That's just what happened when Well+Good invited six New York women to join us for a photo shoot celebrating bodies, confidence, and self-love. These women—April, Jessica, Aurea, Helen, Kiara, and Yesenia—were all perfect strangers at the beginning of the day. But over the course of a few hours together, they were sharing meaningful stories about their lives, gushing over each others' go-to confidence outfits (which we asked them to wear to the shoot), and laughing together like old friends. At the end of the day, they all exchanged contact info in order to stay in touch long after the camera flashes subsided.
In a world that has never felt so divided, so fraught with tensions and complications, there is nothing more powerful than seeing six completely different women with different life experiences come together with so much love and compassion—for each other, and also for themselves. —Jessie Van Amburg, senior editor
April Christina, 33, endometriosis advocate and beauty blogger
W+G: When you hear the words "body positivity," how does it make you feel?
AC: I think I like [the words] "body positivity," but I like "self-love" more. Because when I think of body positivity, self-love is the first thing that comes to my mind—especially because I have endometriosis. When I have an endo flare, my body changes—my tummy expands and it makes me look four to five months pregnant and I'm not—so I still have to learn to love myself despite what it may look like.
What are some of the ways you'd say having endometriosis (which is usually thought of as an "invisible" illness) has affected your relationship with your body and your self-image?
[My relationship with my body] is ever-evolving. I used to not feel too happy about myself, to the point where I didn't want to work out because I felt like it didn't matter how I would change my physical body, because my condition could still take control of it at any given moment.
But now I'm at a point where I'm learning to love my body more...I tell people all the time that [my endo] is a part of me, but it's not me. Although it does have its own personality, its own characteristics, and its own mannerisms. Sometimes it's very fierce and metamorphs into the physical image that I see, and sometimes it's calm and quiet—it goes away and then I can just be me. So that's how I've been really learning how to take it: Knowing it's its own character, this individual that's just living inside of me and with me and [the flareups are] just temporary.
I feel most confident when I...
Do things for myself. Just simple things. I have leg pain, and to still be able to walk, to drive, to fix food for myself, to get the remote control—doing those simple things even though I feel like I need to sit down shows I still have control over parts of my life.
Jessica De La Rosa, 34, disability rights advocate, artist, dancer
W+G: What do you think about the term "body positivity"? Is there a term you prefer to use instead?
JDLR: There’s no [one] term. It’s like, "I’m f**king beautiful." I don’t need people to remind me, to remind themselves, that I’m beautiful. There’s a stigma regarding what we should and should not be positive in ourselves about that we’re taught, both subliminally and outright. I catch myself doing it all the time. Even though I’m quote-unquote a "very body positive person," I still catch myself in weak moments where I’m just like: "I’m too fat," or "I’m too short," or "I’m in a wheelchair." But I remind myself that those are other people’s issues. Not mine.
How would you describe your relationship with your body today?
I used to hide myself in baggy clothes, in dark clothes. I already stick out, right? Because I’m in a wheelchair. I didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself. Now I’m like, "Ha! It’s in your face! Come get it. I’m going to give you something to look at right now!"
I’m tired of living by other people’s thoughts and standards. It was affecting my happiness.
I feel strongest when I...
I feel strongest when I'm prioritizing myself. I spend so much time trying to make the lives of everybody else around me easier and happier, so I stop and take a minute to remind myself: If I can do it for other people, I can do it for myself.
I've definitely gotten better at taking the time for myself, pampering myself. I set up candles, I put the iPad on in the bathroom, and I watch a show or movie while I take a bath. I do a hair mask and a face mask...So taking care of myself in those ways, loving myself, reminding myself of my worth, my strengths, those types of things [makes me feel strong].
"I used to hide myself in baggy clothes, in dark clothes. I already stick out, right? Because I’m in a wheelchair. I didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself. Now I’m like, ‘Ha! Come get it. I’m going to give you something to look at right now!'" —Jessica De La Rosa
Aurea González, 26, artist
W+G: How has your mental health played into your self-confidence and body image?
AG: I feel like my relationship with my body is like a roller coaster—I would be dishonest if I said it wasn’t. I try my best to love it every day and there are days when it’s a lot harder than most. Last week, I felt hideous and lived in sweatpants. But that's the roller coaster—that’s just life, and as long as you pick yourself back up, then you’re good.
It’s more than just a physical thing, it’s a mind game as well...I’m in therapy every other week. I take medication for depression and anxiety. Working out also helps me a lot. Working on my mental health has allowed me to feel a lot better and more optimistic and just try to turn a negative into a positive as much as I can.
How would you say that fitness has been a part of your self-love journey?
When I was 19, I used to work out a lot. I used to run outdoors. I’ve always been pretty active and I used it as tool to de-stress. I grew up in a very sheltered home and was very stressed out most of the time and just very angry. I was an angry little girl growing up. Then I got patellofemoral syndrome in both my knees, and then I gained weight and that didn’t help my knees, so I couldn’t do any high-impact training and it really screwed me up.
Late last June I got back into fitness and I've been consistently working out; now it’s like a second home for me. What started off as, "I want to lose a certain amount of weight," turned into, "I just love working out." I love seeing what happens to my body and my mind, seeing how I feel afterwards and that I’m growing muscles in places I’ve never had muscles before...When I realized that I can be consistent in fitness and saw the beautiful results that came from it—what it did for me emotionally and mentally—it made me feel like, "Okay. Now I can be consistent in everything else that means this much to me."
I feel most confident when I...
Am staring at myself in the mirror naked. It’s an exercise. When people ask me, "How are you so confident?" the first thing I say is: "Do you own a full-body mirror, a full-sized mirror? If you don’t, get one. And when you get one, you need to look at yourself fully naked." You have to face the fear, you can’t hide from fears your whole life. I always tell people, "Dissect your body in three parts: chest up, midsection to your waist, and then from there down. Find at least one thing that you like about each section and just give that part love."
Helen Phelan, 27, pilates instructor and health coach
W+G: How does the term "body positivity" make you feel?
HP: I usually use the term "body neutral" instead of "body positive," because I have a history with eating disorders. While I like to be super-positive in my classes and show people all the incredible things their bodies can do, I also think it’s important to separate [the way you feel from the way you look]. Your worth is not based on your looks. So I think that the body neutrality movement is a little bit more realistic for mental health purposes.
You've been outspoken about your experience in the past with eating disorders. How has that experience shaped your perception of your body?
I started dancing when I was three, and I [began a long battle with] anorexia and bulimia when I was 10. It was always in phases and it always felt like, "This is like something I can manage, it’s not a big deal." When I had stomach problems a couple of years ago is when I started to be like, "Oh, okay, I’m really hurting my body in a permanent way." I had to get an endoscopy and a colonoscopy—all these procedures to check out the damage in my throat and my stomach. So I guess that was like the wake-up call that made me want to start to get better...When I was a professional dancer, I really hated [my body] and then, through having a trainer and doing a lot of therapy, I have become more positive about it. But I’ve also been able to detach that [sense of] worth from how my body looks.
I feel sexiest when I...
I feel sexiest when I've done some sort of self-care or taken time for myself that day. It’s hard for me to connect with my body if I haven’t spent some time meditating, or dancing around my living room, or having a few minutes just to feel my body. I guess that could mean [I feel sexiest] anytime, so long as I’ve given myself that time today.
"It’s hard for me to connect with my body if I haven’t spent some time meditating, or dancing around my living room, or having a few minutes just to feel my body." —Helen Phelan
Kiara St. James, 41, founder and executive director of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group
W+G: You’ve spoken about how you grew up in a gender-policing and non-affirming household. How did growing up in that environment affect your relationship with your body? How did that change (if at all) once you were able to embrace being a woman?
KS: I grew up in a very religious family. I was not able to actualize who I was when I was [growing up] back in Texas. Coming to New York City and finding a community that was able to affirm who I am...felt like I came out of being a caterpillar and into a butterfly. That’s what it felt like to me—being a caterpillar at home in Texas, being restricted to a binary gender—so coming to New York really helped me.
You were a drag performer in Atlanta before you moved to New York. How did doing drag shows influence your self-expression and body acceptance?
I loved it. It was a way of getting away from my everyday existence. And drag performances in Atlanta were really about celebrating our resilience. I didn’t realize it at the time...but it was still at the zenith of HIV and AIDS, so community members were dying [and] were oftentimes shunned by their family members. So it was up to the community who depended on the “female illusionists” to raise money to bury a lot of our gay brothers and sisters. I took that role very seriously, that I was doing something for the community and bringing us together.
[In terms of body image], I was appreciative of the older girls who showed me how their bodies looked outside of the gowns [they wore on stage]. There was a lot of disfiguring and discoloration that happened; the older girls used to inject Crisco oil and free-market silicone into their bodies...For black and brown trans women, it was [often] about emulating our sisters’ body shapes, our mothers, our aunts. Which meant being more voluptuous, more hippy, [emphasizing] the buttocks. Trans women also tend [to have broad shoulders]—I have broad shoulders, I accepted the fact that I have broad shoulders, there’s nothing I can do about it—and making their butts, hips, and breasts bigger was another way that trans women would try to take away from having broad shoulders and from what we felt were masculine features. They endured a lot of pain with their bodies.
Now that I am much older, I have a better respect for and understanding [of my body]. I’ve lost so many contemporaries, so the fact that I’m still here and I’m able to thrive gives me a better appreciation of this body, how this body has carried me through trauma, into a different journey of joy. And so I’m just in a really happy place.
I feel strongest when I...
Am able to express myself and be unapologetic about it. I spent most of my life censoring myself...I felt the best way to get along was to just be quiet and be part of an overall toxic environment. I realized that for me to really get to a place of abundance, I first have to speak my truth. The people, places, and things that we surround ourselves with are going to either push us forward or hold us back, and I take that very seriously.
Yesenia Torres, 45, advocate
W+G: What do you think of when you hear the words "body positivity"?
YT: Healthy. Because it gets away from the concept of a "beautiful body." What is a beautiful body? Being positive towards your body is being healthy.
You were injured over 20 years ago—how has your relationship with your body changed since then?
[At first] it was about seeing the changes in my body and not liking them. But I was fortunate to have a lot of people around me that did not care about that. They just wanted me to be breathing, knowing that they still had me and didn’t lose me [is what was important].
When I first saw myself speaking out as an advocate, my point of view of my body changed. I didn’t care if my hair was in a bun or with curls, if I had my glasses on or off. [The emphasis] was on what I needed to express and not my physical [looks].
I discovered my inner beauty and that’s enough for me. So whoever doesn’t like my outer beauty, they’ll love me because of what I’m transmitting, who I am, what I’m capable of doing, and how I've become a testimony of life. That's the beauty that's in me.
I feel sexiest when I...
Put a good lipstick on.
Note: These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity. Reporting by Jessie Van Amburg and Kells McPhillips.
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