By Isabella Aitken-Frappier
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with images of myself.
As a child, I hid in photos and avoided mirrors. I hated what I saw in photographs, and I couldn’t connect with my reflection in the mirror. As a teenager, I stood in front of the mirror in my underwear and critiqued every inch of my body. Believe me when I tell you, I was the Simon Cowell of that contest, and my body never made it to the semi-finals.
I wasted my young adult years lost in a cycle of self-consciousness and self-loathing. I was in and out of the hospital for an eating disorder, and starved myself in an attempt to bring my reflection into symbiosis with my mind’s eye. I was a swirling mass of contradictions, hormones, and self-hatred. Yet, during these years of confusion and loss, I took photographs of myself.
It was a few years before the *selfie* craze really took off, but that wasn’t quite what I was doing anyway. I saw these as self-portraits, not intended to portray beauty or sensuality, nor to captivate or tantalize. I just had this pressing desire to document myself.
I kept taking self-portraits over the years, and let me tell you, some of them got bizarre. Submerged in the bathtub. Laying on the pavement. Draped in a mosquito net canopy over a guest bed. In each of these, I could almost see myself, no matter how emaciated, vacant, manic, or calm. I didn’t really show them to anyone, I just kept taking them.
One day, while looking at a recent self-portrait, I was shocked to catch myself thinking that I actually looked lovely.
In the photo, I was on top of a mountain I had climbed in Indonesia just as the sun started to rise, in cotton overalls with a scarf draped around my neck, my arm crooked awkwardly at my side. I looked happy and accomplished and alone, but not lonely. I felt strong. It was the beginning of something amazing. After countless therapists, bad relationships, and inter-continental relocations, I had found myself in a photograph.
I had also been taking *sexy* selfies for years. You know the kind, where you twist and contort your body into the perfect surreal angle, then snap and send. I honestly did glimpse a little part of myself in those photos, but I knew they were not truly for me. They were for someone else, and in turn, my body and sexuality was for someone else.
I decided to stop taking sexy photos for other people, and take them only for *me*. My self-portraiture took on a new life, one that was secret and sensual, indulgent and decadent. I told a few friends what I was doing, but they couldn’t understand why I spent energy on photos no one would see. I couldn't explain why either. I didn’t really know why I was doing it, I never had. It was as if my body had been saying “Look at me, love me!” all these years, and I finally learned to listen.
I bought myself flowers and lingerie, feeling feminine and lush as I bathed in golden afternoon light, snapping mementos. I lounged in my workout gear on my yoga mat and took photos of the beads of sweat dripping from my sore muscles. I went on solo road trips and took topless photos next to giant cacti. With each photograph, I started a revolution inside my own body.
Soon, I realized how this successfully improved my body image. My friends, once skeptical, tried it for themselves with profound results. I also prescribed the practice to my clients—at this stage in my life, I worked as a holistic women’s wellness guide, with a speciality in body literacy and sexual sovereignty—and watched them bloom into their own. This was when I truly embraced how powerful these photos were, and braced myself for a new level of vulnerability: I started sharing my sensual self-portraits on Instagram.
While I did receive some negative reactions and unwelcome sexual advances, an influx of women and femmes also filled my inbox with encouragement and motivation. They were inspired to take their own photographs, reclaim their own bodies, and take up their own space. It has been such a beautiful journey reclaiming my own body, and the greatest gift of my life has been inspiring others to do the same.
I was sick of feeling like my sensuality was only valid if it was for someone else’s consumption, and while taking these portraits allowed me to reclaim my body as my own, posting them online was my rebellion. Each photo asked this critical question, “If this wasn’t for a male gaze, what was it for?”
It was for me. It was for every woman and femme who wanted to take up space with their sensuality and pleasure. It might still be confusing for some, but it is enough for us.
What does your road to self-love look like? Share your journey with us in the comments!
Isabella Frappier is an Australian writer, tarot reader, and holistic women’s wellness guide who specializes in body literacy and sexual sovereignty. She is also a host on the The Sex Magic Podcast. When she’s not busy championing her sex positive agenda, she—oh wait—she’s always busy doing that. Follow her adventures on Instagram.