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A naked photoshoot taught me to love my chronically ill body

A chronic fatigue condition saw writer Dayna McAlpine’s confidence hit rock bottom, before an unlikely event changed everything

Writer Dayna McAlpine
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The ice-cold breeze made every single hair on my body stand on end as I prayed that none of the neighbors could see me awkwardly trying to pose. Sitting for my portrait, outdoors, in February was a bold choice.

Especially given the fact that I was completely naked.

My relationship with my appearance has been the rockiest one of my life. Forget Ross and Rachel - there has never been an on-off romance quite like the one I've had with my body over the years.

Dayna has always had a tumultuous relationship with her body© Instagram
Dayna has always had a tumultuous relationship with her body

My brutal body scrutiny first started in high school, which landed smack bang in the middle of the size zero era. Suddenly, this body I'd lived in for 13 years was unrecognizable as I was taught to hate it. I wasn't skinny and blonde like the girls who were 'pretty' and who all the boys fancied — and for five years, my peers made sure I knew it.

I carried the body-shaming hangover with me into my 20s as I painfully shrunk myself as much as possible … only to discover that, even when it was at its thinnest, I still didn't love my body. The obsessive calorie counting, burning and diet pills stopped, but my unhappiness with my appearance didn't.

READ: This Is Us star Chrissy Metz opens up about how she's finally body confident 

Rock bottom for my already-nonexistent body confidence came with a chronic fatigue condition diagnosis, and the thoughts that my body was failing me. In my mind, after never being what I wanted it to look like, my body had found a new way to bring me total misery. I lost years to unexplained exhaustion and pain as well as the last shreds of any confidence I had left.

My lack of confidence buzzed about in the back of my brain even in times of happiness. Joy made the buzzing quieter, but nothing ever fully silenced it. I'd post pictures of myself beaming and posing on Instagram and feel like a total fraud knowing the truth of what I felt beneath it all.

Dayna felt like a fraud posting happy photos on Instagram© Instagram
Dayna felt like a fraud posting happy photos on Instagram

Arranging to have headshots taken made me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. I was 28, finally at a place where I wanted to be in my career, and needed images taken that could make it look like I sort-of had myself together. The idea of having to just stare at a high-resolution photo of myself, with nothing to distract or diffuse my appearance and not taken within the control of a selfie, terrified me.

However, I'd seen more and more of my journalistic peers — as well as TV stars, musicians, authors and more that I'd followed for years — share incredible images taken by photographer Alexandra Cameron and something about the photos made a part of my mind shift.

The images were breathtaking. Cameron only shoots with natural light, and it's crystal clear that every photo was a pure celebration of the person posing for her. The pictures were soft with an undeniable vintage feel and as I scrolled through them, I saw just one similarity between Cameron's incredibly diverse subject matter: every single person looked comfortable.

It was clear to me that if I ever had a hope in hell of actually liking a professionally taken image of myself, Alex would be the person to do it. Egged on by my friends, I reached out.

To say having my photo taken changed my life may sound dramatic, but the surges of confidence I felt as Cameron's camera clicked between our flurries of conversation about anxiety, self-love and swearing were a sensation I had never felt before.

I was perched on a stool exposed to the elements — to shoot with natural light, you gotta get outdoors. It was hardly the Bahamas in February and behind me, a blue sheet hung from Cameron's shed as a backdrop for my shoot.

"Whoa, that really makes your ginger hair glow,' she told me —just one of many candid affirmations that suddenly made years of self-deprecation melt out of my mind.

I sat in four of my favorite outfits and Cameron's words and presence put me at ease. I was at my most vulnerable. and being treated with such genuine kindness made long closed-off parts of my mind reopen. I felt drunk off the feeling that just maybe, I did actually look good.

I'm sorry I can't wait, you have to see this one," Cameron spun her camera around to show me the photo she'd just snapped. I almost felt winded at the picture on the tiny screen. Who the hell was that? That person, who looked almost powerful, couldn't possibly be ME?

My mind floated back to all of the images I'd seen of Cameron's and, high from the shock of what I'd just seen, words I never could have predicted tumbled out of my mouth.

"Can I sit naked for my final one?"

This was it, I needed to face myself. Something in my brain had snapped - I was exhausted from hating my appearance.

I'd seen picture after picture of those who had chosen to go naked in Cameron's garden, and if seeing myself clothed under her lens could make me see myself in a different light, seeing myself naked in the same circumstance could be the launchpad for changing a lifetime of horrible self-perception about my body. I had to try.

The short wait for the images was excruciating — I'd had a hit of feeling good about myself and I needed more. There was also a sense of panic, thoughts of oh my god what if I hate it and it was all a misunderstanding and I am actually hideous shouted against my excitement.

As I spotted the email, I took a deep breath in.

The uncomfortably tall, wobbly and ugly girl I'd always existed as wasn't there. Instead, I looked straight back at a woman who looked comfortable in her own skin as she stared down the lens. She was confident, unphased by the fact she was completely naked. She was beautiful, I was beautiful.

Sometimes to see yourself truly, you need to step away from the mirror. For the first time, I was looking at myself through someone else's eyes.

Here I was, completely as myself, with nothing else to soften the blow of my existence — and I loved what I saw.

The confidence of my impromptu naked photoshoot became like armor; all the bad thoughts and the nastiness I'd direct at my reflection had to stop. It didn't matter what those voices tried to tell me, I had proof in the form of this picture that actually, yes, I'm not too bad after all.

A shift happened after the shoot and a year on, even after going through some tough times, my self-confidence might dip and waiver as it would for anyone, but it never plummets.

I only have to remember that the woman staring back from that picture is me.

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