hysterectomy marks, and I realize that everyone's body is full of stories. Stretch marks tell of bearing and feeding babies. Scars are indelible reminders of accidents. Tattoos are symbols for what was important at a particular time. Cellulite and butt pimples disclose a career behind a desk. Even the delicate spider veins in my legs won't let me forget a long-gone decade of waiting tables and tending bar.

I think of picture-perfect Cindy Crawford, so smooth, so airbrushed, and I feel sorry for her. How boring. How sad that a blank slate is the feminine ideal.

I check in with Sandra. She is surprised at emotions for which she has no words. Her face flushes, and tears well up around her cornflower-blue eyes. She can't stop smiling. I'd hug her, but we're both naked.

The afternoon draws on, and between shoots we discuss the topic at hand: body image. We move to a spot near a window facing First Avenue. Across the street, Safeco Field is filled with male game energy. A couple of women lean out and flash the guy downstairs selling souvenirs. A billboard advertises Internet service and I think, "this give a whole new meaning to the term `broad band.' "

Having second thoughts

It really sounded like a good idea at the time, baring my naked body and soul to shatter prevailing images, to be part of a movement that might open the floodgates of acceptance. But when I see the Polaroid test shots, I react in horror, with a stream of negative thoughts. "Oh, God, look at my middle. So fleshy, so white."

I get ready for my individual shot, and give in to the siren call of my makeup, defining my eyes with a black frame, pressing powder on my cheeks for a more flawless look. I get in front of the camera, Ani DiFranco's "32 Flavors" playing on the stereo, and I loosen up to her folky drums, her confident message of holistic appreciation for self. My arms swing out, my impossible curls bounce in time to the music with a choreography all their own. I'm dancing naked, feeling like I have just stepped off the cliff and pay no mind to check for the bungee cord. The women cheer me on.

I briefly wonder what the published picture will look like, then think, well, it will look like me.

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