Body Positivity in New Orleans: Self Love in a Society of Self Loathing


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Body Image.

We’ve all dealt with it in one shape or another. Our society, both locally and nationally, can be unforgiving from multiple directions. Staying positive about one’s body is no easy task. So how do we stay positive in a society that teaches us to be so critical of ourselves? We put out a casting call for folks who were interested in participating in a body positivity project, through photo and interview. What follows are some of the responses from New Orleans residents (three individuals and one couple) who were courageous and open about themselves.

Working with the talented Sarah Rochis of Neutral Sound Studio, we were able to get close and personal with each of these subjects. Sarah contacted each subject and met them either in their homes or at a place where they were most comfortable.  She took photographs of each of our subjects being candid, being themselves, being New Orleans.

Susan Warmington

Our first subject is Susan Warmington. She has lived in New Orleans for three years and has been a teaching artist, a singer and a performer for much longer. What follows is her story and therein her take on what it means to maintain a positive body image.

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“I’m Susan Andrea Warmington. I’m very Jamaican. I have lived all over the United States but I have called NOLA home for three years. 

Music is my passion. I’m a lifelong Singer and Performer. I have been a Teaching Artist for the past 17 years or so, bringing my performance experience to the public classroom and to private students. I also facilitate vocal workshops for schools, churches, and corporate training sessions and teach and lead group singing and singing circles in community centers.

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Body positivity means having complete acceptance of whatever perceived flaws that society has forced you to believe you have, and finding the beauty and power in that perceived flaw. If you can see your beauty and feel confident about it that makes you completely attractive and sexy.I have given up identifying chronological age with how one should physically look or be.I am an ageless Goddess.I’ve recently cut my hair very short which is very freeing. I’ve left societal standards of beauty behind and revel in that I am a kind, decent, responsible person and that shows on my face and in how I move in the world. When I look in the mirror I have the maturity and confidence to know that I am my own best beholder, and I see beauty.

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Body image can be challenging when you don’t see yourself reflected in others in something as powerful and all-encompassing as the media. That has changed a lot over the years with YouTube and other publicly accessible media outlets that allow you to see many types of cultures and physical features that were rarely seen in mainstream media. When we can see others who have the same noses and hair and scars and body types etc. as us and still see how lovely or handsome and amazing they are, you feel secure knowing you are in beautiful company.

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I would encourage others to find beauty in themselves by doing for and being kind to others. I am at my healthiest and most attractive weight, as I am vegan and because I choose to be kind to animals. Volunteering your time, money, and energy to help others shows up beautifully on your face.”

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Alisa Raymond

Our next subject is Alisa Raymond. She is a poet, identifies as a slut, and has learned to let go of the hang-ups and judgments of other people. From losing 360 pounds to challenging the societal slut-shaming of women that happens every day, Alisa has faced and conquered much. What follows is her story and what body positivity, sex positivity and loving oneself mean to her.

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“Hey! I’m Alisa Raymond, I’m 37 years old and was born and (barely) raised in Central New Jersey. I am a proud, child-free, queer, polyamorous, friend, lover, poet, and a Hufflepuff.

I am most passionate about normalizing different types of beauty and relationship. I want to change, or better yet eradicate a standard of beauty, the fairy tale that is purity, and the idea that monogamy is the only acceptable lifestyle choice. I am a spoken word poet and have written and performed many poems on these subjects.

To me, body positivity is not holding anyone to any standard of beauty, realizing that the people you have seen on television and in print your entire lives is not how everyone does or should look. Sex positivity, to me, is being first and foremost safe, and then to have fun. Throw away those notions of promiscuity being a negative thing. Do what feels good to you as long as everyone is safe and consenting. Don’t worry about what people will say, or let the tired rhetoric about purity or morals weigh you down. Just enjoy what you’re doing regardless of if it is with one partner or several. Reject the notion that slut is a bad word. I have identified as a slut for a long time now, and the most free you can ever be is when you stop caring what people will say. Let go of the hangups and have a good time.

I work on being more body positive every day. When I was 19, the hair on top of my head started to thin drastically. By 24, it was barely there; I had one of those Homer Simpson hairdos with a whisp of hair covering the top. By age 28, all of the hair on top of my head was gone and I weighed 512 pounds. Needless to say, I hated everything about the way I looked and my health was spiraling out of control; two things that will drastically affect your confidence and sex life.

In February 2009, I had gastric bypass surgery. In three years’ time, I lost 360 lbs. My health and confidence greatly improved, but I still felt bad about my hair loss. You are taught by TV since you are a little girl that pretty princesses have long, beautiful hair and bald girls have cancer or alopecia. I started to wear a wig, but it made me very uncomfortable; I felt like I was deceiving people and it went against my “always keep it real” philosophy. So one day I came home, threw the wig in the trash, and shaved my head with my roommate’s clippers.  As the last of my hair hit the tile floor, I cried. Not out of sadness; because it felt like I had lifted a huge weight off of me. I could finally be who I wanted to be without wondering if people were only attracted to me because of this picture I was painting for them. It felt so good to know what they saw is what they got, take it or leave it.

The one caveat of the weight loss, though, is I lost the weight so rapidly my skin couldn’t keep up and I now have 30 pounds of loose skin hanging off of me. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still bother me a little bit. I can be a bit skittish being nude in front of people at first, but I am grateful to be alive and mobile and I wouldn’t trade it for all the rupees in Hyrule. So basically, what I do to be more body and sex positive is I refuse to apologize for how I look. I used to warn partners before we were intimate about the skin, and sometimes I’ll still catch myself doing it, but mostly my attitude is just like Jay-Z said: “Love me or leave me alone.”

 

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It’s challenging to be body positive in a world where it is shoved down your throat since the crib that women have long, flowing hair, and tight Barbie bodies, and they save themselves until marriage, and sex is for making babies not feeling good. Women are slut-shamed every day, and I challenge that. I am in a non-monogamous relationship with my partner and we date and sleep with other partners. We are open and honest with each other always and it works for us. It might not for a lot of people, but it does for us, and any relationship that I have non-monogamously is just as valid as a monogamous one.

I actually find it a lot easier to be body and sex-positive in New Orleans. When I lived in New Jersey strangers constantly stopped me to ask if I was dying of cancer (which doesn’t make you feel really sexy); here that has happened once. There are also far more alternative relationships here than where I have lived previously. Where I am from, everyone in high school had kids and got married to their high school sweetheart, lived miserably, divorced, and married someone else we went to high school with. They all cheat and lie to each other, but still shake their heads at me for the way I live. That is a common reaction from most people, especially women. Even women I consider close friends will ask if my partner and I split up if I try to talk about another man I’m seeing. They’ll roll their eyes and say something to the effect of, “I can’t keep track of your love life,” and then proceed to complain how their sometimes man-friend brought the other girl he is sleeping with to the same bar they met at, and how mad they are. And I am just thinking to myself, “my relationships are so much more stable than this. At least we don’t lie to each other.” Its comical to me.

 

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I think refusing to hide my hair loss with a wig and not apologizing for my body effects myself and others positively. I constantly get told by people they love my confidence and attitude and I think I inspire and encourage other people, especially women, to embrace their flaws and don’t let anyone dull your shine. I also go out of my way to compliment people if I feel it’s warranted. People are not nice enough to each other. A compliment goes a long way and can really turn someones day around. There is beauty in everyone, point it out sometimes.

Finding your place in society beings with rejecting societal norms, letting your differences shine instead of hiding them, and surrounding yourself with other people who are positive and enthusiastic about changing how we see each other. Personally, I feel accepted, by myself. And that is really the only acceptance that matters. Once you can accept who you are, and are proud of who you are, you can’t possibly feel unaccepted ever again. Being myself freely means living life unapologetically no matter where you live. New Orleans does seem to attract all kinds, and life just seems a little easier here when you’re different.

 

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New Orleans allowed me to be myself. I found myself here, and I grow and evolve every minute I live here. It’s magic. I came here two years ago on a whim; I was fed up with my family, the snow, burying addict friends, and the ghosts of parents past, so I gave away everything I owned and a friend bought me a one-way plane ticket here three days before my 36th birthday. Besides having weight loss surgery, it is the best decision I have ever made.  I lived most of my life like a gypsy moving from place to place, restless and unsatisfied. When I got here, I felt at home for the first time in my life; and right at this moment, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The only advice I can give is to stop judging. Yourself, others, anyone. Be who you want to be, do what you want to do, with who you want to do it with, and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing or what they are saying about what you’re doing.  Life is too short to not do what you want. Be safe, be honest, be kind. To yourself and everyone else.”

 

Cindy Miller

Much like Alisa, our next subject, Cindy, has been able to become her true self in the culture and city of New Orleans. She is a native to our city but lived elsewhere in her twenties. Body positivity and sex positivity can be challenging as an asexual woman overcoming health problems. Cindy has been able to use the art of drag to realize a deeper body positive relationship with herself. She describes herself as, “a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman.” She appreciates New Orleans’ propensity for appreciating unique individuals. This is her story.

 

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“My name is Cindy Miller. I am a New Orleans native, but I went to college in San Francisco and lived in California for over 10 years in my 20s. I am a performance artist in New Orleans – I do drag performances (as a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman). I also act and teach cooking classes. I have had a long struggle with having a positive relationship with my image of my own body, and drag has helped me with that. I impersonate the cult film icon Divine – who is a big girl like me. Divine was an unlikely role model for female sexiness and beauty, but she carried herself with such confidence and grace. She created a glamorous allure that I feel when doing an impersonation. I recently came to the realization that I am asexual – I have recently had some health problems ( leukemia – chemotherapy) which may have contributed to this, but I think I have been struggling with this realization for some time.

 

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I am a large person – but I honestly do not feel that people treat me in a negative way because of this. If they do, I don’t notice it. I have always had a pretty unique way of dressing and presenting myself – more so now that I am doing drag. New Orleans is one of the places in the world where having a unique appearance is not only tolerated but sometimes expected! I love living here. Learning the art of drag through the New Orleans Drag Workshop has helped me focus on creating a certain image that protests being expected to appear conventionally attractive.

 

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I live here because my history and family are here, and I feel it is a part of how I identify myself. I’m not sure what it would be like to live anywhere else. San Francisco in the 80s was also a city that appreciated a unique individuality, and it is the only other place I have lived.

I would advise people not to waste time trying to please anyone but themselves, especially when it comes to appearance.”

 

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Editor’s Note: The following section contains some images that are NSFW.


JM and Jill

Body positivity is not only a challenge for individuals in our society, but also for couples. I had the chance to interview JM and Jill about what body positivity meant to them. They were willing and able to open up a great deal about how they support each other in the daily quest for body positivity, as well as how each of them as individuals overcomes the societal pressures to never feel good enough about oneself.

 

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Nolan: Tell me about yourselves! Who are you? Where are you from? Tell me about how you make a living! How long have you been living in New Orleans?

Jill: I’m originally from Connecticut, but moved from Boston. I make my living as a waitress and bartender and have been living in New Orleans for a year.

JM: I was born and raised in Boston. Moved here with Jill. We were engaged then and are married now. I also bartend. It has allowed us the ability to even make the move in the first place. We both work at Chais Delachaise on Maple street. I play in a band named Champagne Girl, which is something that I both love and did not expect to come with this move.

 

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Nolan: What does body and/or sex positivity mean to you?

Jill: They mean similar things to me, mainly to accept myself for who I am and also to hold the same respect and view of beauty in everybody around me. When it comes to sex positivity it mainly means to not only try to know myself and what I want/need/like but to also have that conversation with partners or just people in general even if it’s just a stranger at a bar.

JM: Body positivity for me is a very personal thought that comes from a place of acceptance. I remember looking at my dad when I was a child and thinking “man he’s broad.  I really hope I end up skinnier than that.” Then actively trying to be kind of thin but genetics are just that. My body is going to look the way that it’s going to look. The only wiggle room comes from the life I chose to live. Sex positivity is more tied to other people. It’s also very much tied to choices. The way you prefer to interact with the people you encounter. I love sharing meals. Friends, acquaintances, co-workers, long absent cousins, whatever. This affects the way my body looks. I also chose to kiss my friends on the mouth, which is a choice that’s two-fold. I think platonic love is important and I’m generally surrounded by people who share the same thought. Sex is also about acceptance, communication, and care.

Nolan: What do you do in order to be more body/sex positive?

Jill: I just try to love myself and find beauty in myself/body even if it is something I feel uncomfortable with. Bodies and image are always and ever changing so to be able to see those changes and view and try to find the beauty or an aspect of them that I like can help turn it into love. It’s not always easy and some days or even weeks are harder than others.

JM: I eat yogurt. Get a haircut. Masturbate. Don’t masturbate. Stare at my wife. Tell my friends their butts look good. Check out my own butt. Make peace with it.

 

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Nolan: In what ways is being body/sex positive challenging for you in New Orleans/our society at large?

Jill: As a woman, it at times feels like everyone and thing is judging how you look or even who you’re with. There’s days when I’m getting ready for work where the only thing I can think of is, “is this going to make someone think a certain thing about me,” or “Does this make my stomach look to large or my chest look weird?” I feel like I even struggle with accepting my body hair even though I love it because I worry that someone might say or think a certain thing about me just based on me not shaving my legs or armpits. I feel like at times in the city, depending where I am or what is happening, I try to cover myself so I won’t stand out.

JM: I have to wear less clothing here. I have to. My body is calibrated to a different climate. I’m a little chubby. I sweat a lot. Before the move here I had only ever owned two tank tops. I wore them incredibly rarely because of my build and belly and arms and all that. Now, it’s mostly tank tops. I was almost forced to get more comfortable with my body coming here. I’m also dancing a bunch, there’s 100% more glitter than I’ve ever worn, an occasional dress. The challenge is just being able to accept and chuckle. Society at large? The distance we still have to cover as a collective is the biggest challenge.

 

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Nolan: In what ways are you thinking or acting positively on your own body image (and/or sex life), and how does this also positively impact others around you?

Jill: I just try to remain aware of it. I think that it just helps create a space where other people just feel and act more comfortable. If I’m not going to care about rolls on my body or parts that jiggle and move that didn’t use to (or are idealized to not to jiggle), your partner will feel hopefully the same. My partner and I have some nights that we just talk about our sex life. Some nights it’s a great thing, and we get to learn more about what we liked or found pleasure in, and then there are some nights where we talk about what we aren’t getting and what didn’t feel good. It allows for me to understand where he is at and also for me to gain insight on myself and how/why I might or might not be doing something. It isn’t always an easy conversation and there are tears, and it can be the same thing over and over again, but it creates a closer relationship between us and it helps us grow closer and allows us to get what we want and need.

JM: I try very hard to accept a compliment when one is given. Listen. Tell the people I care about that they look great when they look great. There are lots of hugs. With sex Jill’s right there. There are lots of conversations. The real heart of all of it is honesty, with yourself, with your partner, and that’s a difficult place to get to. It’s a place that takes work to stay in. I don’t think our sex life necessarily impacts other people at all. I don’t know if my body image does either. I’m chubby and happy. Most people seem to dig it. If it does make a positive impact, I’m pretty psyched about it and I’m glad it rubs off.

 

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Nolan: How do you find “your place” in our society? Do you feel accepted? In what ways can you be yourself freely in New Orleans?

Jill: I feel like I try to make everywhere my place. We’re all humans, and while we differ in some ways, for the most part you can find similarities. To accept my body and to be “unconventional” I think allows other people who feel the same way to come into my life.

JM: I feel accepted among my peers. Or at least people I perceive to be my peers? I think I’m kind of detached from “society”. Sometimes when I’m behind a bar people ask me what I’m studying.  I’m 33. In New Orleans, this happens far less. No one is trying to figure out what my “actual thing” is. I pour drinks for a living. That’s my actual thing. I love playing music and I’m doing that constantly too, but not for money. I know who I am. I feel most freely myself at home with Jill.

 

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Nolan: What New Orleans do for you? Why did you come here and why do you stay here?

Jill: New Orleans just allows for different people to be together and be different and accepted. There’s spaces and events that brings all walks of life and experiences together, and if you take the time you can interact with almost all of them; you just need to try and start the conversation. I love this city because you can go to places and sit around a pool topless and be surrounded by different bodies. You can also go out covered in glitter in costume for no reason or event and people, for the most part, won’t even question it. I came to mostly stay away from all the snow and cold, but also to experience a different place and different people. I stay for the overall community of people that are here. Whether they are born and raised here, implants, or even just visiting, there is always someone new and different to meet and that’s amazing.

JM: I love this city. I came for the music. I came for the food. I love that it doesn’t close. I stay because people are open. They’re kind. It’s not just southern hospitality either. The attitude here is unique to here and you can feel it. People here are engaged and engaging.

Nolan: What advice or encouragement do you have for our readers on how to be more body positive (and/or sex-positive) on a daily basis in their own lives?

Jill: Take it one day at a time. Try to find love in things even when you hate them. Bodies and sex is always changing and that’s okay. Open yourself up to conversations about it even if it’s just with yourself.

JM: Jill said that very well. They only things I’d add are, eat the burger (or whatever), drink they wine (or whatever), tell your friends that you love them.

 

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While body positivity and sex positivity mean different things to different people, these interviews make a few things clear as far as shared values and patterns are concerned. Amongst the New Orleans population, this city is overall seen as a positive force in their lives. New Orleans helps folks realize and become who they are, both in lifestyle and in body image. Honesty, with oneself and with one’s partners and peers, is of the utmost importance. Honesty, even when it’s hard, leads to growth and better self-acceptance and self-love.

 


Editor’s Note: This project would not have been possible without the talent and warmth of our photographer, Sarah Rochis.  She made each of these subjects feel comfortable, safe and valued through this whole process.  We here at Big Easy Magazine thank her for living out our values in her work.

Nolan Storey has lived in New Orleans for 10 years. He fell in love with this city as he received his bachelors in English from Loyola University New Orleans in 2012. Since then, he has gone on to publish three books, including two books of poetry. If you liked this piece, be sure to check out the rest of his articles, poetry, and short stories here.

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One thought on “Body Positivity in New Orleans: Self Love in a Society of Self Loathing

  1. I have watched Cindy Miller evolve for some time now and she is amazing. She is also one of the most helpful and open people I have had the. Pleasure to be around… thank you CM for your strength and passion for life.

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