“It was like can I take my clothes off? Where are the folds of my boobs and squiggles and random like nostril holes and weird shit that I can do with my body? I want to see some weird hairs,” Stephanie Guedalia says in the looping lilt her voice takes on when she becomes excited. I’ve only been talking to Stephanie for a few minutes before she begins to wax poetic about the delightful artistry of the body in all its imperfections.
Stephanie is a multimodal artist and art model living and working in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We met when she was posing for a dear friend, and struck up a friendship based on our shared Jewish heritage, our love of nudity and a blunt streak of feminist thought. It took very little coaxing to get her to discuss her favorite subject, nudity and the cathartic process of bodywork.
On a blustery day in early spring, we met at Dweebs, my beloved neighborhood coffee shop, which happens to be equidistant from our apartments. Despite the distinct chill in the air, she was relaxed in a short black dress with a floral pattern, her legs bare other than her combat boots and a large camel-colored coat. Her hair, always a bit wild, reminds me of the Carrie Bradshaw monologue about curly hair being a visual representation of a soul that lives outside the box.
As an artist and just as a person, Stephanie loves body exploration. Trained in contact improv as well as dance, much of her work is performance-based, using her naked body as an art tool. “I’m way more interested in bodies than fabric,” Stephanie explained, discussing a recent modeling session with a photographer. He told her to wear whatever she felt comfortable in, but, after the first few pictures, she asked to be photographed nude. "There weren’t enough fat rolls,” she explained animatedly. “I like playing with fat rolls. Where are the creases, the shapes and wrinkles and weird smudges?”
While her interest in nudity is about the aesthetic of the body, it is also about all of the notions and ideas and reactions that nudity, specifically female nudity, brings up. While posing for a college class, she decided to curl up with her knees to her chest and her vagina exposed. Like a Rube Goldberg contraption, she chose a pose, setting in motion reactions from confusion to wonderment and opening up lines of thinking about why a person would do that, inviting the devil-on-your-shoulder, rape-y frat dude voice to wonder, “Why is that not asking for it?"
Her work — be it the way she models or her performance pieces — is about extracting and enticing a train of thought. One such piece, performed at the variety show of works by women and gender nonconforming artists, "Am I Write Ladies," involved her lying on the floor as though she were passed out — legs splayed open, dress hiked up, vagina out — next to a bowl of condoms and a Do Not Enter sign. She held this position for over three hours. This wasn’t on a stage; it was on the floor amidst the crowd. It was meant to send mixed messages. Is this a sex station? Is she passed out? Does she want it? And of course, the act of lying there, naked, opening herself up to scrutiny, is an act of bold vulnerability. It's defiant, a repudiation of the way she (and we) are taught to present our bodies.
Her relationship to her body has been an evolution in which nakedness was not okay, into one where nudity is an active choice. She was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish Community, where discussions of the female body were about obscuring sexuality. Her mom had a more progressive slant, but the community at large taught young girls about the grossness of men salivating over women’s knees and the need to be demure.
It wasn’t until she began looking for a seminary to study at in Israel that she realized how progressive her community was within the spectrum of Modern Orthodox communities. There came a point, however, when she knew there was no way for her to be happy, no way she could have thrived or even just existed were she to stay within the community: “[she] would have been a drained nothing of a person. [She] would have just wilted.”
This radical change and the alienation she felt both within the community and through the process of rejecting it, greatly inform her work. It’s the reason she puts herself out there. Being a kid who was a bit wild and impulsive and doing weird things was hard in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community. You don’t have the weirdo, queer, art kids, to hang out with; it’s just you.
Leaving a tight-knit community, religious or otherwise, is a profoundly alienating experience. The number of suicides among youth who have left the community is deeply sad and thoroughly unsurprising. This is the reason she makes work. For Stephanie, like many youths who feel isolated, music and poetry became a beacon of hope in an unrelentingly difficult childhood. Storytelling is important and as she puts it, she story tells about all the fucked up shit that has happened to her and how she navigated and continued to navigate through it. Her work implicitly evokes the trauma and pain that lead to an unsuccessful suicide attempt, as well as the centeredness she has found in her own skin.
She speaks about trauma in a calm, poetic way, almost as though she is observing the weather: "I took like 28 Klonopin and some Nyquil and played my favorite songs about things like people turning into trees and I was just like I’m going to become a tree and then I’ll just join everything. And then I fell asleep."
This talking about becoming trees and dust is evocative of the way she talks about posing and performance, of being something else that is not Stephanie. It's a therapeutic process, a release from the body by getting deeply in touch with it. It's a way to allow herself and others to let their mind wander and to form questions.
“I think that in moments of stillness — there is stillness me and calm me and meditative me is also the tree me is also the color of sand me, it’s the male me and the female me. It’s the most disembodied me but also the embodied. The most skin me. It’s the type of me that doesn’t participate in mind-body dualism. It's the calmest me. It’s ballet shoes. It’s soft pink, like sand, not flirty pink. It takes itself seriously but not in the color black sort of way."
Her work is cathartic and empathetic at the same time, telling both the kid inside herself and the other weirdos out there that you are OK. With every pose and seemingly wacky act, she is boldly reminding herself that she, and we, are deserving, that our dimpled thighs and fat rolls and random hairs are beautiful. That we are glorious even in our pain. That we are enough.
Featuring Eliah Easonn and Elias Rubin
Shot by Sheldon Walker
Sound by Kyle Rogers
Cover Image snapshot by Stephanie Guedalia of Polaroid by Alex Norelli
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Miriam Mosher graduated from Smith College before moving to New York where she is a writer by day and beer maven by night. She is a proud feminist, a champion of the semicolon and an avid thrifter. See more from Miriam at Bushwick Daily and Two Cities Literary Review.