Monday, January 9, 2006
By BOB CONDOR
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Inpiration knows no boundaries. That's what Tara Gimmer, Barbara Kirchem and lots of folks at the West Seattle Family YMCA have discovered in the past year.
Early in 2005, Kirchem and friends Betty Kreitinger and Verda Hansberry ventured together to Gimmer's studio in Seattle for a photo shoot.
Just one twist. All three women are in their 80s or late 70s. Gimmer planned to photograph them in swimsuits.
"I didn't want to do it," said Kirchem. "But Tara is persuasive."
Gimmer is also the women's deep-water aerobics instructor at the Y.
Everyone wears a waist-flotation device as Gimmer leads her Wednesday and Friday morning classes through an hour of cardio work.
Gimmer started taking the class herself about 11 years back in her early 30s. Two years later she became a certified instructor with up to 30 students per class. She won over Kirchem, who has taken classes in the West Seattle Y's nationally respected water aerobics program for more than 15 years, and others, after about six months.
"I was in the shower after class one day," recalled Gimmer, who is a professional photographer who specializes in fashion. "One of the women remarked that my tattoo was 'really pretty.' Now I know that no woman her age appreciated or liked any sort of tattoos, so I realized she was taking a big step to compliment me."
Gimmer traded on her acceptance when imagining a different sort of photo show. She had decided to show older women's bodies in their authenticity.
"I realized just how many of these women were more comfortable in their bodies than me or any of my contemporaries and friends," said Gimmer. "I thought it would be great to photograph them."
The result is a show-in-progress that Gimmer calls "Good Bodies." She has photographed seven women so far and plans up to 25 to 30 total. The seven are displayed life-size in the West Seattle Y women's locker room.
"People come up to me all the time to say they are inspired," said Kirchem.
Gimmer said the photo shoots with the women have been "really fun." She admitted to some adjustments, such as realizing the less optimal circulation of her models meant they got cold faster in their swimsuits than, say, the twentysomething fashion model. The steep stairs to Gimmer's studio has prompted using the freight elevator at times.
Inspiration has flooded Gimmer during the project.
"I realized that I couldn't stand in front of a white background wearing a swimsuit," she said. "I'm closer to that sort of self-acceptance than I was 10 years. But it seems like the point of transformation when women accept their bodies is more in their 50s."
Gimmer is hoping the "Good Bodie" exhibit will trip-start the self-acceptance.
"There comes a point when you give up on the dream ideas about your body and accept it for the wonderful vessel it can be," said Gimmer.
Underscore the point here: Gimmer is talking about giving up on the media and fashion industries' ideals, not your own hopes and dreams, such as running a marathon in your 50s or playing tennis into your 70s or beginning a weight program in your 80s and 90s to mimic the positive findings of federal researcher Bill Evans from his University of Arkansas aging science lab.
It's all about building up your self-esteem along with the muscles.
Independence comes in the bargain.
Betty Kreitinger, 82, for instance, attends the class to be spry enough to visit her rustic cabin on Vashon Island and travel regularly. Verda Hansberry, 86, is now using the class to recover from a recent bout with breast cancer.
"The class is a social outlet for us too," said Kirchem.
For her part, Gimmer has talked with local YMCAs about a traveling show, plus queried other metro Y's and selected book publishers. The responses have been positive.
Here's what Gimmer wrote in a short essay about Kirchem in the book proposal:
"Barbara was the first person I asked to photograph and the first to agree, even though she isn't always happy with her body. At 78, it works. I might describe it as solid, just as Barbara is a solid presence in class, in the deep part of the pool where the tall women stake out their spots. She has been in so many classes for so long that her recent absence due to knee replacement surgery made the class seem empty.
"Barbara has an unusual smile that looks like a frown. Her still face seems to scowl and it's easy to misread this as grumpiness. But to know Barbara is to realize she's a warm and endearing person, good-natured, well read, and interested in art and music.
"At one point Barbara asked me if it got very hot in my studio in the summer time. (It does.) I could almost hear her thoughts as she stood there in only her bathing suit: 'That might be a better time to shoot these darn photographs!' "
Bob Condor writes every Monday about health and quality of life. He is editor of the Seattle-based Evergreen Monthly, which covers health, environment, food, social good, spirituality and personal growth (visit www.evergreenmonthly.com). Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or ideas for the Living Well column.
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