turning puberty into an art form
Photographers Bethan Mooney and Isabella Connelley celebrate how awkward and weird bodies really are.
Photography Bethan Mooney and Isabella Connelly
Photographer Bethan Mooney's first public experience with nudity was in art class, but years later she's still navigating the flux of emotions and hormones that washed over her teen years. Sure she's all grown up now, but continues to examine how we view our own bodies and the sense of shame that's often cloaked in our opinions. Today she exercises these ideas through Bits and Bods, a "digital platform of films, articles and art that aims to start an inclusive, honest and factual conversation about puberty, sex and all the awkward bits in between."
It's a space to talk about a lot of things, but adolescence is a particular focus. She's aware that for those going through it, puberty can be an impossible subject to broach. But she plans to help them out. We spoke to her about making teenage girls feel a little more comfortable in their own skin.
When did you first become interested in bodies?
In one respect it can be pinpointed back to my first life drawing class in high school. I was freaking out about how I would react to having a naked body present itself to me in a series of poses. I burst into a fit of awkward giggles but after that subsided I was left with a sense of overwhelming bewilderment at how weird and wonderful bodies are.
They are a series of contradictions — wrinkly and smooth, squishy and firm, simple and complicated — I realised I didn't really know my own body. I think my interest grew out of way of exploring the relationship I had with my own body.
How did that personal connection merge into an art practice?
During uni I collaborated with my partner in crime Isabella Connelley. We encouraged each other to get in front of the camera and photograph our insecurities as a kind of fuck you to society and its screwed-up beauty standards and expectations. As soon as I started seeing my own body as a work of art, it changed the way I felt about my accidental markings and "imperfections". I suppose you could say that I developed not only acceptance of them but also respect for them. So in a way, it has been a roundabout therapy session in self-love.
How has that exploration and interest changed as you moved from teenager to adult?
At the beginning my art had an intensely physical orientation. I soon realised that the physical, mental, spiritual and social are all interconnected. What's more, how we see others and ourselves is always changing. Right now, my interest lies in people's perceptions of what is acceptable and not, and feelings such as embarrassment and shame. I'm drawn to the things people don't like about their bodies: stretch marks, pores, pimples, scarring, cellulite, discharge — I love it all.
You've gone from looking at the personal to the public ways our bodies are viewed, what's next?
I'm trying to use my work as a way of stepping outside my frame of reference as a cis, white, able-bodied woman in an effort to understand the range of issues that surround girls' and women's experience.
I've been able to interview all sorts of folks for Bits and Bods, and I increasingly realise that we are all so complicated and layered. Sex, gender and appearance all overlap and intertwine - particularly on and around bodies - and mean different things for different people. So I find my best way of learning is by talking to people.
It's cool to see puberty being such a focus.
Puberty for us was a period of confusion. Whether it was sprouting pubic hair, dealing with leaky period blood, exploring our sexuality or coping with gossip at school, there were a lot of questions we wanted to ask but, for some reason, we felt we couldn't.
All of our team behind Bits and Bods felt the sex education we received was way too anatomical and heteronormative. I mean, feelings and pleasure were never mentioned. It was a complicated time for us and we would have liked to have known way more than how to point out a fallopian tube on a diagram.
What's your alternative approach?
To spur an open and honest conversation through the spectacle of film, artful photographs and written content of the puberty experience. We draw on real women sharing their puberty experiences to break down taboos and rubbish ideas that this stuff should be shameful and secretive for teenage girls. The aim is to show that we are all much less weird than we fear we are! We also want to make it fun, exciting and visually intriguing. Puberty is full of milestones for girls and can be scary, so let's have some fun with it.
We have a website in development and a web series on the way. Going forward, we want to produce a web series quarterly or biannually and shift some of our written content to more regular video formats. A key focus for us is to continue expanding the diversity of voices and experiences that we give platform to.
2017's goal is to secure some funding and bring a couple more team members on board to support this. Longer term, we're interested in developing relationships with schools and conducting our very own Bits and Bods workshops. We are really just open to whatever comes our way - the support so far has been incredible and it just shows that this is a subject people want to talk about.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Bethan Mooney and Isabella Connelly