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Originally published April 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 3, 2008 at 6:39 AM

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"This Is Who I Am," a book of nude photos, tells women to love themselves as they are

If "The Vagina Monologues" could be translated into photography, that's what this book would be. Rosanne Olson's collection of photographs...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Author appearance

Rosanne Olson

Photographer Rosanne Olson will speak at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 South Main St., Seattle; free (www.elliottbaybook.com or 206-624-6600).

If "The Vagina Monologues" could be translated into photography, that's what this book would be.

Rosanne Olson's collection of photographs and short essays, "This Is Who I Am: Our Beauty in All Shapes and Sizes," is an exploration of how real women relate to their real bodies — in all their freckled, scarred, pudgy and wrinkled glory. It's sometimes funny, sometimes sensual and always heartbreakingly sincere.

"It's about looking at how beautiful we are, in whatever state we're in," said Olson, who works as a professional photographer in Seattle. "I really believe that every woman in this book is truly beautiful. It was just a matter of making her see it that way."

The series of black-and-white nude photographs is elegant, but these are not glamour shots. The women are stretch-marked, injured, bony or overweight. And that's the point.

It is a celebration of the woman's body, in all the ways it does not match Hollywood's glossy conception of what it's supposed to be, Olson says. The book does not celebrate imperfection so much as it asks, "Why are these things considered imperfect in the first place?"

"In our culture, women are put upon to be perfect. They bear this unbelievable psychological weight," Olson says. "I thought maybe [this book] could help women learn to be more compassionate toward themselves and their bodies."

The photographs are delightfully forthright, but the women's short biographies steal the show. In what became a multiyear project, Olson interviewed all of the nearly 60 women she photographs in the book, and compiled their quotes into candid essays that tell of near-fatal injuries or anorexia, or past sexual abuse. Others tackle more mundane struggles with cellulite or bruising.

"When you read it, it becomes a patchwork quilt of different emotions," Olson says. "Women see how other women exist in the world, and they relate to so many of the different experiences."

One of the women in the book, Alice, 95, talks about the frustration and annoyance of her body's aging. "This is the body I was given ... I never thought about loving it," she says in her interview, "but I have accepted it."

Another woman, June, 40, is quite heavy. "I don't like my body at all, but that doesn't mean I don't love myself," she says in her interview. "I actually think I'm a pretty great person." She smiles into the camera, her Rubenesque curves in full view.

"I saw pieces of myself in all these women. I realized how connected we all are, rather than how separate," says Olson, who struggled with anorexia in high school and college. "I think that idea can be pretty moving."

Many of the women in the book are Olson's friends, and friends of friends, or people Olson "just met at a party" in Seattle. But a handful of them traveled to her studio in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood from New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Texas when they read about Olson's project in More magazine a few years ago.

"Some women would call and say, 'I think this is important. I want to be in the book,' " Olson said. "It was wonderful to hear that the idea of it resonated with women."

When a woman she'd never met before would show up on her doorstep, ready to be photographed in the nude, Olson was never uncomfortable. She says the experience of interviewing a woman about her most intimate memories and then photographing her in a vulnerable position is "like deep-sea diving."

"You're so deeply in the moment that everything else falls away. There's this deep trust that happens," she says.

"I never tried to make anyone look different. It was about making them see how beautiful they already are."

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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