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  • Writer's pictureGirl Gang Manchester

exactly ourselves: a glorious multimedia ode to all bodies

By Cia Risbridger ·

On an overcast, drizzly day in Manchester, in the early evening, we walk past a series of billboards in the dying light. Stark against the sky are twelve photographs side-to-side, each around ten feet high and plastered to the hoardings of the university campus. But it isn’t their size which catches our attention; each billboard contains within it the multitudes of a body – the curve of a hip, the soft, fleshy folds of a side body, the delicate spiderweb of an upturned palm. Each board quietly champions the everyday realities of looking in a mirror, and displays beautifully, irrevocably, the parts we struggle to conceal. This, of course, is exactly the intention of their creators.

exactly ourselves project, hoardings of Benzie building, Manchester Art School, reproduced with permission from the @exactly_ourselves Instagram page.

These boards are simply the external face of a much larger project. exactly ourselves is the brainchild of Elsie Swannick and Abigail Evans, two third-year students at Manchester Metropolitan University. The final project of their undergraduate Graphic Design degree, the launch of exactly ourselves is the summation of months of work for the pair. Their motivations and message are plain: exactly ourselves is, as the tagline itself states, ‘an ode to bodies’.

In the words of its founders, exactly ourselves 'aims to document as many different bodies as possible and help that to become the norm’. They want ‘real bodies to be documented more freely and without policing’ – and in that, there can be no argument that it has succeeded. The inaugural exhibition of the project is being held within Manchester Arts School. In and amongst the pieces hanging on the walls, a projector plays a slideshow, and all images are sections of bodies: a hand, a throat, a scar, a hip. The photographs are beautifully shot and well-lit, offering the viewer the most intimate views of the individuals captured.

Some of the photographs comprising the exactly ourselves exhibition, by Abigail Evans & Elsie Swannick, 2019.

Unbeknownst to the unsuspecting viewer, however, they also offer a glimpse of their owners’ deepest insecurities. For instance, one of the images depicts a pair of beautiful – by any standards, perfectly ordinary – hands with upturned palms, facing towards the sky. The accompanying quote, pinned to the wall, reads ‘Have they got the Orchard hands?’ Abigail tells me that this individual had struggled for years with insecurity regarding their hands; that they suffered bullying as a result of perceived imperfections – an apparent excess of lines on the palms. Having felt shame and distress for the much of their life, Abigail says that the individual in the photographs had commented during the photography session that they had latterly realised that the trait ran through the maternal bloodline of their family.

The ‘Orchard hands’, exactly ourselves exhibition, 2019.

The realisation of a connection between themselves and their great-great grandmother had sparked a newfound appreciation of a physical quirk, as they recognised that something once reviled could be appreciated – even admired. The nearby quote refers to their – and their relatives’ – reaction to meeting a newborn member of the Orchard family: excitedly studying the baby’s palms to see whether the true ‘Orchard hands’ had survived to a new generation.

This, microcosmically, represents the whole point of exactly ourselves – both normalising bodies whilst holding them up to the light: to be appreciated for everything that they are, and not compared to everything they are not. In conversation with Abigail and Elsie, the pair recall the conversation that started it all. Whilst discussing their conflicting relationships with their bodies, the two recognised the universality of corporeal dissatisfaction. ‘We realised that [it was] not something we feel in isolation’, Elsie remarks. ‘Everyone feels a bit uncomfortable with – and has a fluctuating relationship with – their bodies. We thought, let’s extend this conversation and normalise it. We realised that there must be other people who felt the same’.

Indeed, the conversation could hardly be more topical. From high-profile Instagram campaigns, such as @i_weigh, the work of the tireless and inimitable Jameela Jamil, to the Ted talks of Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, a disability rights activist and model with spinal muscular atrophy, to the 2011 movement ‘The Body Is Not An Apology’ by Sonya Renee Taylor, body positivity and inclusivity is the movement from which there will, thankfully, be no turning back.

Inclusivity is key for the exactly ourselves team, too: Abigail tells me that it was a strong focus throughout the project, and indeed I note bodies of all sizes, shapes, ethnicities and skin colours; an ear with a small mass perched atop it; a stomach featuring a glucose monitor worn by diabetics. Not a perfect, photoshopped, bikini-body in sight, but instead real, human, everyday bodies, which spark neither shame nor sadness but real, tangible joy, unity and pride. The work done by exactly ourselves and its fellows is in many ways simply the project of unlearning: unlearning the life lessons taught to us for so long, of undoing the dissatisfaction so eagerly enforced by Hollywood, the media, and purveyors of diet pills and ‘skinny’ teas. Each of these bodies is really, truly beautiful, and to no-one’s surprise except, perhaps, the models themselves. In one, a silvery scar from scoliosis surgery meanders down a slender back, a source of consternation to its owner and yet normal, even beautiful to an outside eye. After all, we have been trained for so long to judge, compare and belittle ourselves – and standing at the exactly ourselves exhibit, under an array of diverse and beautiful bodies, I can’t help but feel that perhaps all we need are some new teachers.

The exactly ourselves project continues on Instagram @exactly_ourselves

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