How Having My Entire Body Painted in San Francisco Helped Me Make Peace with Myself

woman on beach california

Diana Denza, Communications Associate

In kindergarten, my mother helped me put together an elaborate project about butterflies. When my turn arrived to present to the class, I cowered behind my teacher, absolutely terrified of the dozens of pairs of eyes on me. This pattern continued throughout school—even during my college years. I was so afraid of my perceived flaws that I kept my ideas to myself and starved my body in the futile quest of achieving perfection. 

It took me over two decades to realize that moving through the world like a shadow would never get me anywhere. While today, most people can’t miss me (quite literally, as I have rather striking blue hair and several tattoos), I’m still coping with harmful internalized messages about size and weight, just like everyone else. My weight tends to fluctuate, and I’ve had curves since puberty, two things I’ve struggled to accept about my body. 

This past October, I decided to make a drastic change, and that California would help me do it. I signed myself up as a model for San Francisco Bodypainting Day, a one-day public art exhibition. My partner and I booked a room on Airbnb and spent our first couple of days indulging in San Francisco’s mouthwatering cheap eats and visiting museums and bookstores. 

Finally, the day of reckoning arrived. I arrived at the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero in black yoga pants and a grey tee, and could feel the rush of adrenaline as I met dozens of fellow models and artists, who all seemed to look much more comfortable than I felt. 

Each model was paired with an artist at random. The woman I was paired with had long, flowing purple hair and a brightly-patterned outfit, which put me at ease almost immediately. I took a deep breath, slipped off my clothes, and let my artist’s paintbrush touch my skin. The models and I—all of different ages (18+), genders, races, and body types—stood in front of a growing crowd completely naked, but it felt natural and normal. 

My cellulite and thick thighs were the most visible they’ve ever been, but they were used as a canvas for one-of-a-kind artwork, which gave me a newfound appreciation for what every bit of my body could do and be. Moreover, as I glanced at others’ rolls and wrinkles, I couldn’t help but think of how beautiful and real we all were, our “imperfections” and all. 

We’re so used to being bombarded by heavily-photoshopped and airbrushed images that most of us haven’t seen a variety of real, naked bodies in years—or ever, for that matter. Because when you do, you start to realize that the industries that profit off of body insecurity are keeping us terrified of connecting with our own bodies and appreciating bodies that don’t look like ours. Our bodies aren’t gross or scary—they’re bodies, and they can be used in the most meaningful ways. 

After a few hours had passed, my stomach was covered by a gorgeous tree, its branches outstretched. My arms were vibrantly-hued flowers, and my legs were a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. Members of the crowd photographed us, and even jumped into a few shots themselves. Our troupe of brightly-colored people then proceeded to stroll along the waterfront in all of our painted glory.  

Best of all, I got to know several of the artists and models as people, and their appearance had absolutely nothing to do with how interesting they were or how hard I laughed at their jokes. While a few unsuspecting passersby were shocked by the scene, most were intrigued and supportive.  

The rush of adrenaline from the morning turned into a peaceful contentedness when my partner picked me up later in the day. I still tell people that the best way to see San Francisco is in head-to-toe body paint. 

The very next day, I went to a popular San Francisco tattoo parlor for a large thigh piece of the goddess Athena and her owl (when I go out, I go all out). I was nervous at how large the sketch of the tattoo looked, but I happily walked out of the parlor seven hours later with a brilliantly-detailed piece. I consider this right thigh piece a permanent transformation of an area of my body I’ve had qualms with since grade school, and I have plans to get a second piece on my left thigh within the next couple of years. 

It’s been six months since I took my California trip, and while I still have bad body days, I also have a newfound appreciation for every part of me—and the guts it took to get naked in the first place! It was difficult to expose my body publicly, but the confidence I gained from the experience will stay with me for a long time. 

I realize that Bodypainting Day isn’t for everyone, but there are unique ways that every person can accept their body just a little more. What have you been afraid of doing, saying, or wearing? Maybe it’s time to embrace that fear, but do the thing you’re afraid of anyway. 

Diana Denza is NEDA’s communications associate. She graduated from Fordham University in 2011 with a degree in communications. Diana is a fan of good writing, wildly-colored hair, and cute desk toys. She’s never met a cat she didn’t like, except for that one time she’ll never talk about again.