It took me 30 years to be OK with my own body

Photographic artist Wilhelmina Van Der Bent talks to Colette Sheridan about her work, nurturing a positive body image among our children, and featuring in the end of year Crawford College of Art and Design show.
It took me 30 years to be OK with my own body
Battle of the Amazons by Wilhelmina van der Bent whose work features in the Crawford Art College end of years show, Beyond Dialogue, which opens on Friday, the 9th of June, at 6 PM.

SELF-acceptance is very much part of photographic artist, Wilhelmina Van Der Bent’s armour. Originally from the Netherlands, she moved to Cork in pursuit of love and proposed to her Italian boyfriend. The married couple live in Cork and have two children.

Wilhelmina is taking part in the CIT Crawford College of Art & Design degree show, which will be opened by Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss) this Friday, June 9, and is proud of her self-portraits. Taken with a self-timer, the 30-year old poses in her underwear, revealing a voluptuous body. In the main photograph that will be on show, Wilhelmina’s seven year old daughter Alyssa stands in front of her, wearing her mother’s shirt.

“It’s symbolic because Alyssa will take over in the future,” says Wilhelmina.

“We can tell our kids that they’re beautiful and wonderful and can do whatever they want. But if we don’t treat ourselves that way in front of them, by just being ourselves, we’re letting our children down.

“My mother was critical of her own body. She’d tell me I was beautiful but what I took from her is that beauty means you’re young and thin. If you are older and bigger, you are not beautiful. But that’s not true.

“I’m not saying that the bigger body is better. I’m not anti-losing weight or anti-dieting. What I am is pro-body. My kids eat healthily and I make sure they’re a healthy weight for their age.”

Wilhelmina admits that she sometimes over-eats unhealthy food. It’s a pattern that started in childhood. But she also eats good Italian and Japanese food with her family.

Wilhelmina van der Bent.
Wilhelmina van der Bent.

She wasn’t always comfortable in her own skin. Years ago, on her way to a swimming pool, a few guys looked at her body and called her “an ugly bitch”. She said she froze and “felt really bad”.

“Another time, when I was 19, I was out dancing. This guy tapped me on the shoulder and said I shouldn’t be there and that I looked like a pig. I got very upset. My cousin who was with me told the guy what she thought of him.”

As a child, Wilhelmina grew up in a home where there was violence. She felt the only thing under her control was food. She over-ate to make herself feel better.

“In my teens, I was size 12 or 14. I got a bit bigger. Then, after I had my kids, I put on weight. I’m a size 20 now, I guess. I have dieted but when I do, I get very cranky. I want to be OK with myself and not use diets as a punishment.

“I don’t want to be hypocritical; if I can extend my life by losing weight, I’d like to do that. But if you have a negative body image, it doesn’t help.”

Now, Wilhelmina celebrates her body. As a mature student at the Crawford (she had started studying social work in The Hague before moving here), Wilhelmina’s studies in photography led her to look at Baroque paintings, sculptures and beauty through the ages.

“My body type is close to what was the standard of beauty for hundreds of years. I don’t want to claim any body type as being better than another, or shame anyone. I want to empower men and women, in particular, women, since we seem to be more of a target for commentary. We are too big, or too thin, too short or too tall.

“In my photographic work, I show my body just as it is. It has the right to be represented. Through it, I refer to a time when it would have been considered more beautiful by society than it is now. And I introduce some humour, but I don’t take sides.”

For her photographic work, Wilhelmina is following two threads.

“One is quite formal and technical. I’m looking back at analogue photography, doing studio portraits in controlled lighting. The lighting is influenced by Caravaggio. I’m trying to reference those old ways of seeing the lighting. I love the process and use large format cameras. The photographs have a grain in them. There’s something really special about it.

“I also have a body of work that is digital, done in my home. I reference a little bit of sculpture and Reuben-type figures.”

Madonna of the Basket. By Wilhelmina van der Bent.
Madonna of the Basket. By Wilhelmina van der Bent.

Wilhelmina encourages women to look at real bodies as opposed to “opening a magazine and seeing bodies that have been changed through air brushing and photo-shopping”.

“The standards are impossible. Women shouldn’t feel so awful about having bigger bodies, a scar, cellulite, stretch marks or love handles.

“It took me 30 years to be almost entirely comfortable with my body. If you’re pursuing perfection, you can’t be happy.”

For Wilhelmina, studying art is a dream come true. According to family lore on her mother’s side, there is a connection with Rembrandt, while Wilhelmina’s mother’s maiden name is Van Rijn, like that of the 17th century Dutch painter.

However, this possible family relative wasn’t disclosed to the younger generation as there was a fear they might get notions. Wilhelmina was told about the Rembrandt connection by her father while he was having a few drinks.

“It was so strange to me. Since I was 13 or 14, I had always been looking to get into art college. But talking to my art teacher in high school and to my parents, they all said not to do art. How would I make money and survive? I got scared.

“But art was always in the back of my head. The Rembrandt connection encouraged me, although I have no idea whether it’s an urban myth or true.

“I applied to the Crawford as a mature student with a portfolio of work and I got accepted. A big part of me going to the Crawford was showing my kids that if you really believe in something, you should go for it.”

Wilhelmina took matters into her own hands when it came to marrying Antonio Faldetta, who works at Apple. It was her sister who originally met him through online video gaming. Antonio, living in Cork, went over to Katwijk in the Netherlands to visit Wilhelmina’s sister. But they didn’t have much in common. Wilhelmina, however, met him and told him that she too played video games.

“It was only when we got to know each other online, afterwards, that we fell in love,” explains Wilhelmina.

Descent by Wilhelmina van der Bent whose work features in the Crawford Art College end of years show, Beyond Dialogue, which opens on Friday, the 9th of June, at 6 PM.
Descent by Wilhelmina van der Bent whose work features in the Crawford Art College end of years show, Beyond Dialogue, which opens on Friday, the 9th of June, at 6 PM.

“We started emailing each other and having video chats. I asked Antonio if I could come to Cork some time. There was something happening. But there were no expectations. He’s 14 years older than me. At the time, I was twenty.”

In Cork, the pair got together and after a year since their first encounter, Wilhelmina proposed marriage.

“For us, gender roles were never really much of a thing. He’d been thinking about proposing.”

Wilhelmina had thought she was a lesbian and had to do what she calls “a reverse coming out to her friends”. She explains: “That was stranger to me than coming out as gay at 15. Because I’d never been in love with a guy before, I thought I was gay. I realised that it just depends on the person you meet.”

Because of her unhappy home life as a child, Wilhelmina and her two sisters’ self-worth “was pretty low” by the time they were in their late teens.

“Living in a small town, people don’t like to talk (about family problems.) Everyone knew everyone else and it was important to keep up appearances.

“Now, our relationships have improved. I think distance has helped. There has been a bit of talking and forgiving. Things have healed.”

So much so that Wilhelmina’s parents are coming to Cork for the opening night of the Crawford Degree Show. Their strong-willed daughter has found her niche — a la Rembrandt!

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