Saturday, 30 October 2010

Being a Bitch

 Photographer: John Erik Setsaas
 I was not planning to post today but something caught my eye as I was browsing the internet. The BITCH manifesto. Well, you do need to read it in its entirety but let me go through some of the points.
"It is  generally agreed that a Bitch is aggressive, and therefore unfeminine (ahem). She may be sexy, in which case she becomes a Bitch Goddess, a special case which will not concern us here. But she is never a "true woman'.
Bitches have some or all of the following characteristics...
 Bitches are aggressive, assertive, domineering, overbearing, strong-minded, spiteful, hostile, direct, blunt, candid, obnoxious, thick-skinned, hard-headed, vicious, dogmatic, competent, competitive, pushey, loud-mouthed, independent, stubborn, demanding, manipulative, egoistic, driven, achieving, overwhelming, threatening, scary, ambitious, tough, brassy, masculine, boisterous, and turbulent. Among other things . A Bitch occupies a lot of psychological space. You always know she is around. A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her."

Well that is something, to begin with. Have you ever been branded a bitch? Especially by another woman? this post will make you reflect on your condition and embrace it.
"Whatever they do, they want an active role and are frequently perceived as domineering. Often they do dominate other people when roles are not available to them which more creatively sublimate their energies and utilize their capabilities. More often they are accused of domineering when doing what would be considered natural by a man.
A true Bitch is self-determined, but the term "bitch" is usually applied with less discrimination. It is a popular derogation to put down uppity women that was created by man and adopted by women. Like the term "rigger," "bitch" serves the social function of isolating and discrediting a class of people who do not conform to the socially accepted patterns of behavior."
Self explanatory , really.  If you are determined, intelligent, capable and female you must be a bitch.

 Photographer: Hervé Baudat
"The most prominent characteristic of all Bitches is that they rudely violate conceptions of proper sex role behavior. They violate them in different ways, but they all violate them. Their attitudes towards themselves and other people, their goal orientations, their personal style, their appearance and way of handling their bodies, all jar people and make them feel uneasy. Sometimes it's conscious and sometimes it's not but people generally feel uncomfortable around Bitches. They consider them aberrations. They find their style disturbing. So they create a dumping ground for all who they deplore as bitchy and call them frustrated women. Frustrated they may be, but the cause is social not sexual. What is disturbing about a Bitch is that she is androgynous. She incorporates within herself qualities traditionally defined as "masculine" as well as "feminine". A Bitch is blunt, direct, arrogant, at times egoistic. She has no liking for the indirect, subtle, mysterious ways of the "eternal feminine." She disdains the vicarious life deemed natural to women because she wants to live a life of her own."
Need I say more?
"Bitches, likewise, don't care too much for other women. They grow up disliking other women. They can't relate to them, they don't identify with them, they have nothing in common with them. Other women have been the norm into which they have not fit. They reject those who have rejected them. This is one of the reasons Bitches who are successful in hurdling the obstacles society places before women scorn these women who are not. They tend to feel those who can take it will make it. Most women have been the direct agents of much of the shit Bitches have had to endure and few of either group has had the political consciousness to realize why this is. Bitches have been oppressed by other women as much if not more than by men and their hatred for them is usually greater...but those Bitches who have not succumbed totally to self-hatred are most comfortable of all only in the company of fellow Bitches. These are her true peers and the only ones with whom she does not have to play some sort of role. Only with other Bitches can a Bitch be truly free."
I am reminded here of those young women that have been slandering me on deviantArt or the ones Unbearable Lightness mentioned in connection with the insults she has received.

 Photographer: Mark Wainwright
" Bitches must learn to be proud of their strength and proud of themselves. They must move away from the isolation which has been their protection and help their younger sisters avoid its perils. They must recognize that women are often less tolerant of other women than are men because they have been taught to view all women as their enemies. And Bitches must form together in a movement to deal with their problems in a political manner. They must organize for their own liberation as all women must organize for theirs. We must be strong, we must be militant, we must be dangerous. We must realize that Bitch is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever."
Read the Manifesto, there is a lot more to digest. And let me tell you: I am proud to be a Bitch
 (All photos modelled by Alex B)

Friday, 29 October 2010

Violence and aggression: reflections on sexuality


 Photographer: Jan Murphy
The Diaghilev exhibition which my late friend and colleague Leslie Ann Sayers worked on - she died last April in her sleep, very suddenly- is now on at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Diaghilev was the man behind the Ballets Russes, one of the first modern dance companies in the early 20th century, which truly revolutionised the art and performance world, forging alliances with some of the best painters (Bakst, Picasso and many more) to create amazing scenography and which, choreographically, relied upon the genius of the dancer Nijinski.
Nijinski, who later suffered a major nervous breakdown and was diagnosed schizophrenic, was a visionary whose work  shocked his contemporaries. He was daring in the choice of  subject matter and the way he put it across, developing a new dance language which subverted the classical ballet dominance.  When his  The Rite of Spring was first presented at the Paris Opera in 1913 , with music by Igor Stravinsky, it literally created a riot and the performance could not go ahead. People found the music unbearable and the dancing impossibly weird. The story was that of a human sacrifice, a maiden who is chosen by her tribe to dance herself to death and it was inspired by Russian tribal circle dancing. The Rite of Spring as a piece of music did extremely well in subsequent years becoming one of the best known pieces of classical music made in the 20th century - who has not heard the pounding rhythm of The Rite? Stravinsky at his best.

The dance was forgotten, never danced again after that premiere, but it became almost mythical and  inspired and continues to inspire countless new versions including one by Yvonne Rainer, presented in New York in 2007.  However, the original Rite of Spring was reconstructed by Millicent Hodson for the Joffrey Ballet and first performed in 1987, causing another controversy - many people thought that Hodson had no business to go and reconstruct a dead ballet and cattily referred to it as Hodson's Rite of Spring, unwilling to accept it as a historically accurate version.
 Another dance choreographed by Nijinski, even more intriguing, was  L'après midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), with music by Claude Débussy,  in which he interpreted a faun, half man and half beast,  who spots some nymphs playing , takes a fancy to one of them, attempts to seduce her, finally she manages to get away from his grip and he chooses not to pursue her, consoling himself by engaging sexually with the scarf she leaves behind and orgasming , in what is now regarded as a fetishist representation, in which  the female body is seen as totally redundant to his male sexuality.
When this came out in 1912 there was an uproar, the audience left the theatre disgusted and Gaston Calmette complained on the front page of Le Figaro that " the over-explicit miming of this mis-shapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome when seen in profile, was greeted with the boo- ing it deserved. Decent people will never accept such animal realism." But the sculptor Rodin defended Nijinski and praised the fact he had attempted to “recover once more the freedom of instinct and discover again the soul of tradition, founded on respect and love of nature”.   L'apres midi is now regarded as a classic of modern dance.

I was watching it yesterday with a group of students who are currently grappling with ideas of classicism embedded in modernism. With its abundant references to archaic Greek culture and movements inspired by Greek vase painting L'apres midi is an ideal work to view. Inevitably we discussed Nijinski's attitude to sexuality, a recurring theme in his work. He was bisexual  and had a long stormy affair with Diaghilev which ended when he married a wealthy South American woman who had pursued him relentlessly. He choreographed and also danced his own works.  L'apres midi has been analysed as a work that challenges normative sex and gender roles. Nijinski and the faun are almost seen as one, partly because of his immense ability to fuse with the character he portrayed on stage.  I dont particularly wish to repeat here observations that have been made about how innovative is  Nijinski's vision of "male sexuality in its own right rather than as an effect on the female body " nor do I wish to consider how Nijinski has "haunted" gay male identity throughout the 20th century.

 Photographer: Martin Robinson
 In viewing the videorecording of the dance, as performed by Nureyev back in the 1970s, I was struck by the violence that is depicted in the "courtship" of the nymph. Though  it is masked by the stylisation of the gestures, the faun is predatorial, the nymph is almost pleading with him and made to assume very submissive positions - there is a moment when she slowly bends on her knees as he pushes her to the ground and her face shows terror, while he laughs, fully enjoying her submission. Yet it is not a rape, as she participates willingly in this play, fleeing when she has had enough. Somehow this struck me as having been downplayed by those critics of the work who  tried hard to demonstrate the impact of Nijinski's imagination in the construction of a queer sexuality. I found ambivalence in his portrayal of women, and much aggression in the representation of sex.  Nijinski's work may have been charting an erotic autobiography, as Lynn Garafola says, but his ambivalence to women is not divorced from aggression, on the contrary. And I dont see this as being particularly tied to Nijinski's bisexuality i.e. sometimes he loved women, sometimes he did not. I see it as a component of male sexuality and more generally sexuality, which somehow Nijinski was able to portray uninhibitedly.

L'apres midi has made me think again about male and female sexuality and how they are played out in gender roles. There is a certain vision of the sexual relationship between men and women which glosses over its inherent violence and aggression, which is  only brought out through BDSM. Here I am not judging anything or anyone, I am only acknowledging something that  to many feels uncomfortable to address. In a recent conversation  with a photographer whose work I truly admire, I wanted to discuss the possibility of extending my range and becoming involved in  fetish work and be photographed by him. He told me that it might be possible so long as it was clear to me that if I did it with him it would not be a glamorised version. Fetish, he explained, is about sexual humiliation, it has to be frightening and record the awful depths of it. It also has to reveal the sadness and grief that it conceals within the photographer, the model, and the viewer.  It is uncanny that as I watched  L'apres midi I saw exactly that, in its depiction of sexuality, from start to finish.  Nijinski was indeed ahead of his times.
(All photos modelled by  AlexB )

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Real life stories or Exhibitionism part II

Photographer: David Nuttall

One of my earlier posts was about modelling and exhibitionism. Unbearable Lightness has also posted on this topic thus adding more food for thought (and check out the very latest post too, that is also on exhibitionism). Yet exhibitionism qua exhibitionism continues to be most intriguing. The more I read about it the more I am convinced that to view it negatively is inapproriate, we need to look at how it manifests itself and for what purpose, in other words, here it comes again, we need to see it in context.
Blogs themselves can apparently foster exhibitionism (in my view positive because it is meant to facilitate communication) - the blogging style is such that one is allowed to share parts of one's life (and some view this as exhibitionism, I have certainly been accused of indulging in it simply because I write a blog). The degree of veracity in such sharing is very subjective, contextually appropriate, I would say. Personally if I refer to others I try to keep their identities hidden, unless they are happy to be identified. Occasionally I get it wrong and some people ask me to remove their names. Or they go through the whole blog post and then write in their own journal, with fake anger,  that THEY were the source of inspiration, look what they have to put up with - thus drawing everyone's attention to it, is this not an inverted form of exhibitionism?
The blog as a genre occupies a place between the essay and the journal. One writes for oneself but also for a reader, real or imagined. In fact, one always writes for a reader, as soon as one's writing is structured. Only the free flowing  handwritten stream of consciousness type of journals are intimate notebooks with personal thoughts, drawings and so on. In psychotherapy, clients are encouraged to keep a journal for themselves, not to be shared with anyone, not even with the therapist. Personally I find it a little daunting, I much prefer to communicate with someone and imagine myself speaking to this person when I write, the free flowing style does not suit me.
That said, today I would like to consider yet another type of exhibitionism, one which is often derided and yet has become a thriving industry. I mean the 'real life story', the print counterpart of the Jerry Springer show or even Oprah, not to mention Big Brother.
I recently bumped into an old friend, someone whom I had not seen in years. He used to work as an editor for one of Murdoch's newspapers back in the 1990s, subsequently lost his job, and freelanced. He now has a massive contact list and no longer writes for anyone but trains journalists and is enjoying it because, lucky him, he keeps on  being invited to do short intensive courses in sunny climes. When I met him he was on his way to Malaysia. We had lunch at a posh restaurant and I managed to get a bit drunk in the middle of the day -tut, tut.
The paper he used to work for back then was not exactly a broadsheet. I used to tease this English Lit Oxford grad for the absurd headlines, only realising after some time that to come up with those you need a great deal of imagination and a good command of the English language. So it helps to have poured over Chaucer. I used to be very judgmental of the so called 'gutter press', now I find it entertaining and when I go to my local Chinese takeaway I unashamedly go through the Daily Star while waiting. Stories about celebrities having sex romps abound, footballers in particular seem to be easily lured into 'kiss and tell' with hookers - and their fans love reading about it, with all the sordid details. Stories about politicians involved in sex scandals also abound - exposing extramarital sex  is still  one of the best ways  to discredit a politician. Remember Paddy 'Pantsdown' Ashdown, anyone? Or Profumo and Christine Keeler?
But there are also stories about ordinary people which everyone wants to read about. Someone won a huge amount of money at the lottery and squandered it all or did not find happiness i.e wife left and various other disasters -  the average reader wants nothing but to feel quite superior in the knowledge that "money does not bring happiness". Someone was reunited with a long lost childhood sweetheart after various tribulations. Someone may have undergone a really scary experience with the stalker from hell - the  replays of Fatal Attraction I have gone through while browsing such stories are countless, that was a movie that somehow firmly embedded itself in the viewers' psyche and keeps on being referenced (I loved Glen Close, not so keen on Michael Douglas though, he never did it for me).  These are stories which  appear in weekly magazines, the kind you find when waiting at the doctor'or at the dentist's or your local takeaway, 'real life' stories which will entertain you for a short while. Sometimes the stories are illustrated with pictures of models (and the caption clearly says so; I modelled for one of them, not exactly my best modelling job).
Photographer: David Nuttall
My friend is an adept at writing stories, any story, he always knows the angle and what sells best. The main thing is: it has to be SENSATIONAL. Selling stories to the press, he told me, has become a full blown and rather lucrative business, with groups of journalists, whose job is exclusively to write such stories, setting up consultancies. They research stories or get stories from  anyone who might come forward with something potentially interesting, write them to target specific publications, money is exchanged and readers can enjoy these real life stories and be gratified by them.  They advertise heavily on the internet and in the magazines themselves soliciting further stories about cheating, disasters, family secrets, crime etc etc. A couple of known websites where castings are advertised for entertainers also have a section entitled "Magazines", full of ads for stories.
Of course the stories have to resonate with the readership. They need to be told in a certain way.  As a general rule there has to be something that catches the reader's attention and makes him or her, especially her (most of these publications are women's weeklies not of the Vogue or Tatler variety where the gossip is strictly about "those who matter" and much more sophisticated), want to read on.  Cheating and betrayal, stalking and sexual harassment always do well but the characters have to be highly dramatised, there has to be a threat to your life, possibly a rape or an attempted rape, that kind of thing. If it  is about stalking  the stalker should be motivated by passion and lust, someone who stalks you because you owe them money does not make the story sufficiently attractive to the  readership - female readers want some hint of romance, stories of people in debt and of thuggish debt collectors are really not what they want to know about.  What if your story is not that sensational? why, you can  make it sensational,  by adding certain touches - not exactly lying, just being economical with the truth. The professional journalist will do it all for you.
Is the money paid good, I asked. My friend smiled. It depends on who is involved and how well you can negotiate, he said. Celebs, politicians, millionaires will get you straight into the Sun or News of the World, lesser mortals might get you into a weekly. But does it have to be true? Hmm, what is truth? Let's say it has to be outrageously unbelievable and yet have a foundation of truth. It's the way you recount the events that matters. What about libel? There are ways of getting around that. If you are naming and shaming, the other party will also be interviewed for verification but most publications have very good lawyers. The contract you sign with them makes you liable rather than them. Besides people do not often pursue a lawsuit because it could be far too expensive.  In the case of celebs they do sue but the publication is prepared for that and there is usually an out of court settlement. It is a big bucks industry.
Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti
But who sells these stories and why? Anyone. Money is an incentive of course, people get paid for baring their souls. Then the pleasure of having your fifteen minutes, with your picture in the mag - often a photoshoot with a makeover thrown in is organised, that in itself could be a payment if the story is too cheap - to be worthy of being paid some money for the story your cheating boyfriend should at the very least have performed a couple of stunts i.e tried to sleep with your mum and your dog  possibly at the same time, otherwise it is going to be an utterly boring read.  The degree of sensationalism will determine the fee.
Interesting. Come to think, I told him, as our lunch was coming to a close and I could feel the effect of the fine wine we drank, I know of a model and a photographer, in fact several models and a photographer, there is lust, stalking, attempted rape...  How much do you reckon that will get me?
Watch out for my Exhibitionism part III. It will be in one of my next posts.
(All photos modelled by Alex B.)


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The natural look


On Saturday I did a shoot with a photographer I had been corresponding with since July. We did mostly portraits with no make up, then some lingerie shots.
He made it a condition I should go to the studio with no trace of make up and my hair just washed and blow dried, no hair product allowed.  He says he does this because he tests with agency models and first he takes very natural shots, then they do their make up, if any. He has a tense relationship with MUAs so he never allows them on shoots, he is definitely a no make up guy. After a couple of test shots he let me get ready but decided my make up bag was out of bounds. I pleaded to use some mascara and that was the only concession. He was particularly scathing about the use of blusher, for definition. "It is the light that will give your face some definition, not that red powder". With such ground rules I had two options: accept and go ahead or refuse and leave. I chose to stay.
Natural shots. What is their appeal? The fact that they give an illusion of reality?
I worked with another photographer who wanted absolutely no make up. He was doing a series on imperfections and for him it was essential that his models should be totally natural, as if straight out of a shower.
The natural look is reassuring, it is the girl next door look. It is wholesome and pure. Agony aunts columns always have messages from girls wondering whether guys like a natural look or prefer make up. 'Should I wear make up?' they ask.


 Photographer: Nick Treviss

There is of course a contrived natural look, for which there is quite a bit of make up applied and yet the overall effect is that of a clean face. It is the natural look we see in ads -  a lot of make up goes into achieving the natural effect  but you can't really tell it is there.

 Photographer: Terri Lee-Shields
As a model the natural look bores me after a while. I like shoots for which the make up is integral to them, is used to tell  a story and amplify its meaning.  Like the shoot  Kristen McMenamy did with Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia in August 2010, turning herself into a wounded bird, drowning in oil, in a shoot inspired by the Gulf disaster.  Plenty of make up was used for that shoot. Indeed it worked because of the way the make up artist really tried, and successfully, to deliver the photographer's concept, working with that model's physical strengths.
I am a performer at heart, so costume and make up appeal to me as means of expression. I am thinking here of Asian theatre traditions where indeed the clothing, the heavy make up and colour symbolism are as essential as the dancing, the acting and the rhythm  -  Kabuki or  Kathakali are a good example. All these elements go into making the whole of the theatrical experience.
 Photographer: Pascal Renoux
Which brings me to a different yet related issue. To me nudity is not a return to an ideal state, being free from clothing, reacquiring the naturalness and purity of childhood. I am not a naturist. I model nude because I want to work with my whole body and want to show it,  as a tool for expression. When I trained as a dancer the emphasis was on being able to see the body muscles and a tight fitting leotard was the best thing next to nudity. Somehow that idea stayed with me, influenced my choices, and this is why I was quick to embrace nudity in art modelling. But I miss the opportunity of playing with colour, texture and patterns. As a nude model,  my chances to wear clothing are scarce but body painting is definitely a possibility and one which appeals to me.  Next shoot perhaps?


(All photos modelled b



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Saturday, 23 October 2010

Exhibitionism and histrionism OR modelling and acting

Exhibitionism
Scene one
I was having dinner with a friend, a film maker who also takes photographs from time to time. I told him about me being a nude model, he said he had not done nudes in a long time. We discussed a possible shoot and then he asked me why I modelled nude. 'In my experience all nude models are exhibitionists at heart'. I disagreed, somehow I did not like the label. We left it at that. He was not being judgmental, in fact I will probably work with him at some point. But the labelling set me thinking.
Scene two
In the car with a photographer, leaving the studio after a shoot and getting a lift back. We discuss exhibitionism and he says, at some point,  that models are exhibitionists. 'And that's fine, that's healthy'. I was still unconvinced. Why did the word make me feel so uncomfortable? Later I picked up a copy of the book by Brett Kahr on exhibitionism, part of the series Ideas in Psychoanalysis. 
So here are my thoughts, having had a chance to mull things over. Nothing profound, but depth is not exactly what you would expect from a blog.
From a psychiatric point of view exhibitionism  is the compulsion to display one's genitals in public, usually to an unsuspecting stranger  (more commonly known as flashing). Kahr discusses this behaviour in men. Women can flash too, usually  they flash  breasts, but the flashing is not always sexually motivated.  For exhibitionism to be a psychiatric disorder  there has to be an element of reoccurring sexual fantasies that culminate in  the act of flashing and there should be an element of distress in the general behaviour of the flasher.
Clearly this does not apply to me as a nude model. Speaking for myself, I feel no distress when removing my clothes and am not motivated by a sexual urge.
But this is only one type of exhibitionism and a very specific sexual deviance. More broadly, an exhibitionist behaviour is anything that is aimed at making oneself  the centre of the attention. Here I have to  interpolate a cultural observation: in some societies exhibitionist behaviour is to some extent part of the culture i.e. I am Italian and flamboyance, akin to exhibitionism, is generally regarded as highly desirable in my home country. Italy is after all the birth place  of 'divismo'. The English, on the other hand, especially if  middle class, are drilled from early childhood that 'attracting attention to oneself' is a deadly sin.
Being a show off is a big no no and quite 'vulgar' (or 'foreign', which often means the same thing in the code of the English middle classes). 'Don't boast' 'Dont be clever' 'Dont be pushy' are key phrases routinely heard in English nursery schools, playgrounds and wherever children can be found. One of the books I have most enjoyed reading is the one by Oxford academic  Kate Fox on Englishness (Watching the English. The Hidden rules of English behaviour, 2004). It has helped me to make sense of all these peculiarities, especially the art of understatement i.e someone tells you they 'do a little sport', it turns out they have won an Olympic medal.   You can well understand that when modesty (or false modesty?) is regarded as a national virtue, the idea of exhibiting oneself is most abhorrent.
Confidence and feeling good about myself are what have made me embrace nude modelling and with it the desire to use my body for artistic expression. All performers are happy to be on show, to be seen, and modelling is a form of performance.  I love the camera, I love my body, I feel good about it. If that makes me an exhibitionist, so what? The discomfort I felt when the word 'exhibitionist' was uttered may well have come from having acculturated myself and acquired a veneer of Englishness, after a couple of decades living in  Blighty - oh no, I thought, how gross, do I really want to put myself on display?
 Histrionism

The OED gives a few definitions for histrionism:
  • excessively theatrical or dramatic in character or style e.g. a histrionic outburst.
  •  concerning actors or acting e.g  histrionic talents.
  •  In psychiatry,  it denotes a personality disorder marked by shallow volatile emotions and attention-seeking behaviour.
Histrionism is from the Latin histrio, -onis, actor. In English the word has acquired a negative meaning with reference to acting, when this is perceived to be melodramatic and exaggerated, and by extension an histrionic behaviour can sometimes mean hypocritical. In Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish the word does not necessarily have such a negative shade of meaning, but refers more generally to  acting, as it did in English until the 19th century.  When Stanislavsky in the 20th century developed The Method this was to counter the highly melodramatic 19th century stylised acting style.
In silent movies acting tended to be histrionic. Without sound, gestures and bodily expression had to be emphasised  often with exaggerated facial expressions. I find that in certain styles of modelling an histrionic element is called for, for effect.
As to the psychiatric meaning of histrionic, this is beyond the purview of this post. All I can do here is repeat a caveat I give to those students of mine who feel the urge to write their undergraduate dissertations on eating disorders and the dance profession - a very popular topic.  I have noticed  a certain disturbing trend.  Often people attribute personality disorders to others or to themselves  simply on the basis of their having googled Wikipedia, without fully grasping the complexity of a psychiatric diagnosis. It has almost become a social past time of sort. "Oh so and so must have Histrionic Personality Disorder and so and so exhibits symptoms of  a Borderline Personality Disorder".
Personality disorders are  complex, particularly because the very notion of personality is subject to interpretation and is complicated by the way a psychiatric understanding of 'personality' intersects with 'personality' in a psychological and legal sense.  Only a qualified member of the psychiatric profession can diagnose a personality disorder.  As I always remind my students, in the UK it takes five years at  university to qualify as a MD and a further six years from start to finish to become a consultant psychiatrist.  Something to bear in mind next time you feel tempted to offer  a psychiatric diagnosis, if only in jest.
(All photos modelled by Alex B. and taken by John Erik Setsaas)

Friday, 22 October 2010

Sex after 50

Between myself and Unbearable Lightness we are beginning to sound like a broken record, always trying to explode myths and combat prejudices about the older body. Every time I think there is no longer any need to raise the issue I am proven wrong.


I was teaching second year undergraduates yesterday. I co-teach with other colleagues. The way it works is one of us lectures for one hour  to a class of 70 plus students, then we split the class into small  groups and  we take the students in separate seminars. Seminar means that we use the ideas put forward in the lecture for discussion but each one of us taking the group will add something - no seminar group is exactly the same as the one going on in the class next door even though the issues discussed are pre-set. I usually get some powerpoint slides by email the night before my colleague delivers the lecture, so that I get an idea of what she is going to say. I  also go to the lecture - with great effort and much muttering under my breath because it starts at 9 am which means getting up very early as I live at the other end of London -  so that I know exactly what questions were raised and I take it from there.


Yesterday morning  a colleague introduced the students to a sociological perspective on dance. We are all trying to drill into students the importance of engaging with contextual issues when looking at a dance /art work, something many of them regularly forget to do when  writing their essay.  At the end of her lecture she showed a clip of Pina Bausch's Kontakthof mit Damen und Herren ab 65


I took one of the seminar groups and we began to discuss the clip, especially the duet of the woman wearing a purple gown and the man dressed in a suit, in the last 8 minutes of the clip. I was shocked. My students could not stomach the fact that over 65 bodies are sexual. A young woman kept on saying that young people cannot engage with the fact that older people may have a sex life. "We just dont want to talk about it. It is disgusting" "Tough"
I said. "We will have to discuss this and related issues in today's seminar".  We eventually managed to wrestle with a few questions on the social construction of the body, gender relationships, sexuality, older bodies, bourgeois attitudes - everything that Pina Bausch brings to her amazing choreographic work.


It was hard to steer the discussion in the right direction. The students felt uncomfortable with viewing older dancing bodies, even though some of the dancers had been doing it for decades and really exemplified a trained dance body as opposed to a body accustomed only to every day movements. At times like this I feel like logging into deviantArt and show these students the gallery of models such as  Unbearable Lightness - she would have been perfect to complement Pina Bausch's work and really make people think differently. Unfortunately that is not possible, I need to keep my identity as a model completely separate from my identity as a tutor and logging into deviantArt would give it away. But I can assure you that yesterday morning I felt sorely tempted.


The other day I received a very derogatory  comment on my erotic series with Mike Cooney which I worked on  last weekend in Dublin  ("an old lady with a mental condition making a fool of herself") presumably because the photos showed two people engaged in activities suggesting lovemaking. I happen to know that the commentator is actually closer to 50 than 45 but he still feels entitled to pontificate on my older woman status, implying that at my age erotically charged work  is inappropriate.

There is such great resistance to accept that people over 50 do indeed engage in sex and enjoy it, it is one of the greatest taboos of our society. Is it because deep down we still associate sex with procreation?  This is not so in other cultures. In a recent article in the Guardian Pamela Sephenson Connolly wrote about the Kiribati in the Pacific islands, among whom the sexuality of  ageing people is viewed very positively and even celebrated.
"How can older people have sex?" asked another one of my students, genuinely puzzled "I mean...you know...men have erectile dysfunctions and women have saggy breasts and worn bodies". I could not believe she was saying that. I flare up easily, so I really had to control myself because to row with students is extremely counterproductive.  "Erectile dysfunctions happen in young men too" I answered. "As for women not looking good, well that really is not dependent on age" I again felt tempted to visit there and then  What we saw today - yesterday's post would have been perfect seminar discussion material.

It saddens me to think that this bunch of young people could succumb to such prejudices and found it difficult to engage in a discussion - it took me a lot of cajoling and beating around the bush to make the discussion flow. Ageism is all pervasive in our society and it tends to hit women even more than it does men. Ironically people tend to live longer and are being encouraged to be as productive as possible, especially now that the age of retirement is being  raised to 66 for both men and women.  We definitely need to change our perception of what being older means. No sex after 50? You must be joking, right? I am only just beginning to enjoy it to the full.

(All photos modelled by Alex B. All photos by John Erik Setsaas)
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Saturday, 16 October 2010

Learning to live with paranoia

My sessions as volunteer at the mental health organisation I have chosen as a placement  for my DMP practice  are progressing well. Today I got to know more service users (otherwise known as members) and learnt about coping with a member who has stopped taking medication and is about 'to have an episode any time'.  Let's call her Neela, a beautiful Indian name that means 'Sky blue'.  She is not of Indian origin of course, in fact she has beautiful blue eyes. But the name suits her.



 Photographer: Marcello Pozzetti

I spent most of the morning  cooking for the members. The cook was away, so together with another volunteer I offered to make lunch. Preparing a simple healthy meal for the service users is an essential task. For many of them this is their only cooked meal in the day. It is cheap and nourishing, something they really need as they may not be able to do it for themselves.



 Photographer: Darren Brade
 Neela turned up at lunchtime. I was immediately told that as she has stopped taking her medication she is suffering from severe paranoia and can be very unpredictable. Indeed she was. She immediately took a dislike to me and began to say she knew what I was. What I was, not who I was - I was being reified. She then started telling another volunteer that I really was evil, I had been following her from home and she feared for her own life. "She is creepy. She is a prostitute, I know that. She is going to contaminate me". I was advised  not to reply, just go along with her every statement and not to sit next to her. "Go away, leave me alone" she kept on saying. I had to eat in the kitchen, till she calmed down. Soon her attention wandered and she forgot about me  but continued to  behave erratically.  At some point she stole one of the social workers mobile phones but returned it soon after it was discovered in her bag - someone rang the number and the mobile phone went off.  She was not even aware that she was stealing.

 Photographer: Darren Brade


 After lunch she insisted on listening to her favourite CDs, all with Christmas hymns, and began to do some karaoke to them, and also miming the words through body movements and actions. I noticed how uncoordinated she was, with a seeming lack of proprioception. I was later told she was in great pain. She is currently reliving in her mind a rape ordeal she went through when she was much younger. Occasionally she aggressively swears at people, then she begins to cry. She finds comfort in the Christmas hymns.  She is absolutely terrified, convinced that she is being stalked and harassed. She keeps on seeing her abuser everywhere and often mistakes people's identities. She trusts no one.


 Photographer: Darren Brade

She is in a rebellious phase and  refuses pointblank to take her medication. Coming to the centre is a good thing for her, at least one can keep track of her movements that way. Volunteers are not counsellors, so all we can do is provide a safe environment for her and wait for appropriate action to be taken. I know she is being monitored but no more than that, volunteers do not get further involved with referrals, counsellors deal with that. All I know is that people cannot be forced to take their medication unless they are sectioned.

 Photographer: Bob Adams

When I got back home I read up about paranoia. Most schizophrenics suffer from paranoia which is defined as being overly suspicious, without a good reason and fearing an attack of some sort. Neela is paranoid schizophrenic. But I was intrigued to find out there are other types of paranoia, less dramatic but equally insidious. One of them is the Paranoid Personality Disorder, characterised by the following:

  • Extremely sensitive to experiencing failure or rejection
  • Holds grudges against people and will refuse to forgive insults, injuries or slights
  • Very suspicious and will often misconstrue the friendly or neutral behaviour of other people as being unfriendly or hostile. Also constantly suspicious about the fidelity of sexual partners
  • A preoccupation with personal rights and personal boundaries and a sense of these being infringed even when this is not so.  Often self centred and self important
  • Prone to believing in conspiracy theories about events affecting their own lives and in the world at large and in creating their own conspiracy theories to explain what is happening to them
A personality disorder is not a mental illness in the same way as schizophrenia  or a psychosis. It can develop into one of those but not necessarily. It is however a somewhat disfunctional behaviour.  Rethink, a leading national mental health charity describes a personality disorder as follows: "Someone may be described as having a 'personality disorder' if their personal characteristics cause regular and long term problems in the way they cope with life, interact with other people and in the way in which they can respond emotionally". Someone with a personality disorder may never come into contact with a mental health service, but some may do if their condition gets out of control.

 Photographer: Paddy Johnstone

A Personality Disorder  can be alleviated through self awareness, low dose medication  and through therapy. So far the recommended therapies are the 'talking therapies' but here there is room for movement therapy to make an intervention. At this point in time I prefer to call it movement therapy rather than dance therapy because to many people, including service users, the word dance conjures up some unrealistic ideas and expectations. DMPT is improvisational and it follows the body's natural ability to move, it is not about teaching anyone to dance in a conventional way. It goes deep and works with the unconscious, through authentic movement. The skill of the therapist is to be able to help dealing with what the practice of movement brings up.



The first step though, especially in the case of a Personality Disorder,  is recognising that there is a problem and that therapy can help. Unfortunately there is no way to convince someone that they have a problem if they don’t think they do. That first step is decisive and can make all the difference in learning to cope with a Personality Disorder and thus improve the quality of one's life and of those around.



(All photos modelled by Alex B. )

Friday, 15 October 2010

Did she or did she not?

The third anniversary of the death of Meredith  Kercher, the British student who was murdered in Perugia, Italy, on 1st November 2007, is coming up. Her alleged murderers, American Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, also in their early twenties, sentenced last year, are serving a long term sentence in an Italian prison.  Rudy Guede, a drifter and a small time drug dealer originally from the Ivory Coast, also implicated in the murder, is currently serving a reduced sentence. He was the only one who apologised to the Kercher family for the murder of Meredith, hence the court showed leniency.  But Steve Moore, a former FBI agent, who has been investigating the case independently, truly believes Amanda Knox "Foxy Knoxy" is innocent and has been the  victim of a miscarriage of justice.

I remember vividly the murder of Meredith Kercher, I was in Italy at the time, visiting my mother, and news of the murder was all over the place.   The media reported a sordid tale of sex games, involving knives and drugs, horribly gone wrong. Meredith's throat was slashed. Three people were involved in her murder, according to the prosecution. They were Amanda, her boyfriend Raffaele and Rudy Guede.


 The case against Amanda and also Raffaele remains, despite everything, unconvincing. She and Raffaele gave confusing evidence but then they had been smoking marijuana and they probably panicked.  Amanda has been portrayed as a sexual predator but, with respect for the memory of the deceased,  she was no more promiscuous than Meredith. Moore believes there are problems with the way the investigation has been carried out and the trial conducted. His opinion is based on the blood and DNA evidence. According to him, Amanda could not have killed Meredith because there were no bloody footprints belonging to her or to Raffaele, there was no trace of her DNA in the bedroom. In addition the forensic techniques were faulty (several Italian forensic experts have denounced them as such) and the interrogation  intimidating, hence Amanda's confusion.


 Amanda Knox was given 26 years and her appeal is about to be heard. The trial has acquired  political overtones as the Italian court system has been deemed to be biased and the way the trial was conducted has been thought to demonstrate strong feelings of  anti-Americanism.  There are plans to make a film about the murder case but both the Knox and the Kercher family have objected to it, feeling it may be too soon, especially as there is an appeal to be heard.



This remains one of the most puzzling murders ever committed. Apparently motiveless, the narrative developed around it is full of uncertainties, lies, misrepresentation, baseless accusations.  Perhaps we will never truly know what happened that night. A young woman has died, she will never come back. Another young woman (and a young man) has had her life turned upside down and it is really unclear whether she had a part to play in the murder or not. Let's hope that the appeal might shed some further light.

 For my part this case has struck a chord with me because I do believe that police techniques can be frightening and when people are under duress they can admit to anything. I also believe this young woman has been demonised by the media, the stories that have been told about her, the way her words have been  twisted is nauseating. I do remember the scurrilous headlines that were floating around in Italian papers soon after the murder took place and internet forums in which people who had never met Amanda Knox and would never have anything to do with the investigation felt entitled to offer opinions based on their knowledge of the events as reported by the media, immediately taking sides and going as far as attempting to judge her character and moral fibre.  A young woman who was sexually active, as many young women of her age are, was immediately branded as a predator and a nymphomaniac and that, to me, is revolting.




I admire the Kerchers' silence and desire not to be importuned by the media. But I  feel Amanda's privacy too should be respected. Even if she were guilty of murder, which remains to be ascertained,  she continues to be  entitled to a fair trial and respect of her human rights. Is the time when witches were burnt really over, I wonder?



(All photos by Elisabeth Jakobsen and modelled by Alex B.)
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