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RNZ - June 2024


23 Jun 2024

To deal with body shame, Mandi Lynn turned 300 women gold and photographed them nude 

From Culture 101, 2:10 pm on 23 June 2024 


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Mandi Lynn never expected to become a filmmaker at 50, let alone have her work screened at festivals around the world. Her photo exhibition exploring body shame is the subject of a short documentary, Finding Venus

Mandi Lynn at The Every Body is a Treasure exhibition with her dog Gritty Photo: Supplied

It all began in 2016, when Lynn had a conversation with her five-year-old niece, Harper. 
“My niece walked into my kitchen, and goes, ‘Aunty Mandi?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Harper?’

“And she goes, ‘Am I fat?’ And she’s five. What the hell is a five-year-old doing worrying about a thigh gap? What is so seriously wrong in our society that this is happening?” 
The exchange prompted Lynn to put out a public call; the plan was to photograph women in the nude, covered in golden clay, so she could create an “exhibition of reality” for young girls and women to see real bodies reflected back at them.

And thus, the Every Body is a Treasure exhibition was born.  

“I was inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, which is the oldest sculpture, it’s about 30,000 years old. It’s a woman with pendulous breasts, a big bum ... she’s looking down and she’s got her hands on her breasts.  
“It’s usually shown as a clay object, and I just thought golden clay, it’s celebrating the treasure of our bodies. 

“I had about six women who came to my house to do the first [shoot] and we got some coverage about it, so I had 100 women sign up for the next one and about 70 who rocked up.” 
It was at one of these shoots that Lynn recalls a woman leaving abruptly. 
“I remember at one stage, one woman left triggered. It was just too much for her, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we really need to have a solid workshop before we do this.’” 
Lynn began holding a series of community workshops that allowed women to reclaim the narratives around their bodies. This was a collaborative process, she says. 
“The women helped me co-design it. One of the things I had them do was write three words that had been used against their body, and three words they wanted to replace that with, and they’re like, ‘Let’s write it on ourselves.’ 

“And that ended up becoming so profound in the process, just to have that physical, somatic erasure of a violation of the body, and a replacement through power and choice. God, that was beautiful.” 
Lynn has photographed 300 women for the exhibition so far, but is aiming to get 600 in total. 
“Six hundred is quite significant because it’s the number of Photoshopped images, on average, that we see each day. The idea of getting 600 is to create a counterpoint.

“It stinks, too, because the Photoshopped images are just of a tiny 5 percent of women anyway, so the other 95 percent of us often don’t get to see ourselves reflected.” 
Thanks to a chance encounter with a member of the NZ Film Commission, the exhibition has become the subject of a short documentary, Finding Venus.  

“It happened on an accidental plane ride. I was up in Auckland doing some work and ended up with a seat mate that happened to be the brand-new talent development person for the Film Commission. He heard about the body positivity work that we were doing and was really enthralled by the story. 
“He just said, ‘My God, that would make an amazing movie - you should totally pitch that to the Fresh Shorts fund.’ He said, ‘You should do it - give it a crack.’ 

“So I started investigating and I applied - I had no idea what I was doing. But yeah, we just figured it out as we went along and we ended up becoming the first and only - so far - documentary crew to win a Fresh Shorts grant. It’s exciting.”
Finding Venus has been screened at film festivals in Greece, Barcelona and Portugal, and Lynn was awarded Best Emerging Short Documentary Filmmaker at the Women’s Voice Now film festival in Los Angeles.  
Lynn says she couldn’t believe the global impact the film has had. 
“Of course, in your heart, you have this tiny speck of hope [that it will be impactful], but no, oh my gosh. Right now, this is the biggest crack up, we’re in the Doc Edge Festival which is going to be playing in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, and that’s an Oscar-qualifying film festival, which means if we win our category, we’re gonna be up for an Oscar. 
“It’s insane. Never in a million years did I think, at 50, I would make a potentially Oscar-qualifying film.”
Lynn hopes the exhibition and film can help the next generation of young women to stop body-shaming themselves. 
“They can be big, they can be small, they can be able, they can be disabled, they can be all different colours of the rainbow - but they’re just bodies. They’re here to be grateful to them; we dial our power down so much by obsessing about them. 
“We make women semi-starve and play small and make it so that, culturally, the only way you can exist in the world and be okay is less than potentially what your set point is, it’s hard.” 
Lynn says body shame costs us more than our wellbeing. 
“There’s a statistic I found the other day: it shows that for each year that you’re experiencing body shame, it costs you $6867 on average. I did the math and for me that worked out, for over 40 years of body shame, it was $274,680. I would like to save that, for women to be able to invest in their lives, not to play down, not to power down.  
“It might be outlandish, it’s audacious, it’s a moonshot goal, but what would be the difference in the world if we could stop body shame in one generation? How different would everything be if that was the case? It would be amazing.”

Finding Venus is playing at The Doc Edge Film Festival until 31 July.