Mirror, mirror on the wall, you can’t tell the truth at all. See how one photographer is using her camera to transform how other women see their bodies so they can love themselves again.
A decade ago Sarah Jane, a Melbourne, Australia-based photographer, started the Body Love Project. With this project, she invites women who’re dealing with negative self-image to her personalized, free photo sessions. She puts them at ease in front of the camera, captures their natural beauty, and then helps them see their magnificence through positive self-talk.
The process provides a healing experience that comes from someone else celebrating their beauty, which is beyond skin-deep. With each pose and shutter snap, Jane helps the women take control of the disorders that have dictated their lives for so long. After all, these body image issues are part of a past Jane can truly relate to.
A wake-up call to a long, unnoticed body image battle
During the holiday break of her senior year, Jane collapsed outside a theater while on a date. She was rushed to the hospital and received a heart condition diagnosis that eventually required surgery. “Even though it was a genetic heart condition,” Jane says, “I felt a lot of guilt for not taking care of myself properly. It was a huge wake-up call for me to start focusing on recovering from anorexia, as well. I think my eating disorder had silently taken a hold of me without even noticing it.”
Unfortunately, Jane’s situation isn’t unique. A study in the International Journal of Applied Research of 500 girls in India found that cases of eating disorders among girls have gone up over the last half-century. And yet nearly 90 percent of adolescent girls didn’t have much information about the topic. They aren’t aware of the dire consequences an eating disorder may have on their bodies, which may lead to brain damage, organ failure, or even death.
Throughout her childhood, Jane was already underweight due to a long list of food allergies and malabsorption issues that had required hospitalizations. Her health improved by the time she reached high school. But when her friends became obsessed with being thin, her situation took a scary turn.
Teen years tend to play a big role in body image. Pressure from friends, overexposure to unrealistic images in the media, and talking about being “fat” can all contribute to negative feelings, which may lead to the development of disordered eating.
“I was struggling to carry my school bag, hiding under layers of clothes, and drinking a lot of tea to get by,” Jane says. “Eventually it became so bad that I avoided mirrors and wouldn't let anyone take photographs of me.”
Seeing herself through a new lens
The Body Love Project stemmed from Jane’s desire to conquer her negative self-image. The healing process began when Jane, who loves photography, put herself in front of the camera instead of hiding behind the lens. “It occurred to me one day that I was never going to achieve ‘perfection,’” she says. “In fact, I wasn’t even sure what perfection really looked like. All I knew was that I needed to learn to love the body I’d been given, and I had to step out of my comfort zone to do so.”
The “ideal” body doesn’t exist. Everyone is so unique, and that special difference was exactly what Jane wanted to celebrate about herself. With a tripod and a remote, she took a series of light-hearted self-portraits. “It was such a fun experience that I had almost completely forgotten about all the little things I would usually feel self-conscious about,” she explains. She also felt joy upon reviewing the photos and seeing the beauty of her own smile and dimpled cheeks.
Jane also began using self-talk to change the way she felt about herself. A study at the University of Lethbridge reports that when people become aware of the negative things they say in their heads and turn them into positive thoughts instead, they may gain a healthier perspective. For Jane, the process was a matter of focusing on her favorite attributes rather than her perceived flaws.
She found the courage to continue her photo sessions outdoors and even in public spaces. “After a month of practicing self-portraiture,” she adds, “it didn't feel as though I was forcing myself to love my body, but rather appreciating myself exactly as I am.”
Helping others achieve body love
Jane’s clients, who find her through her website, have battled anxiety, postpartum depression, negative body image, and more. Before each shoot, Jane chats with her subjects to gain an understanding of what they’re going through. Part of the process is helping them recognize they’re not alone in their pain and frustration. “It’s about giving a voice to women who have suffered from mental or health issues,” Jane explains.
She gets a read on their personalities and encourages them to wear something they feel comfortable but also amazing in. “Many of the women participating are a little anxious or shy,” she says, “and it’s important to me that I am able to create a safe, calming environment for them. Laughter is nearly always the cure for nerves!”
Jane prefers outdoor shoots to help lighten the mood. Nature steps in to offload some of the pressure. That’s what happened for Jane when taking self-portraits at a beautiful park. “I really began to notice my anxiety melting away as the sun came out, and I focused on really being in the moment,” she says.
After she sends the finished photos, Jane follows up each shoot with a personalized blog post honoring her client’s path to a healthier body image. “They have all helped contribute to the project by changing the negative stigma and raising awareness around mental health by sharing their own journey,” she says.
The whole process of the Body Love Project helps women gain a new perspective where they stop tying their self-confidence to meaningless sums.
Jane’s increased body confidence is infectious. The supportive atmosphere she creates during her shoots sets the tone for a better outlook. “I’ve realized that the success of this project has come from raising women up by talking about their strengths, what makes them feel beautiful, and using positive language during photo shoots,” she says.
All it takes is getting one step closer
Jane recognizes that the Body Love Project isn’t a cure-all for body confidence issues, but it can be a start in the right direction for someone to learn positive self-talk and how to do something kind for themselves. “The Body Love Project is constantly teaching me new ways to refocus any negative thoughts I may have about myself and turn them into something positive,” Jane says.
Women may walk away from the Body Love Project with newfound confidence in a set of beautiful photos and encouraging words from Sarah Jane, but it’s also a lot more than that. It’s about stomping out the dangerous idea that the only body worthy of love is the bikini body.
To read more about the Body Love Project, visit Sarah Jane’s website.
Editor's note: We have removed the original photograph of a woman on the beach, who wasn’t photographed for the body-love project.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.