Standing strong > standing tall.
In this blog, I am going to explain why this portrait was made. Much of what I say here could be applied to my other self-portraits as well, because many are built from the same place within me.
Because of the major impact my height (4’11”) has had on my life, it has shown up many-a-times in my creative outlets: blogs, stories, photographs, song lyrics, and poems. However, I have never discussed it this openly or directly in any publicly-shared way before. So here we go.
I have always been shorter than my peers.
This has always been brought to my attention.
The attention has usually felt negative, and suffocatingly often.
As a child I begged and pleaded to go to a growth specialist, and it finally happened when I was about 12. The appointment consisted of an X-ray of the growth plates in my wrist to determine how open/closed they were. If there was a significantly open space there, more growth would be indicated. But the reverse of that was a possibility too. No space. And no more growth. The results came back a long few minutes after the X-rays, and showed that my growth plates were 99.9% closed. Upon learning this I kept my composure in the exam room. I held it all together until I was in the parking lot, alone with my mother, where I completely collapsed and wailed like I never have before or since. But why?? I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t dying. In fact, there was absolutely NOTHING wrong with me. NOTHING! Let me say it this way: there is nothing inherently wrong with being short. There are only just pros and cons to being short. Just like there are pros and cons to being tall or average height. The notion that a certain height is superior to another is based on societal standards of superficiality, and I am calling bullshit on it! A BIG trash-bag-full of bullshit! And I am uniquely qualified to call bullshit on it because I am an expert at being short!
The reason I was so sad that day is because I knew that the constant commentary and different treatment I had recieved up to that point would never stop. And believe me, since then, I have been a receptacle for every comment you can possibly imagine, and some that you likely couldn’t even imagine. Sometimes the comments were meant to be endearing, sometimes the comments were intentionally hurtful, sometimes they were disgusting and flat-out harassment (I will spare you those details as they don’t deserve the space or letters here). I have been asked if I was a heavy smoker as a little kid and did it stunt my growth (ummm, nope!), more than once! And I hear many discussions pertaining to height that aren’t directed at me: parents talking about (and in front of) their children saying that their child is “doomed, just doomed!” to be short like they are, as the child they are discussing wilts in front of them. And countless times, I have been a back-t0-back human measuring stick for children who jump for joy when they realize they are now taller than me, taller than an adult! I would usually handle this with awkward laughter and say that it was clearly my role in life to make people feel better about themselves and their stature.
Sometimes the comments, especially from children, are humorous, “are you like a real adult, or like a sister kind of adult?” When I was 17, my sisters and I took a trip to Uganda, Africa, with our father. We were fortunate enough to go gorilla trekking, and see these amazing beings in their natural habitat. However, I almost missed out on the experience because my passport (I lose shit all the time!) proving my age was missing and they didn’t believe I was the minimum required age, 12. But they were happy to let my younger sister, who of course was taller than me, go without any hesitation. After considerable tears and pleading, they agreed to let me go. By the end of the trek I had shed my raincoat and sweatshirt and was left wearing just a t-shirt and jeans, at which point one of the guides said, “you should have showed us your mama parts earlier, then we would have believed you were old enough!” Sigh? Laugh? Eyeroll? I often times don’t even know which expression fits!
I now realize that the biggest mistake I made the day I found out I wasn’t going to grow anymore was this: thinking I wasn’t strong enough to shield all of that negativity directed at me. Instead, I let it define me, make me weak and hold me down. And it would nearly take my life several years later in the form of a severe eating disorder because if I couldn’t control my height, I was damn well going to control my weight! So, how exactly does all of this connect to this photograph of me standing on a bed without wearing much in the way of clothes? My art, specifically my self-portraiture, is predicated on recycling the hurtful and negative trash that has accumulated in a receptacle in a dark corner of my mind for 37 years and turning it into a something new, whole, and strong.
The process of self-portraiture requires a lot of thought, energy, introspection, and dedication. I am constantly asking myself why? Why does a particular image resonate with me while another one does not? Why do I start my sessions fully clothed and usually end up shedding quite a few layers before I call it a wrap? Why do I feel so compelled to share such vulnerable images of myself? Why not just sit on them and keep them to myself?
Alright, so I am going to talk just a little bit more about this particular image and how it is a demonstration of self-portraiture being used as a tool for personal growth. (I have already addressed my sentiments on vulnerability and how important it is to share it with others here.) So I don’t really walk around my house (very often!) dressed like this. I started this session wearing jeans and a t-shirt in addition to the rest of what you see here. I took a few shots, looked at them on the back of my camera, and I felt flat in every way. I needed to change direction- so all of the bedding had to go along with some of my attire. My process for self-portraits doesn’t consist of concrete pre-visualization, but I “feel” when I am connecting with something deep inside that needs to come to the surface, and I know when to shift when it’s not working for me. Plus, having the spontaneous magic of something like a puppy photobombing a self-portrait can’t be planned! I had already questioned why my photographs from previous self-portrait sessions have a sensual vibe to them. I figured it was just what needed to come out, for whatever reason. During this last session I engaged that thought a little deeper, keeping in mind the massive life-long wound that has been my height. As I already alluded, I have been treated like a child my entire life, physically looked down upon and not taken seriously, and I am certain it is because of my height. I absorbed this criticism. It hurt me and held me back. It was a powerful force in shaping me and the image I have of myself, especially in the most basic of biological necessities. How can I fully embrace my sexuality if I’m made to feel as though I’m a child?
And so I have worked hard to heal myself, the woman reflected here in this photograph. Not everyone will understand, and I will be judged. And to that I say, I will happily recycle all of that negativity into something else that serves me and enables me to stand strong.
P.S. On a related note, I wrote a story called “Room 501: Love is a Continuum” a kind of dream-like, creative version (and even more long-winded I am afraid) touching on some of what I have said here…which is always more fun for me!
About the Artist:
Natalie resides in Peoria, Arizona, with her husband, two children, and two dogs. Her artistic journey has taken many twists and turns but photography and writing have become the primary outlets for her artistic expression. She is an artist at Offset.com. Her work/photography has been published by Lensbaby, Beyond the Wanderlust, and has been licensed for ads by Samsung and other companies for advertisements.Her best days are filled with trying to guide and raise up her offspring and pups, music, reading, creating photographs and writings, hiking, yoga, cooking, and sky-gazing. In the social media world, she can be found on Instagram @natalie_a_wheeler, and as a moderator for @theechoesinside, a hub for self-portraiture.