Good Body. Women are still ashamed of their bellies, unshaven legs and the fact that they have no erotic life ‘You’re too fat’, ‘How do you walk?’, ‘Pull your belly in’. It’s a voice from years ago, we all have it in our heads

Tenderness and freedom

Izabela O’Sullivan: You work with women’s bodies every day. How do we approach nudity?

Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: I rarely meet women who say: ‘I feel great in my body, watching it naked, touching it or caressing it’. Maybe one in twenty women says so. There’s usually a whole litany of ‘buts’: ‘I didn’t get back into shape after giving birth’, ‘I look different after menopause and I can’t get over it’. Even young, beautiful women long for their bodies from when they were in their pre-twenties. Regardless of age group, there are still many areas affected by toxic shame.

I hear a lot of apologising for unshaven legs, armpits, bikinis, but also explaining, for example, the lack of an erotic life. Shame also manifests itself in the vocabulary used. Women still often say ‘down there’ instead of ‘vulva’ or ‘pussy’, which is actually not surprising given how poor our language regarding intimacy and sexuality is.

And are women ashamed to take their clothes off?

If someone comes to me for a massage, it’s more with the attitude that they’ll have to get undressed. Although, of course, there is no obligation to do so at all, and I say this repeatedly. There are women who do not want to take off their clothes, but then it is usually not because of shame, but because of trauma. They experienced rape or other sexual abuse and need a lot of time to dare to do it. Sometimes it is only on the third visit that they take their tights off, and after another two visits they allow themselves to be touched in intimate places. It’s very important to me that they feel comfortable and not forced to do anything.

What influences our attitude towards our own body?

What we heard or observed as girls is very important. What our mothers used to say when they looked at themselves in the mirror, whether they were ashamed of their own bodies or quite the opposite – at home the subject of nakedness was not a taboo, we openly talked about the fact that the body changes depending on age or the phase of the cycle. Many women clearly remember how their mothers reacted when they told them about their first period. Some got a slap in the face, others a cool instruction and a packet of pads, others both pads and emotional support. Another important element in how we as adult women will treat our bodies is our father’s reaction to our puberty. If growing breasts and changing figure means that a father no longer hugs or dances with his daughter at a family party, because he feels uncomfortable, such withdrawal can be seen as punishment for entering adulthood.

Does this mean that if we don’t get knowledge about puberty and sexuality at home, we will always be on the losing end? That we might have trouble liking our body for the rest of our lives?

I believe that women who have been hurt or have complexes are not doomed to be ashamed or disgusted with themselves for the rest of their lives. They can go to therapy, read wise feminist literature, listen to worthwhile podcasts, talk to friends, or attend women’s circles. Sometimes it’s not until someone is in their sixties that they go to a ground breaking workshop or begin psychotherapy and rediscover themselves.

So it’s never too late, is it?

Absolutely not!

Although when this friendship with the body appears, say, in your fifties, it is often paid with tears and there are reactions like: ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this twenty years ago?’, ‘So many wasted years!’.

And every other client, leaving after a massage, says: ‘Why don’t they teach about this at school?’.

Some women definitely need to mature to have a vulva massage. What pushes them to visit you?

Of the unpleasant things – pain. They have stomach aches, sex or menstruation cause pain. For a long time, often for many years, and so hard that they seek relief. Another reason they come is because they don’t have orgasms. Increasingly, it is the partner who sends them to me. He buys a voucher because he wants to make his wife’s or girlfriend’s life better, more enjoyable, or he’s worried that she feels pain during intercourse. These are partners who are very supportive of them in their illness, such as vulvodynia [chronic pain or discomfort in the vulvar area]. Some women come to me for sex education. They say: ‘I don’t know how my body works’, ‘I don’t know my cycle’. The desire to acquire knowledge occurs at any age. It still happens that even those who have already given birth do not know where their urethral outlet is. A sizeable group are women after divorce. They’ve separated from their husband who they’d been with since high school, for the last twenty years he’d been the only one to touch them, they’re not sure if they had orgasms, they have no comparison. And now they’re divorced, they re-enter the ‘dating market’ and they’re afraid they don’t know anything about themselves because, for example, they haven’t had sex in a year. I often see that once they shake off the divorce and go through grief over their marriage, they become beautiful. They are no longer sad and tired, and start to glow and have full of energy.

Do we get used to our bodies throughout our lives?

I have been working in the area of sexuality for 17 years and have seen the difference on the plus side. Paradoxically, a large part of the credit for this goes to social media, where you can look at natural, unretouched bodies, if you know where to look for such content.

In the past you wouldn’t see this diversity anywhere, because the average Polish woman, especially if she’s not in the beauty canon, doesn’t undress at the swimming pool, in the sauna or on the beach. We simply don’t have the opportunity and have no place to see naked bodies other than our own.

On the other hand, it is social media that is full of idealised bodies put through filters.

Sure, but from my observations, women are becoming more and more critical of the mainstream, distancing themselves from those smoothed out, beautiful bodies, intentionally seeking real content without retouching.

We have more and more pro-body activists very active in social media. It’s really worth watching them instead of following accounts that drive us into complexes.

Legislation in this area is also changing. France, for example, has mandated that retouched photos be marked under penalty of fine. For now, this applies to ads, not content published on Instagram accounts, but you can already see the change in this example.

Do knowledge, awareness and the trend toward body-positivity put our minds in order? Probably still many of us, when standing in front of the mirror, don’t quite see what we would like to see.

This duality was noticed by one of the people posing for the ‘Good Body’ calendar who said that on the outside she tries to represent body-neutrality towards body-positivity, but inside she still has an inner critic that is hard to silence.

We all hear it.

It’s usually the voice of a mother or grandmother, schoolmates, sometimes teachers from long ago saying: ‘You’re too fat’, ‘How do you walk?’, ‘Pull your belly in’.

But in opposition to this inner critic, women often do a titanic job of standing in front of the mirror and saying: ‘I won’t listen to you, my body is fine’. You have to repeat it to yourself a number of times, sometimes not even believing it at first. This is well reflected in the English saying ‘Fake it, till you make it’. One of our models said that sometimes we need that critic to be silenced by a loving voice from outside. She argued: ‘It is no use telling others: no one will love you until you love yourself. Sometimes you can’t love yourself without positive encouragement from outside’. And I agree with that.

To what extent do you support women on their journey to self-acceptance through your work?

Mainly by spreading knowledge. When they come for a massage or a workshop, we talk a lot. Often I find that this strong voice of inner critic and this self-blaming are due to a lack of knowledge.

A good example of this is the appearance of your belly. For years we’ve been told that the correct silhouette is when your belly is pulled in. Now physiotherapists encourage us to relax it, otherwise we squish our organs and breathe improperly. Just giving women this knowledge opens their eyes. As I led workshops, I would stand sideways, lift my shirt up and show my belly – pulled in and relaxed for comparison. They were surprised that I was thin and my belly bulged when I stood in a relaxed position.

And is there room for such naturalness in the mainstream?

Absolutely! It is shown by more and more cosmetic brands. Of course, you could say it’s cynical and mercantile because they know which string to pull to make their products sell. However, in my opinion, it is largely pressure from female customers that is causing brands to slowly place people outside of the narrow beauty canon in ads. Attitudes towards the female body and its display in public spaces are changing thanks to grassroots pressure, among other things, so in a sense we are the driving force behind the change.

When we refuse to obey and stop buying into the story that we all look like in a picture, brands – whether they like it or not – will have to change their messaging.

There was a recent campaign with shorts that can be worn by any woman, even those without shapely legs. There were various reactions. Why don’t we like to look at normal, natural bodies, only the retouched ones? Where does this come from?

In my opinion from the lack of education, including sexual education, and the fact that we are not accustomed to seeing different bodies. In Norway or Denmark, or closer to us in the Czech Republic, when you go to a co-educational sauna, you see a whole array of naked bodies. It is extremely rare in Poland to find women undressed in a sauna where there are also men.

Modern pornography is also very harmful in terms of the perception of the female body. It blows out guys’ brains, and they do the same to their partners. What scares me is the number of labioplasties, or labia operations, being performed. The bodies of actresses look like wax figures. It’s the same thing with topless calendars.

It would be better for men to look at natural bodies, because those who are just starting their sex life often don’t know what a naked woman really looks like. If we are not stimulated by something, it is unnatural and strange to us when it appears suddenly. A body with a scar, stretch marks, without breasts, when pregnant, is often shocking or embarrassing because we see it so rarely.

Hence our calendar – to stimulate. The idea behind it is a response to this over-abundance of artificial beauty. It is a feminist reinterpretation of what is around.

What photos are presented in the ‘Good Body’ calendar?

There is a photo of a model holding her breast spared during a cancer surgery. You can see the scar and that the breast is asymmetrical. There is a woman with a disability that is hard to see at first glance. Two non-binary people also took part in the session, including one autigender who is non-binary from the autism spectrum. Her perspective is that of a person outside two social norms.

You also talked your mum into participating in this project. Did it take you long to convince her?

I didn’t have to convince her at all. I got great sex education at home, nudity was the order of the day. We posed for the calendar in just our panties, hugging each other. When I offered her to participate in the shoot, she agreed without batting an eye. She just asked if I had also called my younger sister, who was then four months postpartum. I thought maybe she hadn’t settled into her new body yet, that it would be too intimate for her, but she readily agreed. And she posed with her son.

It’s a project that you’ve actually only done with family and friends.

Yes, indeed. The photos were taken by my cousin Aleksandra Mecwaldowska, I also knew all the people posing beforehand. They decided by themselves whether they wanted to pose naked or in lingerie, how to position themselves for the photo, what to expose. They were supposed to feel natural.

And who then chose the photo for the calendar?

Together with Ola, the photographer, we made a preliminary selection of photos and the final choice was made by the posing persons, both for the calendar and for the notebook. Not all of the choices coincided with our favourite photos and sometimes we felt a little sting. But that was our general assumption that we don’t have the final say. One of the models was menstruating during the shoot, she was with a tampon. There’s a picture where she’s standing backwards and you can see the string, and another one where she’s sitting facing the lens with her legs slightly apart. During the authorisation process, these photos were put aside, although they were great. They’re in the model’s private archive.

How many people did you show in the calendar?

16, including my sister’s little boy. The oldest model is 60 years old – she’s my mum. The youngest – 24. There are two people in each of the three photos. My mum and I on the title page.

This project is not only the ‘Good Body’ calendar, but also the notebook with stories from the session participants about their relationship with their bodies, motherhood, menopause, and various other experiences that affect how we view our physicality.

I knew most of the stories, but sometimes new details surprised me during the sessions. One model confessed that she still struggles for self-acceptance. I would never have thought of that because she looks confident and on good terms with her body. I was also touched by what I heard from my friend. I knew about her eating disorder, but only now did she talk about how important her work was in overcoming it.

She is a dog therapist and it occurred to her some time ago that we are the only species that does not follow the needs of the body. When a dog wants to sleep, it goes to sleep. People drink coffee.

When a dog wants to eat, it goes to the bowl. People – especially those with an eating disorder – chew gum to cheat hunger...

Did any common threads emerge during these conversations about the body?

All the models said there was a time when they hated their own bodies. 90% have experienced an eating disorder. There were also stories of looking at themselves at length and breadth, with displeasure of course. Stories of analysing your skin under a magnifying mirror, or epilating as if in an act of self-aggression, such that you can’t have a single hair.

Why did you decide to combine a calendar with a notebook?

You can buy only the calendar, only the notebook, in which next to the pages for your own notes there is a part with the statements of the posing persons with additional photos, or both products in a set. The notebook was created to give voice to the posing persons. So that not to just look at the bodies without knowing what’s inside – the emotions, the intellect, what interests these people. When I talked to them, I wanted them to imagine what they would like to say to themselves years ago or to a close young person. I asked them about their experiences with their changing bodies. There’s a lot of tender narrative here. For example, one non-binary person says: ‘I know you may not have diversity role models around you, but keep looking until you find your tribe. Even if it is scattered and uneven, know that you are not alone. There are more of us. Give yourself time to find out who you are, and don’t succumb to pressure from other people’.

Who is this calendar for? Who did you create it in mind with?

It is important for us that not only people from the feminist milieu hang it on their walls, we wanted it to reach ordinary people. We wanted the calendar not to be shocking, and the notebook content not to be overdone, so that everyone could find a reference to themselves in this project. Therefore, people of different ages and with different stories about their own bodies pose.

‘Be well, take care of yourself, breathe’ – that’s the tagline in the title page of the ‘Good Body’ calendar. Where did you get it from?

It just showed up. These are things I often say to women in the office and in workshops.

A portion of the profits from the sale of the calendar and the notebook will go to an organisation dealing with reliable sexual education of young people in Poland.

We want to donate 10% of our profits to the Ponton Group, which supports the psychosexual development of young people and provides them with access to knowledge. I was a volunteer at Ponton for ten years, it determined my whole professional life. When we started working on the Good Body calendar, giving this group a share of the profits was the first thing I thought of.

A good body – what kind of body is it?

I have answered this question differently at different stages of my work. Today, the answer would be that it depends on whose body it is and at what stage of life that person is. Why don’t we all ask ourselves that question today and try to answer it honestly?


Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn is a pelvic floor muscle training instructor, menstrual and sexuality educator, doula and massage therapist. She massages women from head to toe, including their vulvas. She spent 13 years at the blackboard – teaching family life education. Together with a photographer Aleksandra Mecwaldowska they made and published a calendar ‘Good Body’ featuring a woman after breast-saving oncological surgery, a model with disability or a non-binary person from the autism spectrum. There is also a notebook with a record of various personal experiences about the body.

Author:  Izabela O'Sullivan

Photo: Aleksandra Mecwaldowska

The text was published in „Wysokie Obcasy” a magazine of „Gazeta Wyborcza”

on 18 December 2021