September 28, 2020

PHOTO BY KEILA MACPHERSON   Artist Cheryl-Ann Webster poses with her own clay sculpture in her exhibit at the YWCA in Cambridge  on Feb. 1. Her message is that there is not one influence on how we view ourselves, but many.

BY KEILA MACPHERSON

When you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, your self-esteem can take a hit. Sometimes you wish there was a solution, something you could read or someone to tell you that you’re really OK.

The messages of the perfect body that society and the media are blasting at us are tough to drown out and solutions are next to impossible. We almost need a guide or a tutor to help us navigate our own body image.

Don’t look any further … the School of Self-Acceptance is now taking applications.

However, it isn’t a real school, but an art exhibit set up in a former school in the upper level of the Women’s International Gift and Gallery building located at 55 Dickson St. in Cambridge.

The YWCA Cambridge is hosting the 10th anniversary exhibit of Cheryl-Ann Webster’s Beautiful Women Project which will be open to the public from March 7 until April 26.

“It’s such a great way for us to put something out there that really summarizes who we are as an organization and I think it’s a great way to promote to school groups and to youth and to people in the community what kind of programs we offer,” said Kate MacLaggan, media literacy program co-ordinator at YWCA Cambridge, who worked directly with Webster to bring the exhibit to the space.

Admission is free, but the YWCA is taking voluntary donations from generous visitors. People can also sponsor a sculpture for $100 through the YWCA Cambridge’s Facebook page.

If a sculpture has already been sponsored, it can’t be sponsored again and will show up as sold out. All the proceeds from sponsors will go toward the YWCA programming for girls and sponsors will get a tax receipt.

At the exhibit, 120 clay sculptures of women’s torsos of varying shapes and sizes will be on display for visitors to look at and compare to their own bodies.

Webster started the Beautiful Women Project when the effects of poor body image hit home and her daughter was struggling with her own body image.

When Webster was 17 she became pregnant and, unable to take care of her daughter, allowed a family member living in England to adopt her.

After this, she said she began to drink heavily and her self-esteem hit rock bottom. However, her life finally came together after she met her husband, graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa and became a Canadian citizen.

When her daughter was 13 years old, Webster was reunited with her.

“It was her responses to her body that led me to create the Beautiful Women Project.”

She also said that the Beautiful Women Project helped her accept herself and, in a way, accept her past, by making her able to call her stretch marks from her pregnancy “ribbons of motherhood.”

Webster defines body image as the way we think we look, and not the way we really look. Low body image usually results in a person having low self-esteem. However, in the same respects, someone can have high self-esteem and poor body image, or a positive body image and low self-esteem.

It is no shock that people suffer from low self-esteem and poor body image within the Western standard of beauty; it seems that no matter what shape or weight a person is, she will always be pressured to change her body.

The sculpture Goddess in the School of Self-Acceptance exhibit is one example of the pressures society puts on people.

Webster described how the volunteer she sculpted as Goddess said she had been both thin and heavier in her life,  and that no matter what she looked like she wasn’t accepted for who she was.

“When she was small people would encourage her to eat more; as she got larger people would encourage her to diet constantly,” said Webster.

Although Goddess is one of the larger sculptures and rarely gets sponsored early, she almost demands a maternal respect and awe when you first see her.

“She is very present. She’s the opposite of what women are told to be; to be quiet, to be in the background, to listen and do what they’re told,” said MacLaggan.

Goddess isn’t the only one that people tend to be drawn to. Invasive Beauty and Invasive Beauty 2 are sculptures of a woman who was cast before and after she had her breasts removed because of breast cancer. The difference is very obvious and often striking, but people accept it, even those we might not expect to understand.

“Many years ago, we had a little girl come into the exhibit and her mum was looking around when all the sculptures were in one room. The little girl came up and she was really confused by the sculpture and she asked if it was a boy. I said, ‘No, there are no boys in this.’

“So she looked and said, ‘ah! It’s her back.’

“I said, ‘Well, she has a belly button.’ And I’m hoping the mum will come back to explain rather than me do it, but she was still visiting another sculpture, so I said, ‘Well, the lady’s boobies got sick and the doctor had to take them off so she could be well again.’ I thought oh, what’s going to happen to this little girl, but she just went, ‘She’s just like me now,’ and rubbed her hands down her chest.”

This shows the exhibit is not only for adults and teenagers. It is a family-friendly exhibit that is meant to relay the same message for all, regardless of age or gender. This is why Webster used a wide range of volunteers when creating the sculptures.

Volunteers from 19 to 91 and of all shapes and sizes were used and their ages were not posted under the sculptures to enforce the idea that the shape or size of a person’s breasts or stomach is not dependent on age.

There are two 19-year-olds in the exhibit and one 91-year-old, with their sculptures named I Am More, Love Life and Clarity.

One of the 19-year-old girls visited the exhibit with her school when there were only 119 sculptures. She later became the 120th sculpture.

“They spent a long time in the gallery looking through and reading each story and this one young lady came up to me and said, ‘I’ve lived the lives of all these women.’ And I looked at this young 19-year-old woman and realized she was telling the truth.”

Webster said this young woman came to her and told her that visiting the exhibit had helped her make her decision to leave her unhealthy lifestyle, everything she knew, and change her life for the better.

Webster does have her own sculpture in the exhibit called Body Image Is Not Black And White. She uses this phrase on her piece because after all the research she did, she realized it didn’t matter if everyone was raised the same or saw the same images, body image between two people can vary and there are thousands of influences that affect body image and self-esteem.

Each classroom in the exhibit will house a number of sculptures or a reflective and informative activity to get visitors thinking about body image and how they perceive themselves and others.

The exhibit holds stories of loss, abuse and struggle and can be quite emotional at times. However, there are many uplifting and inspirational stories that won’t fail to leave a mark on all who visit and has had the biggest impact on the artist herself.

“The last 10 years with the Beautiful Women Project has been equivalent to doing a PhD on life. For me as an artist I was simply creating an art exhibit, but what it had to teach me from who I am as a person, to what resilience truly means, what transformation means, what health means and how self-esteem is the foundation of everything we are, no matter who you are and no matter what background, I can honestly say it was like a PhD on life.”