Elsie Zala, 73
Few people had ever seen Elsie Zala
naked - and most of them were doctors. At 73, she figured it would likely stay
that way. That is, until Zala heard about the Real Women Project, an organization
to help women overcome their despair when they look in the mirror and see someone
other than Cheryl Tiegs (or Tyra Banks or Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez). Zala
is one of 13 San Diego women-spanning multiple generations-who agreed to pose
nude for sculptor T.J. Dixon, who created bronze likenesses of their forms to
celebrate the beauty of all women's bodies. "I was trying to say 'Here I am. I'm
a happy, healthy, reasonably content, mature woman,' " Zala said. "I value and
treasure my body, even with my orange peel thighs and fat stomach." One set of
the 10-inch sculptures is on display in the lobby of Scripps Memorial Hospital's
Center for Women's Health in La Jolla. Another is in the New York Hall of Science
as part of a touring exhibit called "The Changing Face of Women's Health." When
Tabor Knight, 62, saw her sculpture publicly unveiled, she cried. "I thought,
'Wow! That's how I look and it's wonderful.' " Knight said. "But I was so sad
I had spent so much of my life being ashamed of my body." The Real Women Project
was founded last year by Cathy Conheim, a licensed clinical social worker and
practicing psychotherapist from La Jolla, and Drs. Barbara Levy and Donna Brooks,
both OB-GYNs. The three women came up with the idea for the project over dinner.
"We asked ourselves, 'If there was one major think we could change that would
impact women's health positively in the next century, what would we take on?'
" Conheim said. "We decided we wanted to tackle the obsession with one-dimensional
beauty and the starvation imagery that consumes women." Conheim asked women she
knew-either as friends or professionally-who represented different ages, ethnicities
and body types to take part in the art project. The sculptures, they believe,
will begin to undo some of the damage by showing diverse women-and inviting other
women to see their mothers, their grandmothers and themselves in the figures.
Laid bare are the women's round bellies, rolls of flesh, drooping breasts, missing
breasts, dimpled thighs and wide hips. There is Julianna, 24, holding Roxanna,
2, her daughter. Lilly, 14, lies on her back, with her hand resting on her stomach
while Zona, 33, throws her head back, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead.
Each woman chose the pose she felt best suited her personality, and how she feels
about her body, Dixon said. Some poses connote anguish-one woman lies on the floor
in the fetal position; another sits hunched with her head bowed. Others show defiance-one
woman stands with her chin lifted, her hands clasped behind the back, daring the
world to look at her mastectomy scar. "To a sculptor, real beauty is definitely
not what you find in a fashion magazine," said Dixon, whose studio is in Leucadia.
"It's a more natural form. Each woman has a lyrical, perfect quality to her that's
very different from anybody else's." That's not a message girls or women often
hear. The media bombards women with images of impossibly thin, leggy and buxom
models. This rigid and virtually unachievable definition of female beauty has
led many women to become preoccupied with their appearance. The damage is seen
in the millions of eating disorders, $300 million dollars a year spent on plastic
surgery, a $33 billion-a-year diet industry, Conheim siad. Zala, Knight and the
other women who took part in the sculpture series can relate. Posing nude was
terrifying, liberating and fun-once they got over the initital awkwardness. It
also forced them to confront memories from childhood about painful experiences
and memories, and insecurities they thought they had left behind. At first, Knight
felt honored when Conheim asked her to pose. But she immediately began to fret.
What would her daughter, her husband and all the people who might see her say?
She thought back to her adolescence, as she started to develop. Her mother warned
her about the dangers of men who preyed on young women, and began to restrict
her freedoms to protect her. "Middle-class black families were very careful to
keep young girls covered up," Knight said. "It wasn't that unlikely that we could
be attacked by white or black men. I couldn't even wear shorts. I could no longer
climb trees. I resented the restrictions mightily. I grew to hate being female.
As she contemplated posing, Knight thought about how hard she had worked toward
self-acceptance. She got out of a bad marriage and recovered from alcohol addiction.
Posing nude would help her prove to herself that she was truly proud of the woman
she had become. "I decided I didn't need to explain myself to anybody," Knight
said. "This to me was an act of courage and freedom and saying to my granddaughters,
'You don't need anybody to validate your body. It doesn't have to look like anybody's
body but your own and it's worthy of being cared for and cherished simply for
who you are.' " Women's struggle with obesity is the subject of countless articles
in women's magazines. But women at the opposite end of the spectrum - those who
for reasons of metabolism, genetics or diet are very thin - also experience difficulties.
At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 118 pounds, Kathy Shallow, 39, has been tall and thin
all her adult life. Shallow remembered when she started a new job and a co-worker
asked her to lunch. Thinking she might be making a new friend, she went. Midway
through the meal, the woman asked her if she was anorexic and told her about resources
to help her. In another case, not realizing she was the subject of the sculpture,
several women made biting remarks about her "too-skinny" frame. "It was painful,"
Shallow said. "One woman said (my sculpture) was 'devoid of feeling.' " When Conheim
asked Zala to pose, she thought she must be joking. "I said, 'What? This is ridiculous.
I'm not doing it.' " said Zala, who'll be 75 next month. "Then I started thinking
about women and how they suffer over their bodies, even the beautiful ones." Zala
thought she had outgrown self-consciousness about her body. A mother of two and
stepmother of three, a university teacher and a psychotherapist, she thought she
accepted herself. She took off her clothes and looked at herself in full-length
mirror. "I thought, 'I'm healthy. I'm still working,' " Zala said. "My body has
been good to me. I've been a mother and a teacher and a lover. This would be a
way to celebrate my body and all women's bodies."