Jillian Powers first became an advocate for body image activism the moment she started her photography project “I Woke Up Like This.” The project, which has grown to lift the self-esteem of hundreds of thousands of women from all over the world, began as a way for her to face her own body image insecurities. In a sense, the project was a bit of a coping mechanism. Up until that point, she had always tried to be positive about her own body. She’d gone through a dramatic weight gain that also changed the way a lot of people saw her. This was frustrating and humiliating. “It’s difficult going through such a fast transition in size and watching your treatment change, men stop looking at, approaching and smiling at you, and health professionals suddenly seem to think that all your health problems are because you’re fat,” Powers explained in an exclusive interview with zoomdune.com. “People have these assumptions they carry — that fat people are lazy. But, that just isn’t true.”
Though she was angry, Powers knew that she was not alone. She became vocal about the issue and heard other voices, too. She began looking for women of all sizes, races and ages. She wanted to talk with them and hear their stories. Her project was born out of that, October 2014, and has been picking up steam ever since.
Powers’ project includes people from all walks of life. It “is for anybody who doesn’t love themselves,” reads the website for the project. The aim is to address all body types as a way to promote healing and understanding. The name of the project symbolizes a viewing of those subjects as being seen at the most vulnerable moment of their day. They are photographed with bedhead and without makeup and also in the nude. “The project isn’t saying ‘I just rolled out of the bed and I’m confined to the bedroom,” explained Powers. “It says ‘this is me in different situations where I would normally be wearing clothes.’ It’s a way to desexualize the human body, to show that nudity can be normal.”
Could you tell a bit about the interviews you do with the women you photograph for your project?
In each interview, I ask the girl her level of self-esteem from 1-10 to start. I ask them why they want to participate so that the audience can know why they’re there and I ask them if they’re nervous. I ask these things because I want to measure where they are before and after the shoot, so I ask the same exact questions each time. Typically self-esteem numbers will raise.
How are the shoots done?
The people are picked based on who wants to participate and the reasons they want to participate. I try to pick the people with the most need for a confidence boost. From there, we set up a day and we pick out the morning and the location. I always shoot around 9 a.m. at my home (though this project also now travels). That’s the best light this time of year. It’s slowly shifting to 10:30 a.m.
I ask them to just roll out of bed, exactly the way they went to bed, even if they forgot to take off their makeup or they had gone out the night before. I just want it to be genuine. Then, they come to my house, I pre-interview them with the questions I mentioned earlier and then, I shoot with them for about 45 minutes to an hour and afterwards we finish their interview and talk about sexism, their definition of feminism, their favorite body part, their least favorite body parts, how they’ve felt discriminated in their life and sexual abuse. Anything you can think of, we cover.
Do you think you’re going to have to become more selective and how are you going to maintain the integrity of your project when that happens?
I am going to have to become more selective. I’m going to have to prescreen a lot of these girls with more elaborate questions than just whether they want to participate because when I ask people that, I’m asking them to tell me their life story. I also need stories that connect with the readers and help people and show them, “I’ve been through this, and so can you.” I would love to shoot every single woman, because I know every single woman struggles, and men too, but for this project to be successful and reach people and make a big difference, I need these really big stories.
Do you try to keep a certain visual coherence to all of your images in this project?
I do. I make sure that I do a number of shots that are the same with every girl to show the differences in body types. I’ll have them on a plain wall, facing me, hands down, feet together, staring straight into the camera. I’ll have them looking up into the camera with their eyes, sitting down with their hands in their lap — because everybody’s belly looks different when they sit down — raising their arms up. These are just everyday body movements that you don’t see a naked body do but you know we all do.
Is this project part catharsis for you?
It is. I struggle everyday like everybody else. My self-esteem struggles center around my weight and my inability to have un-painful sex. These things really affect the way I look at my body. Add to that my anxiety and depression and PTSD from my extreme middle school bullying, all of that really plays into my self-esteem.
I work really hard to be as confident as I seem to people, but just like every other confident person, I have my downfalls, my bad days, where nothing goes right. It’s all centered around my body type and you can’t help but blame your body when it seems to be the center of all your problems.
What are some of the responses from the ladies who you’ve been photographing and interviewing?
Almost all of them have approached me and thanked me profusely for it because it really did change the way they thought about themselves. For them, too, the entire experience was a catharsis. It rebuilds their self-confidence by having them look at themselves at their most vulnerable moment. A lot of the girls come back to me and it gets emotional. They send me some of the longest messages. Others I just don’t hear from and I think that’s because they’re taking in what it is to be that vulnerable in front of everybody else.
It seems that this project is needed without question.
It shows in every person that participates, every person throughout the day telling me that they’re thankful for everything I’m doing.
This project for me was just everyday, I’m going to shoot a girl; I’m going to interview her about her problems and confidences, and try to relate that to people and help them increase their body positivity.
One of the things that is really unique to your project is that at some point in the shoot, you appear in one of the shots. Could you explain the significance of that?
I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I don’t want to tell all these women to “Hey, get naked, be confident and shoot with me!” I want to tell them that I’m right there with them. …and it’s another part of the coping mechanism that I have designed to help boost my own self-confidence. So, getting in every shot, and seeing my body next to another person’s body whether it’s bigger or thinner or shorter or taller helps me to separate the parts I don’t like and just focus on the things I have in common with other people and what makes us human.
This project is absolutely humanizing and it’s kind of radical. There are a lot of photographers who take nude photographs and they’re very beautiful but there’s always the delineation between subject and photographer. Yours however takes that delineation away.
And those shoots are always taken at angles that are flattering. I purposefully try to put the girls into poses that are just straight to the point focusing on body parts that they don’t like because I want them to see the aesthetic beauty in them.
How has censorship affected your project?
Censorship has affected my project since the very beginning. Trying to reach an audience is very hard when you cannot post your content on social media. Facebook censors nudity as do most platforms, but they do allow pictures of butts and shots of women with nipples covered. As long as no vagina is showing, the image is typically allowed to stay up, even if it is reported. I learned that the hard way. I was blocked from Facebook for 24 hours for posting some images that I thought were okay. They almost took down my entire page, but luckily I had a friend who was able to communicate with them that this was a good cause that shouldn’t be taken down.
After overcoming that, I decided to start a GoFundMe to raise money so I can continue this project all over the world. I used the same images on GoFundMe that had been approved by Facebook. I had assumed that they had similar guidelines. After receiving $180 worth of donations, or so, they took down every picture. It had said “Crowdfunding for everyone,” but apparently, except for projects that contain nudity. I emailed back and forth, apologized for the initial images that did show breasts and I took them down and reuploaded other ones but it didn’t make a difference. By that time, they had told me “You can start another project on GoFundMe but it can’t be about anything that contains nudity. I couldn’t even post a link on the page that said “not safe for work” above it. I couldn’t even write about it without a link. Same thing for IndieGoGo.
I had friends go in to GoFundMe and find projects that included nudity, but male nudity…and those were not taken down. GoFundMe was very not human in their answers except for the very last girl who contacted me who said ‘We’re sorry. We know your work isn’t porn. We’ll get you the donations and here’s the spreadsheets of all the people who have donated.’ They did make an effort to recover from it but the terms of GoFundMe prevent me from crowdsourcing the money I need to continue this project.
Censorship of the human body is outdated. Part of this project’s goal is to desexualize the female body because a photograph of a woman in a non-sexual pose, sitting without making any sexually suggestive movement should not be seen as sexually suggestive. I literally have women standing straight on, hands down to the sides, looking at me. And that’s sexual to people! That just shows you how much we cannot separate sexuality from beauty.
It’s a frightening idea to think about; if someone is just standing there and they’re sexualized, it’s something that’s imposed on the body whether that person is being sexual or not.
This is another way that a woman’s choice about her body gets taken away. By denying my project a platform to raise funding, but provide that platform to projects funding kitten calendars featuring topless men, no matter how much of that money goes to charity, is a great disservice to society and quite frankly going against their own terms.
How does your work inspire others? Have you received messages from people whose work has been inspired by yours? Are there offshoot projects that have been formed out of that inspiration?
Yes. I’ve had photographers mention that I inspired their boudoir to become less sexual and more about the beauty of a woman. I’ve had people who are doing similar things as me who have reached out, as well.
Ultimately, I’d like to have a collective of photographers to do that sort of thing for women who have been through trauma and just offer that as a non-profit service. Kind of like “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” It’s a photography nonprofit that photographs your baby after they have passed away. If they are stillborn, photographers come to the hospital and photograph the baby so that you have something to remember them by. I want to do that for victims of sexual abuse who have come to terms with it and want to take back control of their body. I want to do this for basically any woman who has severe self-esteem issues, whether it be from abuse, eating disorders, or whatever it is.
You’ve said in the past that you are considering including men in your project. What would it take to include them in the project?
I actually shot my first male very recently. It went really well. I didn’t take as much time as I needed but I got some amazing shots with him. I used similar poses so that you can compare the male versus female in a different light and different body types.
Do you include transgender individuals in your project and have they asked to be a part of your project?
Men have asked to be a part of the project or moreso commented on the lack of men involved in the project. A lot of guys will look at this project and their initial thought is not “Oh, this is beautiful,” but more like “where is the men’s project?” As a woman with my own self-esteem issues, I wanted to start with women’s issues but I quickly realized how much men need this project, too.
I’m trying to bring this to the discussion and bring this to the forefront for us to talk about men’s issues because if we’re going to work on women’s issues, we have to pay attention to men’s, as well. It doesn’t just work one way. Yes, women have gone through so much more but we’re getting to a level of humanity where things are starting to reverse. Some men are starting to adapt to women’s roles and women are taking men’s roles and while there are many who don’t like it, it’s happening.
And yes, of course I include trans-women in the women’s project. I’ll include trans-men in the men’s project as well. I also include all sexualities, ages, races, class, and abilities.. I include anybody with disabilities. They are especially invited because their bodies are never talked about.
What are some of your personal favorite body positive projects?
I think Herself does beautiful work that is also very similar to my own. The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project and Through Her Eyes Project.
What inspires you and the work you are doing?
The messages I get after I do a session. It feels really good to hear that I have helped people validate these feelings and increase their self-esteem in overall life. That’s what inspires me.
Are there some tools that you can offer that are particularly helpful in gaining self-esteem?
Set reasonable goals for yourself. Don’t overwhelm yourself with having to be 100 percent positive. Just look at the language you are using for yourself and think about it as if you were talking to somebody else. Ask yourself if that is how you would talk to anybody else.
I try to leave everyone who leaves from a shoot with tools to improve their self-esteem. I correct them during interviews when they talk negatively about themselves. I’ll try to encourage them after I get the question answered because the way they feel is 100 percent valid. I don’t want them to ever have to feel wrong about being frustrated with their bodies. It’s actually okay to be frustrated with your body. Take it one step at a time and try your best to focus on what’s best for you and your self-esteem and your mental health. It’s all about your mental health.
To keep up with the project, you can follow on Facebook. Visit the “I Woke Up Like This” website for the stories.