Over the past year or so, I’ve been trying to take on more personal work to keep my mind lively, and get those creative juices flowing. Close to a year ago, I was invited to be part of a very special project, This Body of Work, led by the wonderful Jen Hecht out of Portland, OR. You can find out all about that here, but the most important thing to know is that it’s about empowering women through self-reflection, writing, and photographs. It took me a few weeks to figure out who my subject for this project should be, and then all of a sudden it hit me like a freight train. My dear bride Katie. I was thrilled she agreed, and am so excited to share the journey we went on together. Being a writer, she is far more eloquent than I am, so here is her story in her own words:
It’s early Friday morning and raining in the Arboretum. I’m slowly getting soaked, but I keep leaping through the air, determined to get a good shot for Kate, my wedding photographer. I am not posing with my fiance. This isn’t an engagement photo shoot or our wedding day. It’s not even a “trash the dress session”–I’m barefoot and dressed in bike shorts, doing kung fu poses and jumping kicks.
So, how exactly does one end up doing a kung fu photo shoot with their wedding photographer?
It all started because I used to hate the way I look.
I don’t mean wishing I could change a particular feature or harboring a desire to lose a couple pounds. From the time I was twelve years old, I’ve been fighting against a deep feeling of shame associated with my appearance. My face was not my own, but a cubism-era Picasso, mashing my father’s Chinese features and my mother’s Caucasian ones. When I looked in the mirror, I did not see myself, but these parts that belong to my parents. Sometimes, I would look in the mirror and feel angry. Other days I would look in the mirror and cry. Mostly I just wished I could be all Chinese or all white, because my reflection was nothing like I had ever seen in a movie or on the cover of a magazine. Worst of all was my smile, which to me felt like a culmination of all the worst parts of my unsightly features.
I began to train myself to not smile. If I couldn’t change the way I looked, I could try to hide my ugliness. Not smiling quickly evolved into not singing along with the radio, not dancing, and eventually, not feeling happy.
My world became more limited without smiling. I stopped taking risks, I didn’t travel. I isolated myself from friends and held myself back in an unhappy relationship with my first boyfriend– who I falsely believed was the only person who would ever tolerate or accept me. I didn’t notice the extent of my false thinking until this relationship crumbled and I started a new relationship with the man who would eventually become my husband.
I had known my husband for eight years before we started dating. Kyle had joined my father’s kung fu school when we were teenagers, but what attracted me to him in our early twenties were the things that I had trained myself to stop doing: he was not self-conscious as he sung along with the radio, he was a remarkably good dancer, he had a bright smile. He wasn’t afraid to be happy and he taught me how to experience joy again for the first time since I was a small child.
When we decided to get married and have a wedding, my self-consciousness returned full force. I had taught myself to avoid cameras altogether. If I was at a party or out with friends, and someone pulled their camera out, I would slink away and find some reason to stay out of the shot. Having a wedding meant that there was no way for me to hide, and it was all going to be captured in photographs.
Searching for the right photographer–someone I would feel comfortable with–became as important as finding the right venue or the perfect dress. And that’s when we found Kate. We looked through her portfolio, which was emotional, stylish, and also playful– and we fell in love with her work. As an added bonus, she also lived in our neighborhood. We were lucky enough that she was available on our wedding weekend.
When our wedding day came, I had that uniquely bridal blend of excitement, nerves, nausea, and utter elation. Despite all the reading and research and advice I heard in the year we spent planning, I was completely surprised by how fast the day went by, how surreal it was to have all the important people in my life chatting with each other over our all-vegetarian buffet, how bizarre it was to be the center of attention. I was too pre-occupied with experiencing the day to worry about how I looked.
Something about that day changed me, more than assuming a new sense of responsibility as a wife or my marital status on a piece of paper at city hall, but something deeper in myself. By standing up in front of my family and friends to publicly share my love and commitment to Kyle, I confronted my fear that I was not good enough. I finally saw myself as beautiful–outside and inside.
A couple months shy of my two year wedding anniversary, Kate contacted me to be part of This Body of Work. The project is a collaboration between photographers and women, sharing their stories about learning to love their bodies. I address these issues in my work as an author– cultural identity, self-acceptance, searching for love–and I was happy to share my own experiences. The project also included a photo session, as a gift for the participants to see themselves and their true beauty.
It was raining on the morning of our photo session. If it had been a wedding, we would have been worried about the inclement weather. Instead, we welcomed the moody clouds and shadows. And, unlike our previous wedding-related photo shoots, I stood alone, without my husband to lean on or hide behind. I stripped down to my costume as she set up her equipment, and I did what was always most natural in my own body: kung fu. Then, we relocated, and she asked me to do the thing that made me the most uncomfortable: smile.
Even though I had this new found sense of joy and self-acceptance, smiling for the camera is still an emotional hurdle. So, Kate asked me to do something a little different: laugh. Standing in the middle of a sewage pipe, surrounded by reeds in the middle of the arboretum on a cool, rainy day, it was hard to find inspiration to make me laugh. Kate, instead of asking, told me, “We are laughing!” and bubbled up the most adorably bizarre giggle I’ve ever heard.
I cracked into genuine hysterics. The rain poured down on us, harder and heavier, washing away my remaining feelings of self-consciousness. I looked up at the sky, in awe, and turned to the camera, smiling.
Raised by martial artists, Katie Li grew up with fascinating stories and an eclectic cast of characters. She continues this tradition in her work, writing fiction and narrative non-fiction about personal transformation and unlikely possibilities. She is currently working on her first novel. Learn more at www.katieliwriter.com or follow her on Twitter @KatieLi_Writer.