Embracing Your Perfect Imperfections
When former journalist Laura Jane Dale’s crippling anxiety about her perceived imperfections forced her to get help, she started a photography project to celebrate society in its rawest form
“Recently, someone asked me if I could remember the first time I became aware of my size. My initial response rolled off my tongue like it always had, a phrase so familiar it needed no thought whatsoever. ‘Oh, I’ve always been big boned. Even as a kid I was curvy before I got fat.’
“Perhaps it was the way the question was phrased, the way it didn’t specify weight, but just size in general. But that question plucked a memory buried so deep in my brain that it had laid dormant and forgotten for 21 years. The real answer to that question, was aged nine.
“It was my first evening at boarding school where I’d just unpacked my carefully selected belongings into a small corner of my shared dorm room, ready to begin a new term-time away from home. A little before lights out we’d been summoned by age group and lined up like dominoes, queuing through the entrance hall to await our turn. The housemistress was weighing us. Why? I have no idea, and it didn’t occur to me to question it. As I approached her doorway, one by one I saw the girls ahead of me hop on the scales, have their weight read out and jotted down, then scurry off back to whatever dorm or room they’d come from.
“I don’t remember my number. I don’t remember anyone’s. But I do remember that mine was the biggest I heard. Neither the number or the experience bothered me, and I thought no more of it. But from that moment on, I was aware.”
“I WANT TO NORMALISE OUR PERCEIVED ‘IMPERFECTIONS’ INSTEAD OF FEELING PRESSURED INTO HIDING THEM”
“At 11 I bought my first diet book. I’d started noticing the little crease of flesh beside my knee cap as I sat cross legged on the gym floor in my sports kit and compared it with those around me, wondering why mine was bigger. I became the class clown during swimming lessons, running to the water’s edge and flinging off my towel as I leapt in, desperate not to be seen in my swimsuit unless shielded by the rippling, distorting water’s depths.
“As the years went on my love of food grew, as did my clothes size. I tried every diet going but nothing seemed to work and I’d once again drown my sorrows in comfort food. And so the vicious cycle continued. In 2015, I finally found a diet that ‘worked’. I lost the weight and the compliments I’d been starved of for decades washed over me like slipping into the warmest, most soothing bath on Earth. So this was what success tasted like. Delicious.
“Like the food, my desperation to be thin became addictive. To me, thin meant successful and attractive. Two very different yet welcome feelings to the disgust, shame and repulsion I’d felt – and still feel – towards myself for so many years. It became obsessive and still is to this day. It’s exhausting, it’s draining. And it’s such a waste of time.”
LOSING THE BATTLE
“2020 has been a trying year for everyone. And that’s putting it mildly. But what last year and six months of furlough has done for me is force me to slow down and take a step back. For years I’ve repeated the same technique I learned as that impressionable nine-year-old until it became second nature: any difficult thing or failure I have faced in my life, instead of addressing and processing it properly, I’d take it on the chin, brush it off and move onto whatever happened next.
“I started suffering with anxiety in late 2017 but didn’t realise what it was until a couple of years later. I’d experience the usual low spells and constant low-lying, unshakable feel of dread, but once again used my trusted trick of brushing it off as just being tired or stressed. I didn’t know much about anxiety, nor did I know anyone who had it – or so I thought. Over the summer, I faced redundancy from the first job I’ve ever truly loved. And, although I had the luxury of being with family or friends during that time, was healthy, spent my days in the sun, going for walks or runs and listening to sensational podcasts by Elizabeth Day and Fearne Cotton, my logical brain started to lose the battle. My irrational anxiety took over and spiralled into panic attacks and insomnia, with a claustrophobia-inducing anxiety cloud of dread closing in on me more each day. All the ghosts of failings past paid me a visit: my career, my weight, finances, relationships, fitness. What I’d ignored and left unaddressed for so long flooded back with a vengeance, and the anxiety gremlin in me fixated on them, knowing that redundancy would mean yet another failure.
“To my anxiety, potentially losing my much-loved job in travel meant having to change industries, yet again. It meant no income, and having to leave my flat in London and move back in with my parents, again. A new career, again. A new social life, again. I’d be back to square one while my friends continued to flourish around me.
“It was exhausting and all-consuming, until one day something in me switched. Some defiant spark in me had had enough, so I called the doctor and asked for help. It was terrifying. I’ve never asked for help and I’ve rarely spoken out about my struggles, thinking they were trivial and didn’t warrant the worry. I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a hard time and was living in fear of something that hadn’t even happened yet, instead of just being able to push it away like I’d done time and time before.”
TURNING A CORNER
“I’ve started to open up bit by bit with friends and family, and the more I have, the more I’ve seen that – putting it simply – we all have shit going on, big or small, and absolutely all of it is valid. Whether it’s visible or invisible, physical or mental, every single one of us has something.
“I’ve learned we are not defined by our failures or flaws, nor do they define us. In fact they’re simply perceptions embedded in us throughout life. I’ve been led by my insecurities for decades, allowed them to define me and my behaviour, and I couldn’t be more fed up with it. I’m fuming at how much time I’ve wasted trying to adapt to the unrealistic and ever-changing ideals that we’ve all been brainwashed to strive for, lest we be branded ‘different’.
“I see my previous career as a photojournalist as one of my greatest failures (even though I loved it). I chose to leave it behind for a number of reasons, but stepping away from an art I adored because the industry wasn’t the right fit for me, I felt like I had been too weak-minded, too undetermined to pursue my dreams. Since leaving the journalism world this mindset has stopped me doing any personal photography projects for fear of them failing, too. How could I ask someone to pose for me if the photos aren’t going to be good enough?
“One day in September 2020, that defiant spark flickered in me again. I’d just spent a week in bed with tonsillitis following a tempestuous trek up Mount Snowdon and was driving to my parents’ home listening to one of my trusty podcasts: Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place. Her interviewee, Chessie King, was talking about a social experiment she’d done on Instagram. She posted a picture of herself in her underwear and whenever she’d received a body-shaming comment with suggestions of how to improve her looks, she’d photoshopped the image in response, until the result was so inhuman it was comical. Screw this, I thought. Fury bubbled inside me: how has it become OK for people, strangers even, to comment and pass judgement on any aspect of our lives? What makes them think they have the right?
“As I drove down a Gloucestershire country road, that flickering spark ignited. I knew what I was going to do. And so the Perfect Imperfections project (@perfect.imperfections.project) began.”
“Perfect Imperfections is a photographic series that aims to highlight and celebrate what society and culture has so often led us to believe is ‘abnormal’ or ‘imperfect’, our failures or flaws. I want the portraits to show that we are not defined by them: we are raw, complicated puzzles made up of myriad pieces, every one of them making us beautifully unique. And that’s what makes us human.
“The project is my own little way of pushing back, of expressing my frustration. We only get one lifetime, and it’s far too short to be wasted trying to conform to fickle and fluid pressures and ideals. I want it to raise awareness of our external and internal struggles, to normalise our perceived ‘imperfections’ instead of feeling the need to hide them. I’m asking for volunteers to take part, be photographed in their rawest form, share their story and in doing so, unite us in our differences. Then, we’ll see we’re already perfect.”
Laura Jane Dale is a trained photojournalist, working on commercial and editorial projects, reportage wedding photography and videography. laurajanedale.com
Follow her Perfect Imperfections project on Instagram @perfect.imperfections.project