But it seems that you forgot,
When you decided that you were defined,
By all the things you’re not.
I have been brewing this idea of photographing my body for a long time. A few weeks shy of my 42nd birthday, I arranged for a “boudoir” photo-shoot, truly an empowering experience to celebrate another year of life but most important the reclamation of my power as a woman, everything that I’d been, who I am and who I envisioned to become, my beauty inside and out, the scars my body carries, those seen and unseen and the freedom of having lift the shame I once carried. My body has been mocked and made fun of many times. This cuerpo has carried humiliation but also has carried my strength, the determination to evolve, witnessed my growth and carried another life.
It has taken me about five years to learn self-love, practice self-care and to appreciate my body. No shaming, no judgment, no tongue-tied just an everlasting love for everything that I am as a woman, in its entirety. My body does not define me.
I’d been reflecting on what it is to be a woman, how from the minute we are born we become an object of admiration. Since we are kids, we are not taught to love ourselves and accept how different we are, from how our hair looks to how our bodies develop instead we are taught that how others feel about us dictates our own feelings. We learned to shame and be shame by our bodies, to be unhappy about them and being very critical of them. Our bodies become a sense of discomfort, a heavy burden to bear.
The boudoir photo-shoot inspired this series. While being photographed, I flash-backed to those moments I was shamed because of my body. It was liberating, a celebration of the woman I’ve become with all her strength and flaws, to see my body as art, not a piece of meat, my soul, all in one. A true statement of everything a woman is. It has taken me a long time to achieve this freedom and let go of all the noise and criticism around me. It has not been an easy quest, self-love is a journey, not a destination. It is a practice, you have to do it daily, reminding yourself of how magnificent you are while fighting the shame imposed and self-imposed.
A “boudoir” photoshoot is described as “a photographic style featuring intimate, romantic, and sometimes erotic images of its subjects in a bedroom or private dressing room environment, primarily intended for private enjoyment of the subject and his or her romantic partners…”
My shoot challenged the definition, although I was dating at the time, it was not for the purpose of enjoyment of my romantic partner, it was for me.
To be a woman is hard AF! It is knowing that you are defined by your struggles, struggles against impossible beauty standards; you are caught in limbo between being admired as mysterious and beautiful and being relinquished by society as unclean and an object, not your own. Our bodies and our sexuality are a subject of controversy. No matter what we choose to be, do and walk in this world, an overwhelming majority of people are going to think you’re wrong (do it anyway!). But, within these struggles resides an immense power, the power of womanhood which is not defined by our bodies. To be seen as a whole: our bodies and minds.
So, at 42, my desire was to celebrate overcoming my struggles with loving my body and myself fully. To celebrate my womanhood, everything that we are: our diverse unique beauty, I wanted to show the world what it means to love your body and yourself above all things.
I commissioned my niece and my friend Kendra to be the photographers. Although I know many talented photographers, I looked for comfort. This shoot was going to expose my vulnerability at its core. I needed that support and trust, women who understood the meaning behind the shoot, which was far from a sexual fantasy and one of empowering and proclamation of self-love. Without hesitation, they said yes and together we bounced off ideas and set a shooting date.
The shooting day was scheduled a week before my 42nd birthday, on a Saturday afternoon in July. I arrived excited at my best friend’s house, which was the location for the shoot. Aurelis has always supported all my ideas, this one especially. She knew how important it was for me and my journey to do this and how it would impact other women. From day one she agreed to have her daughter as the photographer. For her, it was important that her daughter knew the relevance of self-love as a young woman who also struggles with body issues from time to time because of others perception of how we are supposed to look. She also supported the idea to share a few pictures with my writing about the why of this photoshoot.
Aurelis did my hair while Kendra did my makeup. After one more run over the photo ideas and how the accessories would be used around my body, I began to undress. My body began to shake and like a movie in rewind, memories flashed back of those times I did not love myself enough, allowing judgment to second guess everything about me and for shame to creep in.
“Remember how beautiful you are Wendy! Una Leona! “ Kendra implied.
“This is amazing! I love it! Vamos sueltate!” My niece shouted as she began to focus the lens and snap away.
I turned my back to the camera with my hair up, only a set of pearls running down my back, traveling my scars, my curves, all the unseen crevices this cuerpo holds, each one of them telling a story. Then, I looked at the camera, this time my breasts, the protagonists, I covered my nipples with my fingers; to not only protect them but to transcribe the ownership of my body. I proceeded to move to the couch; I laid on it with a towel and smiled triumphantly, looking over my shoulders, you couldn’t tell me anything. This was my moment.
As the click of the flash echoed in my ears, I closed my eyes: I am not my body.
Body image is a sensitive topic among women, no matter if you are skinny, thick, long hair, short hair…it affects us all. It is a struggle.
Since I was a child, I learned that everything about my body was up for debate and criticism. Often, I was compared to my sister. I was too sensitive, not outspoken enough, skinny enough, my hair was not long enough, too many freckles on my face, I was darker and the list went on. My sister and I look very much alike but yes there are certain features where we differ and that is okay. Who wants to be a carbon copy of someone else?
From my Abuelita to aunts and even my mother, I was told constantly to not eat a lot, to exercise and watch what I ate because men would not like me if I was fat, although I still remember how not eating everything that was served on my plate was enough reason for punishment. I was left at the kitchen table staring at the plate until night time.
I remember those trips to the mall where my mother would slap me in the fitting room when dresses wouldn’t fit as they were supposed to, would call me a “vaca” because I was eating too much and she couldn’t zip the dress. Tears would roll down my eyes and I would avoid looking at my reflection. Sometimes the store employees would look at me with pity.
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, the country where many beauty queens were born, was challenging to say the least. Every girl aspired to become Miss Venezuela. While playing with Barbies in Kindergarten, replaying the pageant was one of the games. I would fantasize about being blonde with blue eyes, the perfect body just like Barbie and to win all the time. This is how many fights among friends began and a ridiculous competition of whose doll was more beautiful. I also remember how playing with Barbies was a reason to not consider myself beautiful and how my mother would tell me that she always dreamed of us being “green eyes” but instead we had brown eyes. Don’t get me wrong, my mother loved us unconditionally but there were also these episodes where I would question if I was beautiful in her eyes, beautiful at all. I witnessed how many of my friends wanted to be a part of the pageant, they going through surgeries to transform their bodies to become a Miss Venezuela and a rigorous physical training, to become the most beautiful of the country, to then aspire to become the most beautiful of the world, then the Universe. This is how body shaming begins, passive-aggressive comments, playing with toys who don’t represent who we are, being compared to others, setting standards of how we should look like. In all fairness, they already were the most beautiful women in their own right. I never contemplated the idea of becoming a Miss Venezuela, never thought of myself worthy enough to be one but it crossed my mind to go under the knife, fear and finances prevented me from doing it. I am glad I didn’t.
Puberty was not a nice experience either, once my body fully developed, more shame crept in: my boobs were too big, it was hard to find blouses in the tween section that fit right, prompting a reason now to be hidden through clothes: “para que no te veas tan tetona y culona” and avoid being the cause of shame and burlas amongst my sister and cousins. To add more insult to injury, I had to wear braces for five years and was prescribed glasses. Now I was totally “el patito feo”.
I remember how social settings made me anxious. Especially around boys, I would stay around the adults or sit in a corner. I avoided friends parties. I was not asked out by boys, I was always the “cool friend”. Reading Gabrielle Union’s memoir took me back to those days as she narrates her struggle, although her bad luck with boys was based on race, mine was based on looks.Even to this day, I don’t look at pictures of my teenage years. My sister has them.
College didn’t change much for me. I still remember the jerk that took me out on a date simply because of my boobs and upon my refusal of not letting him touch me inappropriately I had to pay for the movie ticket and then sit by myself while he sat with his friend complaining about how I wasted his time. We never spoke again.
When I moved back to NY in 1998, things began to change. Consumer America gave me a chance to shop for clothes that would fit my body type. Still, that was not enough…
I keep a set of ten photographs taken March 5, 2008, inside my writing desk drawer. These photos are the unspoken witness of my bruised body: black and blues on my right knee and left arm, scratched on the left side of my neck, a black (left eye) and the fingerprint marks all over my neck. There was a time I could not look at those pictures without feeling ashamed. Now, from time to time I look at those pictures to remind me of that time I did not love myself above all things but also as a reminder of this self-love journey, how far I have come, where I am today and how powerful my willingness to survive adversity was and still is. This set of ten photographs document one of the most painful experiences in my life but also the beginning of my self-love journey.
I was not the object of shame during my 11-year marriage, but I became the target after giving birth to my son. My body was going through a lot of changes: I was not a size 6, now there was a pouch in my abdomen because of the c-section, I was not enough, I became an object and not his wife.
In January 2008 my husband left me, he cheated but did not admit to it. Instead, it was my fault.
Like many women, I wanted this marriage to work out, be mine till “death do us part” love story, for my son to grow up with his father. I wanted badly for him to have what I didn’t have. We were far from that love story. A month after the separation, he was back home. I was shattered, trying to keep it together for the sake of my then 3-year-old baby boy.
The emotional abuse increased: he would barely talk to me, wouldn’t touch me, wouldn’t answer his phone and would come in and out as if our home was his hotel room. After work, he would simply leave and would not return until he felt like coming home. Some days I argued, screamed, threw things around the house, other days I just locked myself in the room with my son and sobbed until my tears dried out.
That Valentine’s Day was quite memorable… he made sure to shatter every ounce of my self-esteem. I arranged for my son to stay with my cousin while I cooked a nice meal, cleaned the house after an 8 hour work day, and managed to find a nice lingerie outfit to appeal to my husband. “What are you wearing? He said with disgust while looking at me up and down. Have you seen yourself in the mirror?”. I was perplexed, I said nothing. Still, I handed him his Valentine’s card and his favorites chocolates. He threw it back at me, yelling: “Give it to the baby, I don’t want them. I’m getting Chinese and stopping by my boy’s house”. He walked into the room, changed his shoes and left. I never moved. I sat on the couch, speechless, heartbroken.
On March 5, 2008, after a night out with his boys drinking, he called me at 4:00 a.m. demanding I open the door because he had lost his keys. I had enough and complained about his escapades, the drinking, the arguments and the disrespect. My complaints resulted in a physical altercation: a black eye and a bruised body.
The following day, my coworker photographed me to document the abuse, in case I wanted to press charges. I didn’t. I filed for divorce. When he refused, I pulled one of the photos, he signed. We divorced a year later.
.After the divorce, I endured a lot of bickering and unnecessary arguments. When he would not get his way, over pickups and drop-offs, holidays, vacations, his best weapon to use was always an attack my body. He would call me a cow and imply no one would look at me ever again. His former mistress, now his woman would chime in, calling me an Umpa Lumpa on social media. I chose not to engage. I took the Michelle Obama route “when they go low, we go high”. Nonetheless, I’m human and those words stung. I still remember.
Those poisonous words stung deep, but with the empathy and compassion of those who love me, I was able to transform that poison into medicine. I began therapy, practiced yoga and Buddhism to confront my fears and traumas; hired a personal trainer and exercised ferociously five days a week, changed some eating habits but didn’t deprive myself of enjoying a good meal or having a drink but everything I did was with moderation. My body started changing and I regained confidence and self-esteem. Life is a constant struggle between moving forward or slipping backward, for a life experience to define you or to turn the wheel and change for the better, and transforming that painful experience into a lesson. The self-realization that within you lies the power to turn poison into medicine was life-changing and empowering for me. For the past 10 years of my life, this has been the motivating force behind my journey. I still struggle with my body, the scale goes up and down but I control that, not anyone else.
I had very bad experiences, from men who have compared me literally to a T-bone steak to one who called me a “spic” because I refused to text him a photo on his first introductory text message. It is tiring to be catcalled constantly, or been sought by men with the “you are so sexy, I love a thick woman”. I am not the only one, millions of women go through this and have died for simply standing their ground and fighting to be seen as humans.
We are more than our bodies, no matter our shapes, skin color, hair type we all experience Shame, disappointments, heartache, love, happiness, violence, peace… the same way our experiences are different so are our bodies… that doesn’t make us more or less beautiful, it makes us unique.That’s why I wanted to do this. This photo-shoot was my own contribution to this fight, for me and every woman who has struggled with body shaming. As much as many think I have it all together, I’m just human. I’ve been through a lot of experiences I made a conscious decision to not victimize myself and move forward.
How do you grow and maintain confidence when every media outlet is contradicting you? How do you carry that confidence with you, throughout your life? The answer is: To love yourself, unabashedly.
As the first photo was taken and my breasts, my hips, my lower back were captured. I felt powerful and confident. I was completely naked. There was this sense of freedom and inhibition that fueled up my body and mind. The realization that I know myself and I feel comfortable with who I am, I know my flaws and my strengths, I do not apologize for them. This collection of photos were taken to celebrate my womanhood as a whole, not just my body but everything that I am. I did this for me. I regained my power, my voice, I live life on my own terms, no longer afraid of “el que diran “. This is me: a Woman, a Warrior, a Mother. Sister, Friend and a Badass Goal Getter!
These photos are a proclamation of strength, resilience, and inspiration not just for me but for the little girls like my nieces, who will become women and will know the importance of loving themselves before loving anyone else.
There are many silences to be broken. Shame is one of them.
In the words of Audre Lorde “I’m not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.”
Wendy Angulo is a New York City born Latina, raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Wendy is a mother, writer, lawyer and the founder of Wendy Angulo Productions, an organization whose goal is to support, encourage, and promote poetry and visual arts in the borough of Queens. She is a member of the New York City Latina Writers Group and its Program Director. Wendy has read her work at several venues throughout New York City, including Nuyorican’s Poets Cafe, East Harlem Cafe, Sankofa Sisterhood, Camaradas and has been published twice in the online journal Mom Egg Review and The Kenyon Review; she is a 2016 VONA alum, contributor of Latina Executive Magazine by Proud to be Latina, Co-Curator and Producer of LETRAS, The Latino Self-Published Book Fair; the producer of Elephant, a choreo-film created and produced entirely by women of color to fight against street harassment and the sole creator/curator and producer of Canvas of Words, an art and poetry showcase that birthed of Wendy’s desire to bring the arts back to her beloved borough of Queens and the creator and editor of Lifting the Burden of Shame Series. Wendy continues to scout for new talent, build new connections and create platforms to perpetuate the arts and strengthen the literary community in New York City.