I love creating. Of course, not all creative talents are created equally—at least not for me. Most of mine was diverted into writing, though I still enjoy engaging in other artistic pursuits from time to time.
One such pursuit is drawing. Every so often since I was young, I’ve felt a deep pull to create images of sorts with my hands, particularly in conjunction with writing poetry, but sometimes just on its own. Generally, I tried to ignore it because when I finished drawing something that didn’t even come close to what I had envisioned, it was hard not to feel inadequate and discouraged.
More recently, however, I discovered that the outcome of my efforts was much more acceptable and pleasing to look at when I was using sketching techniques with soft graphite or charcoal, making short strokes, then blending them together with my fingertips or the sides of my palms. The process itself was enjoyable and allowed me a freedom with my drawing that I didn’t have before—if something wasn’t right, I could just smear and blend it out.
I have a few books on drawing and sketching with charcoal and graphite, and they all instruct the new artist to begin by drawing basic shapes or pieces of fruit. As a lifelong perfectionist and Type-A student, I itched to read the books from cover to cover and follow the instructions in order, which meant my first task would be to place an orange or an apple from my fruit basket on my breakfast table and draw both the fruit and its shadow. I know that’s what I should do, I thought. I carried my books and my sketchpad and my pencils and charcoal sticks to the kitchen, grabbed an apple, and placed everything on the breakfast table.
Then I picked up one of the softer pencils and drew something else entirely.
My eyes darting around nervously every few moments to make sure no one was close by to see what I was doing, I drew a naked woman. And then I drew another. And another. Different angles, different parts of them visible or hidden. Obscure facial features for the ones who had faces. But all of them naked women.
If you’d asked me right then if I’d ever share those drawings—or even the fact that I’d done them—with anyone, I’d have laughed and responded without hesitation with a resounding “never.” Because what would people think of me?
What do I think of me for that matter? Why can’t I get the naked female form out of my mind?
My biological mom left my biological dad for a woman when I was six; where exactly she fell on the sexual orientation spectrum, I don’t know because she was out of my life for good less than three years later. But I knew she was something other than strictly heterosexual. Maybe I am, too, I thought. Maybe that’s what this means? The beginnings of me realizing I’m not what I always thought?
I turned inward to figure out why I felt compelled to sketch the naked female form, examining all my thoughts and beliefs about myself, to see if there was something unacknowledged or repressed that I’d missed. I realized that my interest in drawing naked female bodies was not accompanied by anything even close to a sexual attraction or desire…and that’s when I realized where my fascinated intrigue was originating.
For most of my life, I’ve seen my body as not much more than a vessel to attract unwanted attention. I hated the mole on my left thigh because guys were drawn to it. I hated my breasts because they developed early, were large, and—again—guys were drawn to them. I hated my vagina because its only purpose seemed to be to attract horny guys and be a conduit of pain. I felt betrayed by my body not only for garnering attention I did not want, but also for not keeping me safe when my physical boundaries were being violated.
However, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years working through the sexual trauma of my past, both with my therapist and through work on my forthcoming memoir, resilient. Part of working through all that trauma has been addressing my internal hostility towards and distrust of my body. As I began to release that hostility and repair my trust, I started to see my body for its true beauty.
While it may not have been able to stop my molester when I was eight, or my rapists when I was thirteen, or any of the others who violated me, my body kept me alive. It made sure I survived those nightmarish experiences, that I continued to breathe and exist afterwards. It never held it against me that I hated it for decades and treated it horribly as a result. I realized that while I was focused on my body not having stopped the assaults from happening, I was missing that it had nonetheless instinctively ensured my survival.
These newfound realizations about my body, my budding relationship with it and its myriad of imperfections—then and now—came out in the strokes of my pencil on paper. I was using my ability to create in some manner forms that resembled real, imperfect bodies, and doing so from a place of love, of self-forgiveness. It was a way of telling my body that I understood and appreciated everything it had done for me.
While I created quite a few of these drawings, my favorite—both then and now—was the very first one I created. It was my first foray into sketching a body in the nude, and now that I understand why I did it, I’m moved by the significance of it. It’s not the most risqué sketch I’ve done and is by no means perfect—I’m not a trained artist. This one is only of a woman’s back as she’s sitting on some hard surface, but I feel a pull toward it, the way I would if I saw it in a shop somewhere. That’s not a feeling I’ve ever had about art I created with my own hands.
I took a photo of that first drawing with my phone in hopes it would be difficult to tell if I’d made it or downloaded the picture from somewhere on the internet, then showed it to my husband, wanting to get his honest opinion on the sketch.
“What do you think?” I asked, trying to hide my pride.
He looked over it for a moment. “It’s nice.”
“Nice? As in… you like it?”
“Sure,” he replied with a small shrug. “Why?”
“So, you do like it, then?” I prodded, trying to get some sort of firmness in his response.
“I said sure. I mean, I wouldn’t buy it or anything.”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean, I wouldn’t spend money on it.”
“Okay, but why not?” I persisted. I wasn’t surprised by his response, but I wanted to hear him tell me why. I expected him to point to different areas in the sketch and talk about the shading being inconsistent or that the shadowing was off or something related to my still-developing artistic prowess.
“Well, because look at it—it looks like she has scoliosis or something.”
Speechless, I stared at him for a moment; that wasn’t even close to the answer I’d been expecting. I glanced down at my phone, gazing fondly at the photo before I looked back up at him. “Who cares!” I shouted. “She’s beautiful! Why does she have to be perfect? Why is that the only way it’s worth money? I’d pay for it—I’d pay a lot for it, because she’s absolutely beautiful the way she is. I think she’s perfect because she’s not!”
My husband drew his head back, obviously surprised by my outburst. In retrospect, I realize my outburst seemingly came out of nowhere. In that moment, though, I was furious—seething with anger. I didn’t care about commentary on the quality of my sketch; I was irate that the reason it wasn’t worth money wasn’t because I did a poor job of sketching, but because it looked as if she had a curve low in her spine.
All my frustration, all my anger with society as a whole for teaching us—men and women alike—that we have to be perfect, that someone else defines what perfect means, and that we’re worthless and undesirable if we don’t meet those specifications, came out directed at my husband.
We live in a world that is in a crisis of self-hatred. Even if we never had a traumatic experience, we are already at a disadvantage for having a healthy self-image because of this illusion of perfection that society has taught us is the pinnacle of success and happiness.
The truth, though, is that illusion exists simply to give us more ways to spend our money. The more unhappy we are, the less perfect we feel, and the more we’ll want to buy this or do that to try to remedy what we think is the problem. We hate that roll on our side or the thickness of our thighs or the thinness of our lips or the shape of our silhouette or the color of our hair… the list is, sadly, endless. And then we spend our lives hating our bodies in this pursuit of perfection that doesn’t actually exist.
And if, like many—too many—you have survived trauma, if you’ve been assaulted or abused in some way?
You have even more you’ve added to your list of reasons you hate your body. You might hate it for not protecting you the way you feel it should have. You might hate it for having or lacking something that was the focus of an abuser or assailant. You may have used physically harmful methods in an attempt to force an unnatural change to your body. You may have even—like me—engaged in self-harm as a way to release all your self-hatred or as a way of “punishing” your body.
But doing all of this—self-harming or buying all the latest beauty products to make your skin and hair and nails and physical features look the way society says they must in order to be considered “pretty”—comes from a place of self-hatred. It’s focused on what we think our bodies don’t have, what they think they haven’t done. Which means that we are neglecting to show gratitude for what our bodies do have, what they do do for us. Bodies that through all the chemicals and abuse and self-harm are still there. Our hearts are still beating, our lungs are still breathing.
Despite what we’ve been through, despite what we ourselves have done to our bodies, they’ve kept us alive.
No, we aren’t perfect—none of us really are; not our bodies or our personalities or anything else about us. And really, I’m thankful for that. I can’t imagine a world where we are all perfect, all the same. Those imperfections and those differences—those moments of friction between friends when you are forced to consider an alternative way of thinking or to put yourself into someone else’s shoes or to realize and acknowledge what you are truly passionate about—those are what add depth to our lives, depth to the people we meet, depth to everything we experience. And depth is what makes those experiences beautiful. The imperfections that highlight our differences—that draw attention to what makes us unique—are what make us so beautiful.
No matter the challenges we face, no matter the struggles we encounter, no matter the pain that comes and goes from our lives—richness of experience and connection is what makes this life worth living. And that richness is thanks to all those beautiful, imperfect things.
Katherine Turner is a an author of contemporary fiction and nonfiction that explores love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse, as well as an editor and sensitivity reader. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie, Women’s Fiction finalist in the 2020 IAN Book of the Year Awards, free!