Updated: Jul 17
In 2016, my office was gearing up for our annual Christmas party. It was always a rather important event; it was a way of catching up with referring physicians and a way to thank the extension of our team for wonderful services and good work throughout the year. It was catered, with a carefully curated wine selection and always hosted by our core staff and managers. This year, our managers decided to hire a photographer and makeup artist to get us ready for the evening. Getting dressed up with your best girlfriends is the freaking best, so naturally I was excited! After our dolling we were given the opportunity to get our portraits taken prior to the Christmas party. It would be a week before we saw our glorious portraits.
It always impresses me how much one photo can make you feel so many feels. It's a testament to the talent of an artist; how their eye can capture the spirit of their subject or the movement/stillness in their heart. A week after the event I received my photos, and my heart sunk. Sure, the makeup was fierce, my hair on point and the photo was well done, but the subject was lacking. Was that... me? I look at the photo as I write this and admittedly, it's beautiful, it's actually not bad. When I look at the photo right now, I remember the juxtaposition of the high of having this photo taken: how it felt to feel beautiful and then the moment I actually saw the photo, and how it felt to be in this woman's body all the time. I fought it for so long, but someone was actually able to capture on the exterior how I felt for so long. This version of Iola was tired; flights of stairs hurt my joints and my lungs. I suffered immense back pain from the extra weight. My period was spotty, my sex drive in my boots. I was going on years of intermittent diarrhea because my gut was so rotten from all the toxins coursing through it. My head hurt constantly and the brain fog was immense. I suffered from so much inflammation that my skin was always broken, cracked, itchy, puffy and tight. My eczema would leave me bleeding on the couch at 3:00 AM during the winter months. I just felt gross. In this photo, even though this smile is genuine and the spirit is continuously bubbly, this realization hurt. And with my wedding over a year away by this point, it was time to do something. There was no way I was going to feel this way on my wedding day. The journey was never solely about the wedding, Max or my external relationships. For the first time ever, I sat down with myself and wrote 50 reasons why this was for me.
The week before Christmas I decided to start a program to expedite the weight loss. I drove to a clinic 45 minutes away for my consultation and after being weighed, measured and my fat percentage calculated I was given the prepackaged foods and endeavored to come back weekly for the dreaded reassessment of my weight loss. It was relatively easy in the beginning, I followed a strict regime and since I did have some pizzazz in the kitchen, it wasn't tiresome. In five months I had lost a substantial amount of weight. I never finished the program, it did in the end get tedious and the repercussions of losing weight so fast were weighing on me (loose skin that needed time to reshape, hair that was falling out, etc,.), I could not be on it long term. I ended up stopping the program but vowed I wouldn't gain the weight back. I put too much money and effort into getting to this point.
What I had gained in that time frame was bigger than the weight loss though. I could truly breathe, I didn't fear movement because of fatigue or pain and so I was able to get active and train better. I had gained a better understanding of the people around me: the unwavering support of my best friends and family, the undying love of my fiance who encouraged the process in whatever direction it went. But I also gained a better understanding of the public's incessant need to chime in on my weight loss techniques, how much better I looked now versus how I looked before, how my journey has not been as healthfully done as theirs and "let me tell you how I did it so you can lose faster and better...", bitch shut up! You know what I truly gained throughout this process? What I found as I chiseled my way down through the extra layers of padding that were no longer serving me? My voice. My sweet little voice that just needed to sing and tell people to shut up. When I lost my armor, the extra protection I built to shield me from feeling myself and getting too close to people, I found my strength. I found the tools that I always had but needed to sharpen. By becoming so much more raw, I got braver. I used my physical softness to compensate for my mushier interior. A new era had begun and it was loud and ferocious.
I always wanted to do a boudoir photo shoot and I marveled at the confident, provocative, unapologetic women that stepped up to bare it all. Every shape, color and silhouette of each woman I came across on Pinterest was so tantalizing, so yummy. I wanted to feel that, be that one day. Women usually do boudoir photo shoots as a gift to their soon-to-be husbands. Something to tease them with, something to continue luring them in with until it's too late... and then BAM! Married! Done! I so relished being the beautiful, blushing bride when Max and I got married in 2017. It was extraordinary to feel so light, ethereal and glowy on my wedding day. My wedding was everything I dreamed it to be but with the added bonus of being a participant in the narrative, not just the dreamer where these sorts of fairy tales only happen to anyone other than me. And after our wedding and luxurious honeymoon, it was time to be wooed by this inner goddess, this sharp, sexy being that has been sitting and waiting to be un-caged, unchained. Through a dear friend, I was introduced to the unabashed, unhinged and incomparable Crystal Mitchell of Provocateur. I didn't know I needed her until I did.
The process was seamless from our first contact to the moment I walked into her studio. She answered all my questions via email and private messages. She was initially very welcoming and professional and it was clear upon first contact that her spirit jived with mine and this process was going to be the most liberating experience of my life. She believes in women; our ferocity, our resilience, our softness and grace. When you have conditioned yourself for so long to compete against women, to be better than each other, it was terrifying entrusting my mind and body to any woman in such a vulnerable way, and here I was, walking up to her front door, ready to bare my soul and my ass. Yikes.
I was immediately welcomed by Crystal and my misgivings instantly waned by their enthusiasm and support. It was clear right away that these ladies are living their soul's purpose of making their clients feel tenacious and sensual. I was ready. The last time I was brought into hair and makeup with the purpose of making me look fierce for photos (notwithstanding my wedding because you kind of have to look pretty on that day) was that fateful day a year prior. My anxieties and fear were quickly thwarted by Crystal whipping a pair of thigh high lace up leather boots in front of me. I was too distracted by all the pretty, shiny things.
With heavy metal music blaring in the background, I let the girls oil me up, dress me, mold me and pose me; and with every layer of clothing that came off I had to cling closer and closer to the lioness inside me, for comfort, for bravery. Every second yelling and posing in front of that camera was making up for every year lived silently in my body, not saying the things I wish I had said or do the things I feared due to judgement, embarrassment or pain. It gave me an opportunity to speak as baby Iola and adult Iola. To enjoy every bipolar facet of a woman on her own journey. I look back on the experience and it was an awakening of my truest self; in those moments I could embody everything I knew to be a woman: sensual, suggestive, flirtatious, bubbly. It's really interesting to see an artist's interpretation of you. We all picture ourselves to be something specific - chubby, fierce, tired, grey, etc,. It does depend on your state of mind at the time. The special thing about photographer's is that they snap their subjects in real time and accentuate the best parts of you, even the fragile pieces unseen by most. I found in the moments with Crystal I felt what she was seeing, and when I saw the photos immediately after the shoot, I cried in the bathroom, struck by the wave of accomplishment, perseverance, love and empowerment.
I will never discount the relationship I built with that soft, silent creature 22 years ago. She's a part of me and I hold her dear. She continuously counsels and supports every new, louder version of me. She in her plasticity teaches me to grow. She always shows up and never gives up. She taught me to laugh, to play, to be present in the simplest moments. Her compassion and her insecurities gave me the tools to comfort those around me. Her heart built me a family I didn't know I needed. She is like a pearl, made from grit but full of charm and grace. She isn’t just beautiful because of her appearance. She is beautiful because of the way she chooses to live and love. In the way she embraces all of life’s experiences. She is unstoppable, she knows it's not what happens, but how she chooses to respond, with perseverance in her mind and spirit. So even though the costumes change with the season, with time, I remain steadfast in my mission to grow hand-in-hand with every rendition of this body. 💕