If we are lucky, age and aging comes to all of us. We relish our lives and want to live long healthy ones, yet in our youth crazed society we simultaneously crave longevity yet fear what age does to us both physically and mentally. Given what we have learned about the body through the advancement of science, medicine and nutrition, we now have the capacity to live longer then our predecessors ever dreamed of. We have not only extended our lifespan, but we are able to have a better quality of that longer life. There are nonagenarians who are vital, both mentally and physically and live very full and independent lives. This is one of the blessings of modern medicine and science. The flips side of that is, we also have the technology to erase the evidence of a great life lived. Botox, fillers, and plastic surgery can hold the aging body in a bizarre stasis, a place where people can look to be 30 years old perpetually. Their faces never quite change, their breasts don’t sag, hair lost can be replaced or re-grown, and it may not even grey, but through the magic of a colorist they get blonder and blonder. In today’s society it is getting harder and harder to say what a specific “age” looks like. “She doesn’t look* 45”, no she may not, but her mother does…
That is not to say that everyone who looks great has “support”, but this phenomenon of perpetual youth does greatly effect how we have come to feel about our aging selves. When we see pregnant women give birth and then dons in a bikini a week later looking as if she never carried a small mammal in her belly…it can be daunting. When her breast sag she has the option of a lift, or implants, and when her belly does not shrink she can tuck it. So what does a “mother’s body look like? Whether by genetic blessings or by professional intervention, people are living longer and looking better, and younger while doing it. To date it is almost societally shunned to “look” your age, or look like you have had a baby, or to be all right wearing the history of your collective life experience on your face.
This is why I think that Lucy Hilmer’s photo series “Birthday Suits” is so prolific in it’s simplicity. She not only documents her life and the development of it (we see her fall in love, have a child, we see that child grow) but she documents her body as it morphs due to those life experiences. Personally the changes in her breasts are what captivated me first and then it was her legs. Hilmer’s breasts are pert and perky at 33 when she took that unassuming picture of her self, almost as a fluke. At 36 they are a bit fuller but you can see that gravity has taken hold, at 43 she is breastfeeding her daughter. Her breast are functioning for their intended purpose…at 52 we see the result of that purpose fulfilled and age give greater weight to them, we also start to see a change in her legs. At a certain age the legs especially around the knees begin to show age, it often matters little how “fit” you are, they just start to change, it’s natural… At 56 as she stands with her daughter (no doubt the one she was nursing) she is a bit heavier in the waist, probably the result of menopause, but she looks very much unchanged and even at 60 and 67 she is still looks very much like her 33 year old self, it’s actually quite remarkable. There is a grace to her aging, a grace that most, if we allow it, and embraced it would no doubt have. I see a great beauty and honor in it. I see her go from girl to woman. I see strength, and confidence in her, never is there a sense of shame, or regret as she wears those white bloomers year after year, and certainly as she took those photos, the changes in her body were highlighted. It might have been quite humbling year after year to see where you breast started the year and where they ended it, albeit you would never get that from the energy of the photos.
For any woman who fears what age can do to your body, your beauty, your sensuality, or sexuality, they should take a look at these photos, hopefully they will be able to recognize that where age and life may change you, you are always most assuredly yourself. The human body, like its spirit is incredibly resilient and self-healing at times. The thing that I love most about these portraits is the fact that Ms. Hilmer looks so happy in all of them. At the start she wanted to document her 29th birthday as “the last good year she had left” but instead she documented that every year you have, is good, sometimes better then good, sometimes not but it is always a blessing either way.
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Every Year Since 1974, This Artist Has Photographed Herself In Nothing But Her ‘Birthday Suit’
Photographer Lucy Hilmer has spent the last 40 years bringing new, poetic meaning to the phrase “Birthday Suit.” Since 1974, the San Francisco-based artist has snapped a self-portrait of herself wearing nothing but a pair of shoes, socks and her signature white “Lolly Pop” drawers.
In the series, she’s pictured topless, assuming positions as ambiguous as staring into the sprawling ocean or pointedly powerful as gazing into the camera with a child feeding from her breasts. In total, she’s created a visual history of her own life filled with equal parts vulnerability and pride, mystery and revelation.
“Birthday Suits” began as a singular self-portrait, with no intention of becoming a life-long series. “I had just started studying photography in San Francisco, and went to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, CA on a lark, and as a kind of homage to [Michelangelo] Antonioni and his film about the counter culture,” Hilmer explained to HuffPost. “I set out to make a picture of myself in my ‘birthday suit’ because in those days the saying was you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. In 1974, when I turned 29, I figured I’d immortalize myself on the last good year I had left.”
Hilmer took several photographs that day, but the one that stood out was an image in her underpants. “I recognized that person more than the skin-deep girl posing in the other frames of film,” she recalled. “That girl in her underpants was vulnerable, open, awkward — she was me.”
So every birthday after that, she reenacted the pose. She was, in her own words, obsessed with time and the notion that we’re all “slip-sliding away, becoming different versions of ourselves before we know it.” In the process, she found herself shedding the identity of a “girl child” of the 1950s, winding her own way into the narrative of a blossoming feminist movement.
“I came of age before women’s lib, and wanted to buck the stereotypes of a culture that branded me a pretty girl, thin enough
to be a fashion model and not much more,” she proclaimed. “Armed with my camera and tripod, I found a way to define myself on my own terms in the most authentic way I could.”
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