Photographer Lucy Hilmer has taken a photograph of herself wearing nothing but a pair of comfy white cotton pants and some socks and moccasins on every one of her birthdays since 1974. This series- the aptly named Birthday Suits- is wonderful, chronicling the changes which in life are usually so subtle, but much clearer when captured in staggered succession.
Visible changes to Hilmer's face, and body and additions to her family tell of the life lived along the way. Nothing extraordinary; unless, that is, you count standing nearly naked at the roadside in Death Valley as extraordinary, which you just might. This is a body that isn't so dissimilar from my own when starkers, or it could be the process of ageing and perhaps a glimpse of motherhood that make them feel universal. This private view into the life of a stranger felt oddly familiar, like memories of seeing my Mum naked in the bath and how normal and comfortable that felt, even though I would unlikely see it now. Chattering and chattering away on the loo while she floated about in the water, or, when I was really little lathering up a loofah and giving her back a good scrub; really getting to the dead skins cells, to that part of the back that only gets tended to by other people. The part that translates as "can you do my back?" when on the beach.
Either way, these photographs have lodged themselves into my brain and have stayed since. It's because there's something about them that illicit an acceptance of the body.
I've come a good way overcoming body hang-ups in the last 4 years or so. I was never hugely body-conscious as a teenager. My Dad told me from a young age that fat was a horrible word. And my Granny- who supplied me with issues of Vogue from the start- once held an issue up whilst we were basking in the sun of her back garden and pointed at Kate Moss on the cover. "Look! Look at that," she squinted at her waist, "You do know this isn't real, don't you?" I can't remember my Mum saying much about bodies at all. But as soon as I hit 18 and grew hips and stuff and all of those nights during my A-Levels of going to bed and staying up late with a sweet heap of sugary granola for company started to show. There were moments of looking down at my body in the bath and thinking "huh. look at that roll," and for some reason this little niggle developed more by the time I went to university until I found myself having those negative body conversations with girlfriends over beers at the pub. Those conversations in which you sort of jeer each other on, moaning in equal parts about how you both wished you could be better. Resolutions about going to the gym, and self control that doesn't account for pragmatism or fun and only parades as stemming from self respect, and really, it all comes back to comparing yourself to a particular body ideal you feel obliged to follow. All of this instead of viewing a changing body as a cool, womanly thing and tummy wobbles as natural, so natural that the paintings of irresistible sirens in local galleries even have them.
I've found dancing, being naked with nice people and going topless on a beach in Croatia all things that have helped along the way, but I understand that being really confident about your own body when you're in your 20s is still a tricky path to navigate. Not for everybody, but certainly for myself and I know for many others. One of the nice things that comes with this stage of trial and error, comfort and discomfort are the mini revelations that can come along the way. The sort of revelations that women in their thirties and forties maybe don't think about as much as they did in their twenties. But they're the revelations that come with grasping the attractiveness of flaws and variety; of watching older women on the beaches with dimply arses and sprouting hair wading back to shore after an intense butterfly crawl in the clear. Or the lovely surprise of sharing or exploring a new body, and of how wonderful and powerful the female body can be whether it is strengthened through dance or exercise, changed and/or recovered through illness, pregnancy and life changes. They're ideas that all seem fairly obvious when you're feeling in a positive space about yourself, and standing in front of a mirror starkers and thinking "yeah!" but it's easy enough to have hiccups and forget. Usually induced by finding yourself in a changing room with a pair of trousers around your thighs, perhaps. (Or apply appropriate hang-up as applicable) These are the things I wish I had learnt at school, but which I realise I probably couldn't have.
In short, this photo series gives a good nudge in the right direction. Bodies are great, and I just wish I hadn't wasted so much time thinking otherwise, or feeling shy about doing cool stuff with my body, like dancing in PE lessons without shame. I hope these photographs can stay in my head and bamboozle those moments in which I still find myself counting down weeks to specific events based on my ability to lose weight; beaches or men or family events onto which I project a slimmer-chinned version of myself.