Body positivity gains traction in Asheville

IN THE RAW: Young and old, male and female, thin and fat — photographer Erica Mueller celebrates these and other manifestations of human physicality in The Embody Project, a series of nude portraits. Her goal, she says, is to show what’s surprisingly rare: naked people “just being real.” Photo courtesy of Erica Mueller

In the 1920s, it was the thin and lanky flapper girl. In the ’50s, it was Marilyn Monroe. It was Cher in the ’70s, Kate Moss in the ’80 and Ashley Graham in 2016. Body type preferences have fluctuated over the last 100 years, but activists in Asheville are encouraging women to be their own icons.

Jackie Dobrinska, a wellness coach and minister at Jubilee! Community, leads an annual five-session body positivity seminar, spread over the course of five weeks, dedicated to promoting healthy habits and self-acceptance. Each of the sessions — which began this year on June 12 — touches on a new topic, from breaking down media culture to reclaiming menstrual cycles. Even with her experience and wide knowledge base, Dobrinska says she learns alongside the participants.

It’s just amazing how potent it is for women to get together and talk about the stuff that we normally don’t talk about,” Dobrinska says. “It’s challenging to be healthy if you’re breathing toxic air or drinking toxic water, but it’s also hard to be really healthy in our bodies if we live in this toxic media culture.”

Picture perfect

While numerous personal and environmental factors influence self-perception, the degradation of diverse body types may begin with four simple steps: click, scroll, like, repeat.

One 2018 study from Nielsen found that many American adults spend over 11 hours a day consuming all forms of media. According to Dobrinska, many online advertisements that feature women’s bodies have been toned, tightened, airbrushed and assembled to create what her clients see as a perfect — yet unattainable — ideal.

Dobrinska says her clients claim they don’t pay attention to digital advertisements, but she says these ads are often processed subconsciously, causing negative self-talk and degrading behaviors.

Marisol Colette, a therapeutic image consultant and director of Sol Reflection, advances a personal theory that internalizing digital stimuli changes the brain at the cellular level. Consistently being exposed to certain images, like heavily retouched models, creates neural pathways that change how the brain perceives and reacts to those images.

Growing up, Colette says, her family’s philosophy was “the bigger the better, or the more yourself, the better.” Living in a household where the human body was celebrated encouraged her self-expression and creativity. Then something changed.

“It wasn’t until my 20s that I started to see that there was a standard of beauty here,” Colette says. “It really is just based on moving from contexts that were supportive, loving and accepting in all ways to joining the world and feeling not as supported.”

Beauty is truth

Although she recommends taking breaks from social media when necessary, Colette decided to try the opposite approach in 2017 by creating an Instagram profile for her business. She used the opportunity to deepen her connection with her followers and found the online outlet to be personally fulfilling.

“I think that showing up on Instagram in true, raw form, and to be able to use imagery and writing as a way of sharing with others — I get to hear my own wisdom as opposed to it just being in the confines of my own mind,” Colette says. “My journey has really been through sharing with others.”

Happy Body Studios, which offers yoga and Pilates classes, as well as massage and holistic medicine treatments, was established in 2010 with the mission of supporting its clients’ unique wellness journeys, regardless of body type or background. When it comes to fitness, Ashton Peters, an administrator at Happy Body, says staff members encourage clients take control of their own regime.

“We want them to feel strong and empowered,” Peters says. “Our sessions are not about pointing out weaknesses or critiquing clients; we prefer to start from a place of strength and support that is already within their own system and build on that to inspire capacity for more strength, movement, space and presence to be created for wholeness to feel attainable. … Showing up for oneself is the most important step, and we hope to hold space for our clients to land in their own systems and feel supported to explore, move and be in their bodies.”

Eating well

To combat a sense of shame, Dobrinska says that many people turn to binge eating, calorie restriction or overexertion. Instead, she recommends that clients use intuitive eating habits, where no food is off the table.

“Food is almost like a religion now: ‘I don’t eat any carbs,’ or ‘I only eat fruit,’ or ‘I’m vegan,’” Dobrinska suggests. “We’ve gotten really disconnected, to where we put calories into an app on our phone instead of listening to our hunger signals. It’s almost like we get disconnected from our bodies as a subject and it sort of becomes an object.”

Dobrinska battled an eating disorder for 17 years, and after trying therapy, group sessions and spiritual counseling, she came to a standstill.  

“I realized this might be something I live with for the rest of my life,” Dobrinska said. “I made the decision that I was going to learn how to love myself anyway. It was that decision that made everything change. It changed my relationship to myself, it changed my relationship to food, it changed my relationship to how I expressed and dressed and dance. It was everything.”

Dobrinska says she has been without her eating disorder for 13 years. Because she is not ashamed of her past, she is often the first person people will come out to about their own eating disorders.

Simone Seitz, executive director for the Carolina Resource Center for Eating Disorders, takes an all-inclusive approach for her cause. She and CRC for ED staff and volunteers offer community outreach, professional development, resources and support for individuals impacted by eating disorders across the region. She says her team is constantly looking for new ways to reach people who may not feel comfortable seeking information themselves.

“We’re everywhere,” Seitz says. “It can be anywhere from fitness centers, to college campuses and schools, to the hospital. Anywhere that they’ll let us in, we’re there talking about disordered eating and eating disorders.”

Taking it all off

One local photographer encourages her subjects to strip away their insecurities in a nude photo shoot.

Erica Mueller said she founded the Embody Project as an act of desperation. Although she describes herself as having an “average” body type as a teenager, it was that normal build which left her feeling inadequate.

The Embody Project really came out of this need to find out how I fit into the greater spectrum of humanity,” Mueller says. “I just knew that I needed to see naked bodies of all different shapes, colors, sizes and ages that were not trying to sell me something, that were not overly sexualized and that were not airbrushed or otherwise perfectly lit, but were just being real.”

The Embody Project’s online gallery features a variety of nude portraits. Her subjects often come to her shy, nervous, afraid or in a state or true terror, having never shown their bodies to a stranger, knowing their unretouched photos will be posted online. While she makes no guarantees, Mueller has seen the same transformations in her subjects shoot after shoot: from fear to ease, or self-consciousness to liberation, or nervousness to comfort.

“People encounter their edges in all different kinds of ways,” Mueller says. “Almost always, the experience is that they find freedom in stepping up to that edge, just slightly over that edge, and then finding out that what’s on the other side is not nearly as scary as they thought it would be. They’re also being witnessed in their most vulnerable state, and that is really powerful and beautiful.”

Editor’s note on June 24, this article was updated to clarify the conclusions of the 2018 Nielsen study.

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3 thoughts on “Body positivity gains traction in Asheville

  1. Alison

    The article’s author says that the Nielsen study showed many adults consume 11 hours of digital media a day. That’s not what the study says. The study looked at all forms of media (including non-digital). Digital media consumption was significantly smaller: ” In first-quarter 2018, consumers spent three hours and 48 minutes a day on digital mediums. “

    • Virginia Daffron

      Alison, thank you for your comment. The article has been updated to reflect that the Nielsen study shows that adults consume over 11 hours of all forms of media a day.

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