By Judith Stock
Friday, February 9, 2001
Our society says the ideal women's body--and hence an ideal woman--is young and slim. The nonstandard reality of women's bodies is something else; it may be voluptuous, gaunt or ungainly; it may be lined. Still, it has beauty.
SAN DIEGO (WOMENSENEWS)--One evening in 1997, three friends sat around a table after dinner and spoke of many things, especially women's health and image and how they could make a difference in women's lives in the new century.
What emerged from that evening was the Real Women Project, a multi-media exploration and illumination of women in beautiful, nonstandard bodies, with lumps, lines and a grace all their own. The centerpiece is 13 bronze sculptures, some about 11 inches high, of assorted women's bodies, modeled on real women. The images are set to music and poetry, framed by the collected stories of women's lives.
The three women who sat around the table that night, who mused, brainstormed and shaped the project are Cathy Conheim, a licensed social worker-therapist specializing in alcoholism and eating disorders in La Jolla; Barbara Levy, a obstetrician and gynecologist in Seattle, and Donna Brooks, a retired ob-gyn in La Jolla.
Those three brought in more women: the nine founding mothers.
The Real Women Project challenges the limiting ideas and concepts about women's bodies and what society regards as acceptable: bodies that are young and slim.
"This project helps us see beauty where we were unable to see it before and to celebrate that beauty," said River Malcolm, a poet from Orcas Island, Wash., and one of the original nine founding mothers.
"This project frees women from the sickness that comes with thinking we are ugly. So very much is lost through that belief," Malcolm said.
The Real Women Project will be launched nationally on April 27 in Kansas City, Mo., site of the project's permanent headquarters. All nine of the founders will attend a one-day workshop and official unveiling of the sculptures. Ceremonies will include poetry readings, music, stories--springboards to small group discussions.
The project includes a collection of 82 women's stories, "A Waist Is a Terrible Thing to Mind: A Wake Up Call," by Jan Phillips, Christine Forester and Cathy Conheim, who also are the publishers. A CD Rom and two websites augment the experience.
The models, except for poet River Malcolm, will not attend. Real Women want the models to remain faceless, "Everywoman," in order for all women to identify with the project.
"We looked at health and body issues," said Conheim, the producer of the Real Women Project, based in San Diego. "Ten million women have eating disorders. Bulimia is a huge health risk. A significant number of women delayed medical exams to avoid the dreaded moment on the scales."
To address the complicated issues of how women feel about their bodies, they decided their exploration had to take place on multiple levels.
"We knew we needed to come at this issue through words, music and images, which is the way we got the messages and then incorporated our body image into our thinking" said Conheim.
Like the subconsciously imbedded jingles of advertising campaigns, the ideas about women's body images have become part of the culture. These same ideas and images have been incorporated into women's own thinking without their conscious permission.
"When it comes to women, self-hate is capitalism's love child. There is a lot of money to be made upon the backs of women not liking who they are and not valuing their diversity," said Conheim.
Like a seamless web of old friends, the Real Women Project sprang to life among women who knew each other, adding strands and dimensions as the project moved along.
About four years ago, on the evening of that dinner, the three women called sculptor T.J. Dixon of San Diego, an artist who had been sculpting figures of women for 21 years. Years ago, Dixon recalls, she had done a series of sculptures about the different phases of the female body from puberty to womanhood to old age, coming full circle.
"One of the greatest tragedies of this culture is that women's bodies are only acceptable if they are prepubescent," Dixon says. "I've never met any woman who was happy with her body. I think self-hate has been 100 percent successful."
A central task was developing the series of bronze sculptures, based on real women who posed in the nude. Getting women to agree to take off their clothes, even if they believed in the project, was difficult.
They settled on 13 for the number of bronzes, since 13 has always been considered a women's number: There are 13 moons in a year, 13 lunar cycles and 13 menstrual cycles. To pre-feminist thinking, 13, was therefore an unlucky number.
But for these women, it became a symbol of women's power and uniqueness.
Conheim found 13 women from the age of 14 to 75 to volunteer as models. "But we just couldn't get any women in their eighties or nineties to take their clothes off," said Conheim, adding that it was mostly generational modesty. "I never took my clothes off for my husband and I'm not doing it now," she quoted one woman as saying.
Sculptor Dixon said the process was a revelation for her. "I had always celebrated women's bodies but I hated my own body," said Dixon. "It had never hit me before that I was living a schizophrenic existence."
Finally, she realized that to be able to create authentic sculptures of women's bodies, "the first thing I had to do was put myself in front of a camera without clothing."
The poet, River Malcolm, posed for a sculpture and wrote the poetry to enhance the project.
Malcolm knew Donna Brooks, and when she retired early from her practice due to arthritis, she wrote a poem about her hands. "Donna was studying sculpture with T.J. Dixon, who created the sculpture for the project. Cathy then got T.J. to make a sculpture of her hands to go with my poem."
"There is a shared hunger to be able to celebrate our bodies. We wanted some way to celebrate the beauty of the bodies that were not standard," said Malcolm. "As I wrote the poems, to put into words what I found beautiful about a woman's body was challenging and exciting. I looked at clay sculptures of nude women I had never met and saw what was beautiful about those particular bodies."
Together the sculpture and poetry create a way to convey beyond words what women for decades had been feeling but unable to express. The real women of the Real Women Project like to quote George Sand: " The beauty that addresses itself to the eye is only the spell of the moment; the eye of the body is not always that of the soul."
Judith Stock is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles, specializing in news features, health, travel, and career.
By Caryl Rivers