On Sunday, February 26, my husband and I grabbed our winter coats and two dogs and walked a small trek between our apartment and Fort Tryon Park, in Washington Heights. There, we were met with sunshine and various joggers as we awaited an experience that I will never forget.
I met Shira Sheps (of Fair Lawn) a number of years ago when we collaborated over coffee on a project related to eating disorders in the Jewish community. We had a natural rhythm and discussed the realities around mental health treatment as well as our bright plans to change the world. Years later, as friends on social media, I learned about Shira’s new, meaningful endeavor, “The Layers Project,” a blog with in-depth profiles of Jewish women, featuring a series of images and an interview, where they discuss their challenges and triumphs. I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved.
Shira photographed and interviewed me on the subject of body image and my history of struggling with negative body image, to the point that it developed into a full-fledged eating disorder. We also discussed my current relationship with my body as a recovered 20-something-year-old modern, religious woman. I learned that my photo shoot was to be one of a series for The Layers Project discussing the topic of Jewish women’s experiences with body image.
Shira and I discussed her reasons and hopes for starting The Layers Project. After she had struggled with a chronic illness for multiple years she created a blog, Emuna Balaylot, to share all that she had struggled with and to “feel free from the burden of hiding the illness for fear of the stigmas associated with being sick.” Not only did she receive incredible support from her followers around her struggles, but individuals came forward and began to share their battles and allowed for Shira to support them as well. When she recovered from her illness, she created her own photography business, Shira Sheps Photography, and used her passion for living a full life again, and her appreciation for beauty in each moment, to propel her forward.
Shira beautifully explained the birth of The Layers Project. “I wanted to fuse the lessons I had learned from being sick and combine all the things I love to do—writing, photography and utilizing honesty in self-reflection—for the purpose of healing. I wanted to share the benefits I received from becoming open about what made my life difficult, so that other women could have more connection in their lives. I wanted to be a part of the initiative to break down stigma, and wanted to give women a platform to own what makes their lives beautiful and hard. A space to rewrite their own narratives to focus on their strengths and courage. A forum for women to realize that everyone goes through things that are tough, and it’s ok to talk about it. My hope is that instead of having their differences separate them from their community, their honesty will build community.”
Within the first day of sharing her idea, 15 women had reached out who wanted to be involved. “‘Average’ women, living extraordinary lives because of the way they deal with the thing that makes their life difficult.” As an individual in one of these projects, I can confidently state that the manner in which Shira creates a comfortable and supportive environment while capturing the photos and asking about sensitive, oftentimes rarely disclosed information is beautiful and rare. I talked about parts of my eating disorder history that I rarely share. I shed tears. I discovered new insights. I did it all with a captivating, encouraging woman by my side.
Shira and I share a passion for spreading the truth. The truth that often isn’t discussed, and by doing so, this will open doors to allow for support, love and understanding. I am humbled and honoured to call Shira a friend and collaborator, and feel immensely grateful for the piece she created about me for The Layers Project. Her courage in bringing important and unspoken issues had by so many of us out into the community is appreciated and inspiring.
I encourage you, reader, to explore this project. See if you’d like to get involved, read the stories and discover how you can relate. What support might you be able to provide to yourself and to others?
Please visit The Layers Project at www.thelayersproject.online.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW