How do you feel about your naked body? If you are a woman, the answer is likely to be bound up in years of negativity, embarrassment and even self-loathing.
At least six out of ten women report that they ‘hate’ the sight of themselves with no clothes on, according to research, while 40 per cent say they can’t even look at their body in the mirror. This is a sad state of affairs and all the more disheartening because it seems any woman, no matter how successful, may feel this way.
Dame Emma Thompson recently appeared naked in her latest film, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. The Oscar winner, who is 63, stated that the scene in which she had to stand nude in front of a full-length mirror was ‘the hardest thing I’ve had to do’.
With startling honesty, she admitted: ‘I have never liked my body. Ever. And I never will. Those pathways are so deeply carved in my brain. Women have been brainwashed all our lives to hate our bodies and that’s the fact of it.’
Dame Emma Thompson, 63, (pictured) recently appeared naked in a scene in her latest film. Inspired by the UK-based actor four midlife women have challenged themselves
Emma’s words are shocking and yet, when I heard them, I felt a sense of recognition. Rarely has a celebrity seemed so completely relatable. I don’t think I have a single female friend who would say she loves everything about her body, yet most of us also find this constant self-criticism exhausting.
In recent weeks, like so many British women, I’ve been bikini shopping, an activity I completely despise. Looking at my belly in the changing room mirrors, I know it’s stretched and saggy because it’s carried my three beautiful children. I know this physical change is something that, through my work as a campaigner for positive births, I’ve actively encouraged women to reframe and celebrate.
But can I do this for myself? No. And after half an hour of looking in the cubicle’s infinity mirrors, I was left in tears.
The rational part of my mind knows this was ridiculous. I don’t have less value because of how I look and I’m happier and more confident now, in my 40s, than I was in my taut 20s. But an irrational part of my mind believes I’d be a better person if I didn’t need swimwear with ‘tummy control’.
If my decades of work as a campaigner for women haven’t shifted this toxic mindset, then what will? A surprising school of thought says the answer is to face your fears, literally. Just like Emma in the scene where she stands in front of a mirror, staring at her body while she is undressed by her lover, women are encouraged to get naked and really look without fear, preconception or self-judgment — at themselves in a full-length mirror.
Photographer Danielle Reeder believes this can have a powerful psychological impact; that seeing our bodies in a new way can help us shake off engrained habits of self-loathing. She is such an advocate for this that she now devotes herself to creating nude portraits of normal women, designed to boost their self-esteem.
Facing the naked truth: Left to right, Debs Wallbank, Gail Crampton, Lisa Arterton and Alison Rooney. For women embraced their naked bodies
She started off doing clothed shoots but found her female subjects constantly apologised for perceived body flaws. ‘“I’m sorry about my stomach.” “Please excuse my legs.” Women apologising simply for being a woman,’ she says.
It led her to a new project, focusing entirely on the female form in, as she puts it, ‘all its raw and honest beauty’. She now creates naked portraits of women in wild settings, such as waterfalls, in locations like Exmoor and Dartmoor.
The project has a serious aim: to reclaim our bodies from overly perfect images in advertising and on social media. A lifetime of seeing such images is exactly how the ‘brain pathways’ that Emma Thompson talks about become so deeply carved that we can barely see beyond our culture’s narrow beauty standard.
‘Real bodies are being hidden behind endless filter options,’ Danielle tells me. ‘We’re losing sight of “normal” and persecuting ourselves to lose weight, to have bigger breasts, to have a tiny waist but a voluptuous bottom. But what if we instead learnt to love our own bodies just that little bit more?’
As Emma Thompson concluded in another interview, being filmed naked made her regret hating her body for so long
She hopes that her images — which are never photoshopped — will help others. ‘The women I photograph often say that perhaps someone else will feel more comfortable in their own skin after seeing real bodies celebrated,’ she explains.
It gives me hope that, even if we can’t rewire our brains to actively love our bodies, we might at least stop the harmful habit of hating them.
As Emma Thompson concluded in another interview, being filmed naked made her regret hating her body for so long. She wished, she said, that she could tell her 14-year-old self: ‘Don’t waste your life’s purpose worrying about your body . . . it’s where you live — there’s no point in judging it.’
We may not all choose to go naked in public; but if stripping off in my own bedroom — and taking a long look at my body, trying to appreciate its differences rather than hate its flaws — can change my body image for the better, I’d give it a go.
To see how finally facing the mirror can impact a woman’s self-esteem, Femail challenged four brave women who, like Emma, say they cannot look at themselves in a full-length mirror, to take the ultimate confidence-boosting test — and be photographed naked. Here they reveal what it taught them about their bodies.
FINDING A LUMP SPARKED MY WORRY
Business owner Alison Rooney, 44, lives with partner Andrew, 45, a chartered surveyor. They have two children, Lucia, 13, and Oren, six, and live in Blackburn. Alison says:
Alison Rooney (pictured) says that she never felt confident in her body and after having her children and cancer she found it very difficult to look at herself
Before this photoshoot, I tried not to think about it because when I did I felt sick. My first reaction was ‘you must be joking’, but I eventually decided to do it, as I want to see myself in a different way.
My body is short, rectangular and now covered in scars. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2018 and had a mastectomy. I’ve got scars under my breast and a hip-to-hip scar across my tummy from the removal of skin tissue to build a reconstruction.
Last June, I found a cancerous lump under my arm and needed further surgery.
My chemotherapy causes eczema, leaving my skin, from head-to-toe, red and blotchy. It makes me want to hide my body from myself and everyone else. I’ve taken the baby step of having a tattoo of a flower on my breast reconstruction area, but I’m still hiding it from almost everyone.
When I was younger I was never body confident but when my son was six months old, I did a personal training course and, before long, I was a toned size eight. For the first time in my life, I honestly felt fantastic.
But it all changed when I stopped breastfeeding just before his second birthday — when I found the lump.
I’ve never felt confidence in my body since and it’s two years since I looked at myself naked in a mirror. I deliberately avoid looking in the one in my bedroom and in shop changing rooms I don’t look until I’m fully clothed. My partner thinks I look fabulous, but women know it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, does it?
When it came to taking off my clothes, I was really conscious about my skin. But examining myself full-length in the mirror I could see it didn’t look obvious. Now I realise how much headspace worrying about my scars took up. Now they’re not the first thing I see.
I will start looking at myself more often fully nude — it’s a revelation to discover it isn’t a big deal. I also feel inspired to get healthier again. No one is judging me; I do it to myself.
I AVERT MY EYES FROM REFLECTIONS
Menopause coach Debs Wallbank, 48, is single and lives in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Debs says:
Debs Wallbank (pictured) says that while she continues to want to loose weight she refuses to be ashamed about her body
For the past ten years I have not looked at myself naked. The thought terrifies me. I’m not someone who ‘gets naked’ ever and I’d never let anyone, even my mum, see me undressed.
I don’t even have a mirror in my bedroom. I only look in mirrors when I have to, even when I’m dressed, and have trained myself to avert my eyes from anything reflective after being upset by what I saw so many times. I’m single, but if I am in a relationship I’m a ‘lights out’ kind of girl.
My body seems wobbly, unattractive and huge. My boobs are big and saggy. My bum is massive and so is my tummy.
I can recall in a heartbeat when I loved my physique the most — when I was living in London in 2008. I was slim at 8 st and I remember taking full-length naked pictures of myself in the mirror because I was so happy with my body.
I know self-esteem shouldn’t only centre on how we look but, for me, it has always been rather important.
I started to put on weight six years ago, after leaving a successful career in the oil industry in midlife. Soon I was having to buy clothes in sizes I’d never worn before. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to buy the size 16 I needed, instead kidding myself that I was still a 12 or 14.
I don’t remember the last time I wore swimwear or skimpy clothes. Now I weigh 14 st and, according to medical guidelines, I’m obese, yet when I say to my well – meaning girlfriends ‘I’m fat’, they tell me I am not.
But I am and I need to become comfortable with that. I just want to feel accepting of myself. I told my mum I was planning to do a naked photoshoot and she was shocked but incredibly supportive.
When I arrived I did feel nervous and I really, really cringed about stripping off. It felt like I had pure adrenaline running through my veins. But, within moments, a switch flicked.
To see my feminine form with my boobs uncovered, my tummy on display — it was a mind-blowingly positive experience. The selfconsciousness dropped away. I wanted to stop hiding.
I now think differently about my body. While I do aim to lose weight for health reasons, I refuse to be embarrassed by it any longer.
YEARS OF COMMENTS ABOUT MY THIGHS
Sales associate Gail Crampton, 55, is married to Stephen, 53, a sales director. She has two children Henry, 23, and Isabelle, 15. They live in Wombourne, South Staffs. Gail says:
Gail Crampton (pictured) reveals that she was ashamed of her body for years and was bullied about her weight
I am constantly criticising my body. I wish I was more toned. I’ve got cellulite on my legs and thighs. I try to remind myself that I’ve got a lot to be grateful for.
Yet I have spent a lot of my life not liking my body. I only have a waist-up mirror in my room so I don’t have to look at my big bottom half and haven’t been in a shop changing room in years — I always buy online. I haven’t looked at my full naked body in decades.
People have made cruel comments in the past about my chunky thighs or big bottom.
It got to the point where I would make a joke about my bum, along the lines of it being a giant peach, before anyone got in first with something more hurtful.
It’s ironic that now young girls are having bum implants I can finally see that a large derriere could be something to be celebrated, not apologised for.
A girl recently told me I have a nice bottom and I was able to say thank you without waiting for the punchline. It’s a shame I waited 30 years to feel good about it.
Since the menopause my body has changed dramatically. I had hoped I’d die the same weight I’ve been throughout my adult life, yet I’ve put on a stone over the past five years. Once, that would have been abhorrent for me.
I’ve worked in a health shop for 17 years and spend most days listening to women talking about how much they hate their bodies. But I’m as bad. Whenever I catch sight of myself in a mirror I usually say something horrible to myself.
Seeing myself full-length and naked wasn’t about being flattered with fancy lighting or complimentary camera angles — it was about being realistic about my body. To my surprise, I felt absolutely fantastic and was very proud of myself for doing it.
Why did I feel I was not allowed to like my body for all those years? As a woman of 55 I recognise, and can finally say, I’ve still got it.
FINALLY I FEEL LIKE THE REAL ME AGAIN
Trauma therapist Lisa Arterton, 39, is married to Edward, 40, a personal trainer. They have three children Ellie, 13, Lucia, six, and Hugo, one. They live in Cheshire. Lisa says:
Lisa Arterton (pictured) says that she didn’t want to feel ashamed or embarrassed about her body
My body is so mumsy right now — it’s just not sexy. Fourteen months ago, I had my third child. Although I’ve lost the baby weight, my body looks incredibly different because I haven’t been able to be consistent with exercise. Returning to work while looking after three small children has meant something has had to give.
As a result the backs of my arms shake, I’ve got protruding veins on my legs, my belly is wrinkly, soft and wobbly. I’m still breastfeeding and my boobs are saggy. I feel self-conscious because my body isn’t how it used to be.
It sounds awful doesn’t it? Especially as I have no health scares or any other life-threatening issues, but it is how I feel about myself.
I haven’t looked at my body naked since before I got pregnant in 2020.
I know my husband loves me and finds me attractive. He did say something sweet, that my body tells him a story of how it housed and fed our children. But that made me wince even more because he, too, can clearly see and feel all of my lumps and bumps.
I cringe when he wraps his arms around my tummy and even move away from a loving embrace.
During sex, I insist on keeping a bra on.
I also wear loose clothes and don’t have a full-length mirror.
But when my six-year-old asks me if I have another baby in my tummy, a little bit of me dies.
I had a spray tan last month and at the time I told myself ‘never again!’ I hated exposing my body, even to another woman.
I don’t want to feel this way, though, so I agreed to try the shoot even though the prospect terrified me.
My heart was pounding as I stripped off. But really looking at myself nude helped me to reconnect with my body.
I hadn’t realised that’s what would happen, but it was absolutely what I needed. I didn’t nitpick. I realised that, actually, I still look pretty. Before this I’d want to fade into the background.
I arrived as a bedraggled mother and left feeling like the real me.
Emma Thompson says staring at herself in the nude aged 63 is the hardest thing she’s done