At one point, Cindy Johnson handed out markers to her all-shapes-and-sizes swimsuit models and urged them to write on their fellow models’ bodies.
The blond in the red bikini did as she was told — she wrote “Chubby” in marker on her friend, Kenna Sisson’s, chest.
Sisson didn’t really mind.
She’s been called that her entire life. But then the tables were turned. She was told to write “ugly” …in big green letters, on her friend.
She broke down.
“I just couldn’t grasp someone so beautiful, inside and out, ever believing the word applied to her,” Sisson, a 28-year-old financial administrator, said. “It hurts to think of Amy ever feeling that way.”
Photo shoot pictures shared thousands of times on social media
Indiana photographer Cindy Johnson’s made her point. She had handed out markers to her all-shapes-and-sizes swimsuit models to illustrate how people are willing to accept harsh words about themselves, but go soft when asked to apply them — literally, in this case — to others.
Johnson’s rural property, off a state road in Franklin, not far from Heritage Baptist College, seems an unexpected locale for a body-positive swimsuit photo shoot to go viral.
But that’s what happened in late May.
The 44-year-old photographer gave short notice to 40 friends and acquaintances, inviting them to an informal photo shoot in her backyard.
She put the impromptu shoot together, she said, because she was tired of the onslaught of ads offering to help her get a “beach body” or “bikini body.”
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“They are telling me the price of admission to summer is that my soul resides in a specific type of body,” she wrote on her business’ Facebook page.
Johnson, a mom of four who had weight-loss surgery five years ago, didn’t expect that the project would be shared thousands of times on Facebook and picked up by international media.
She simply decided that it’s not her job (or yours) to be a “decoration at the beach.”
One man wore a floral print swimsuit to the photo shoot because he had always avoided one in the past, fearing that it wouldn’t be seen as masculine enough.
Individuals of all shapes, backgrounds struggle with body image
Sixteen people showed up for the May 26 shoot at the historic brick house Johnson shares with her husband and kids.
Michael Gonsiorek, a 32-year-old health care specialist, wore floral swim briefs that he picked up at Target.
Briefs, because he wanted to show off the tattoo on his right thigh of Zangief, the Russian wrestler from the Street Fighter video game franchise.
And florals? “I’ve not done florals,” he said. “Just one of those things that I struggled with in terms of ‘masculine,’ which is silly looking back at it now.”
Gonsiorek, a burlesque dancer who performs under the name Wayne King, co-hosts “Hot Tub Sex Machine,” which he calls a “sex-positive, all-inclusive, body-positive” talk show at the White Rabbit Cabaret in Fountain Square.
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In the LGBT community, body-image is often brought up, he said, but rarely ever really discussed.
“As a gay man, I see a lot of #beachbody tags on social media, whether they are the new man to lust after or a check-in at the gym,” he said. “There’s so much underhanded fat shaming in our culture and I want to bring a change about that.”
There’s skinny shaming, too, and it can be just as devious, said Terhas White, a 34-year-old model known as “Tree.”
“Skinny b****,” “I hate you,” “Eat something” — White has heard them all. Sure, there’s a bit of appreciation in such comments, she said, but they all come with “a self-judgment chaser.”
In one of the swimsuit photos, White, in a neon-peach bikini, has the word “scarred” written across her chest (how she sees herself) and “anorexic” (what others have called her) across her taut stomach. “Having a body like mine — slender, muscular — I was never allowed by many around me to have body issues,” she said.
Photographer Cindy Johnson is reflected in a mirror at her home workspace in Franklin, Ind., Monday, July 2, 2018. Johnson is a boudoir photographer who makes intimate, romantic and erotic photographs of her clients. She recently received international attention for her swimsuit photoshoot depicting men and women of diverse body types.
Indiana photographer’s journey born of her own struggles
Johnson has made a decade-long career of turning her camera lens away from narrow ideals of youth and beauty and toward acceptance. It’s a journey born out of her own life.
When she was 10, she weighed about 150 pounds, and her well-meaning mother signed her up for Weight Watchers.
“I don’t blame her. She was trying to make me feel better,” Johnson said. “But it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t.”
About 10 years ago, she picked up a Canon Rebel to photograph her kids. Then, a friend asked her to take some boudoir photographs of her. What started as, “Yeah, I’ll photograph you in your underwear” turned into a mission when the friend said, “I’ve never felt so beautiful in my life.”
Now, Johnson does about seven boudoir shoots a week.
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“When the clothes come off, people are jolted out of their comfort zone,” Johnson said. “When the physical barriers come down, the emotional barriers come down, too.”
As the sun went down on her swimsuit shoot, Johnson got out the soap and turned on a 6-foot inflatable unicorn sprinkler. The models played in the water while the words and phrases on their bodies dissolved. Chubby. Pasty. Ugly. Fat. Then they posed together for a silhouette photo against the night sky.
“I’m still struck by how this group of strangers came together and so quickly bonded,” Sisson said. “(Cindy) made that happen — she let us be vulnerable and open in a world that too often shuts that down.”
Amanda Kingsbury is an editor at IndyStar. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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