Guest post by Leanne Moden: A poetymology of body image

Leanne ModenThis guest post is by Leanne Moden, a talented poet from Nottingham who I was fortunate to see perform at a For Books’ Sake spoken word night earlier this year.

Leanne performs at events across the UK and around Europe, including recent sets at Prima Vista Festival in Estonia and Día Mundial de la Poesía in Spain. She has also performed at WOMAD, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and Bestival on the Isle of Wight.

Leanne is currently Poet in Residence at the National Justice Museum and is working on her first full-length poetry show, which she hopes to take to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the human body. It’s such a weird and genuinely wonderful bit of apparatus – miraculous and unnerving in equal measure – and I’m constantly amazed by the things our bodies can do.

If you’ve ever seen someone give birth, or watched a friend run a marathon, then you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

I’m also really interested in contemporary attitudes to bodies, and I’ve been really heartened to see the Body Positivity Movement that’s flourished on social media in recent years.

As a teenager, I struggled to relate to my body. It felt like a force that I was constantly fighting against, and I felt awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin.

I wrote this first poem, titled “The Sculptor”, around about 2004. I would’ve been about seventeen then, and I was really struggling with my self-esteem during this period. This poem expresses that sense of perfectionism and a longing to be ‘better’, which I probably wasn’t able to fully articulate at the time.

I could never sculpt hands.
I can transfigure my chisel
Into a typewriter and speak a personal history,
Sculpt the deep rivulets of emotions
Around the eyes of dictators and devils,
Divas and demigods,
Fashioning life
From bronze and stone.
Or recreate the folds of gowns
That envelope sleeping nymphs,
While patterns, Klimt-like
Wreath the delicate tendrils of their hair.
But if I could emulate the warmth of a handshake,
The articulation of a hand raised and lowered
In anger; or capture the vitriol of an obscene gesture…
But I cannot conceive the corrugation of weather-worn knuckles
Bleached and tanned by an unforgiving sun.
Or the elegant hand whose pale palms serve
A contrast of colour
More pleasing than any canvas.
I only wish I could sculpt hands.

It was so interesting to read this poem and notice all the references to hands as a metaphor for stunted self-expression, as well as the themes of disrupted communication and the barriers that sometimes form when trying to making yourself heard and understood.

It was also really strange to see the embarrassing pretentiousness of my writing at that age – lots of big words that I totally wouldn’t use in normal conversation. I was writing in the way I thought poets ought to write rather than using my own voice, and it’s likely this was another symptom of that lack of self-confidence.

These days, I make my living as a poet, performing on stages across the country and using my writing to discuss issues and concepts that are important to me. I also spend a lot of time working with community groups, helping people to express themselves through poetry and talk about the things that matter to them.

One of the themes I return to again and again is the topic of body image and body confidence, and I’m really glad to say that, as I’ve grown older, my attitude to my own body has changed. Finding my own voice through poetry really helped to boost my confidence, and I’m incredibly grateful to be able to be creative as part of my day job.

This second poem, titled “Fish Face”, was written as part of a project with the Derby Book Festival and is about bodies and our attitudes to them. It’s also about mermaids.

Of course, we knew that they existed –
in picture books and fairy tales –
but when we finally
dredged one up from the depths
we were more than a little surprised.

She was nothing like we imagined:

no flowing golden hair
and sun-kissed skin.
No silvery voice
or wide submissive eyes.
No pert little breasts modestly
shielded from sight behind a seashell bra.

No, she was nothing like we imagined:

All iridescent scales crusted with
barnacles; matted seaweed-frond hair
and a voice like a hurricane.
Gills and teeth and spines;

more monster than maiden.

She was fascinating – but she would never
make the cover of a magazine.

Still, we lapped up every TV interview,
documentary and podcast, every forward-thinking
think-piece, and long-form feminist essay.
And, when one Saturday morning
TV presenter broached the question
of her appearance,
we held our breath…

She said:
My body carries me
across oceans and through storms.
My body can withstand the pressure of
five thousand fathoms of seawater
and swim for six miles without rest.

My body has borne me children
and survived the sharks and
sea monsters of this world.

My body is my instrument;
my body is my weapon.
My body is exactly what I need it to be.

It may not be perfect
but I am not afraid of it,
because my body is beautiful.”

Soon, models were walking the runways
wearing artificial gills, and young men
and women were saving up to have scales
surgically implanted under their skin.

Green hair dye sold out in shops
and swimming pool salesman
struggled to meet the demand.

People prayed for gills and teeth and spines.

The mermaid – realising that humanity
had almost entirely missed the point –
returned to the sea.

Many thanks to Leanne, who you can find out more about at I also recommend following her on FacebookTwitter and YouTube (where you can watch her perform “Fish Face”) to see if she’ll be performing at an event near you soon – I know I’ll be looking out for her next appearance in Manchester!

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