More Than Flesh
by Nashville Glamour Photographer Caley Newberry
I don’t know that I’ve ever told the whole story to the path that eventually led me to boudoir photography. There’s a post further back called Why I Became a Christian Boudoir Photographer, and that is a practical starting point, but not everything for me.
Right before I turned 22, I was a recent college grad, newly engaged, and working my first (low pay, long hours) journalism job. Aside from the obvious money issues that plague recent college grads, I was happy. But, I started having some health issues.
At first, it wasn’t that bad. I had frequent upset stomachs, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I’m notorious for powering through things when I should really slow down. Since my health issues got worse gradually, I was like a frog in a pot of boiling water — I just didn’t notice what was happening to me.
I couldn’t keep food down or in. I started seeing doctors, then specialists, and was eventually referred to one of the top gastroenterologists in the country. I actually ended up in Nashville so I could be close to that doctor. I was malnourished, and I didn’t sleep more than three consecutive hours for SIX. YEARS.
How could I love myself when my body was stealing my life?
My husband and I didn’t really get those amazing newlywed years that we’d planned on because so much of it was spent in doctors’ offices. I was still working and pretending I was fine, but as the old spoons theory of autoimmune disease goes, I had no spoons left when I got home at the end of the day.
I avoided thinking too much about how sick I was, primarily because there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to fix my problem (by then I was on weekly three-hour IV infusions, giving myself a shot with something as thick as toothpaste twice a week, and taking a high dose of prednisone every day).
On Prednisone, I got the typical moon-face that accompanies long-term steroid use, barely recognizing myself in the mirror. When I started gradually working my way off of them after 18 months, I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life, still couldn’t sleep, and started drastically losing weight now that I wasn’t retaining so much fluid through steroids.
I’d always kind of hovered around 105 pounds (I was 22 and I’m super short), so when I hit 99 pounds, I didn’t think much of it. Then 95 didn’t seem that bad. When I got down to 89 pounds, I stopped weighing myself. By then, my doctor recommended surgery, and I was ready to do whatever it took to get my life back. That consult went so, so poorly (y’all, they basically said “we’ll remove a major organ and won’t know if it will make you feel better or not until after we take it out”), and I felt utterly hopeless. My body was literally waging war on itself, and I hated her for it.
And, get this, even at 80-something pounds and a size 10 in kids jeans, I never thought I was skinny. I always had a stomach pooch that I hated. I still had cellulite. I still wasn’t good enough.
Beyond the superficial aspects, though, I had a complicated mental relationship with my body. How could I have any affection towards a body that was attacking itself and affecting me this way? With a body that was eating all my energy, humiliating me, and doing nothing for me? And how could I be OK to share that body with my husband when I hated it so much? When I’d feel so much affection for him but have zero energy to pursue it? How could I love myself when my body was stealing my life?
Friends, if you don’t read the rest of this lengthy post, read this: You are not your body. You are not the things you body can or can’t do. If you body is causing you physical or emotional pain, know that who you are is so much more than the flesh that contains you.
In 2011, somewhere between moon-faced and malnourishment, and as a new photographer, I set up a camera one night when I was home alone and took portraits. I practiced poses. I learned to see my body differently. Was it an automatic shift in my thinking? Absolutely not.
You are not your illness. You are not your infertility. You are not your weight gain. You are not your pain, and you aren’t your past.
I haven’t totally had that shift eight years later, but I started to see a corner peeling in the belief that Caley and Caley’s Body were the same thing, and I was ready to rip it up.
You are not your illness. You are not your infertility. You are not your weight gain. You are not your pain, and you aren’t your past. You’re also not your weight loss or your six pack or your great hair or your cellulite. You are not the things your body can or can’t do. You’re YOU, a spirit, a soul, and you have a body. It’s a body worth taking care of and worth celebrating because you are worth taking care of and celebrating, but its value does not match the obsession we put on it.
When I take selfies now, I stop and appreciate the “bad” photos before deleting them. It helps me appreciate the photos I love while recognizing that everything on the surface changes. Not just over the years, but by the minute.
Seeing amazing photos of myself at my best helped me have more grace when I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. I committed to having my photo taken regularly not to objectify myself, but to see myself at my best and love myself at my worst.
That’s what boudoir photography is to me. It’s breaking the chains that we’ve accepted that our body matters. It’s saying that you’ll show up for yourself on the good days and the bad. It’s understanding that your muffin top and love handles and jiggly thighs and arms don’t define you and that putting a little arch in your back and pop in your butt can help you understand that.
It’s why I don’t do heavy Photoshopping. I want you to know that, when you see yourself in these photos, it is really and truly you. You may still find your insecurities in a few of them, and you deserve to look them in the eye and greet them. It’s how the rest of the world sees you. And when you’re able to embrace that, it can shush that inner critic that’s telling us we’re not there yet. For me, she hasn’t totally gone away, but she’s a whisper more than a megaphone.
I took these photos this week with no makeup, dirty hair, and no retouching. Just a black and white conversion. And I’m not special or exceptionally beautiful or fit. I’m an everyday woman, just like you. You can trust your beauty in the hands of good light and a photographer who knows how to move you.
P.S. - I eventually found out I had a gluten intolerance, then finally deduced it was Celiac Disease. I’ve since gained 40 pounds and feel a world better. With an autoimmune disease, there are still hard days/weeks, but I overall feel pretty great these days, mentally and physically. If you’re still in the thick of it — whatever your “it” is — I see you, and I’m with you.