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The Inner Goddess & the Inner Gaze

Dear Friend and Reader:

Friday morning, today that is, I will be in Toronto presenting a seminar at the American Psychological Association (APA) conference called "The Inner Goddess and the Inner Gaze." My presentation, as currently planned, will explore the phenomenon of the inner feminine, or anima, and its relationship to both men and women in our journey of growth and healing through the use of mirrors and photography.

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Ange from the Book of Blue sessions in Paris. Photo by Eric Francis.
Since I am not a psychologist, my presentation is co-sponsored by one: Dr. Christine Farber, a longtime Planet Waves reader; as well as my astrology student from the Omega Institute and a one-time client. She caught onto my work with Book of Blue and proposed that the themes I am covering in that project were ready to be introduced to mainstream psychology. She crafted a presentation using language from my articles, which was accepted by the APA women's psychology section as a seminar.

Book of Blue is an indirect outgrowth of my work as an astrologer, though expressed in photographs and intimate essays. As an astrologer, I have written and worked primarily with and for women, and in the process have explored my perceptions of women, studied the paths of their lives and done my best to understand their choices and values. I have always been conscious that part of why I am doing this work is to heal my relationship with my mother and with all women; and part of it is to be of service to women in response to a lifelong calling.

You might say that I am a woman-identified man. Given the choice of who is more 'my kind' of person, as in who I feel more like, I certainly feel like I have far more in common with most women than with most men. Yet in much the same way that relationships among women are fragmented by mistrust and competition, I noticed something similar in my own relationships that I set about working to resolve. The healing process largely facilitated by my work on Book of Blue has involved repairing a sense of alienation and isolation that has gradually given way to an atmosphere of communication and contact.

The [usually] fun part is I also get to be a man, and experience and witness the intensity and subtlety of female beauty, that is, intellectual, emotional and physical beauty, from the viewpoint of being male. Along the way, my inner feminine gets to make friends with other women and learn how to be female; and my inner man gets to polarize into his masculinity and explore our contrasts and how they feel. Along the way, I am working out a relationship with myself.

Conscious of holding this space as mental preparation, I am able to create a space for my photographic subjects to see and feel themselves; to be a witness to their own self-aware femininity and humanity. Women spend a lot of time in mirrors, but I wonder how much of it is really about witnessing themselves. In my studio, that is precisely what they are invited to do: as a means of seeing their own beauty, integrating their sense of identity, processing guilt and body issues, and making peace with their judgments about themselves.

In Search of Venus

In astrology we work with inner archetypes all the time; they are the lead characters in the astrological drama. For example, everyone has Mars and Venus working in their chart; we all possess the same inner masculine and feminine aspects. Where these things are placed, and how we relate to them, are important factors that help shape our personality and affect how we adapt to life in our skins and in society. We know there is plenty of gender tension around us, and we feel it in our relationships; there are also gender relationships within us, which shape our consciousness, perceptions and experiences.

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Anya from the Book of Blue sessions in Toronto. Photo by Eric Francis.
Usually we project that tension outward, rejecting the opposite gender internally and seeing her as a phenomenon in the outer world; without remembering anything about her origins in consciousness.

In terms of the inner feminine, I am talking primarily about Venus, though she takes a number of other forms: for example the Moon (who often represents a child or the child self as well); certain of the more potent asteroids (Psyche, Juno or Vesta, for example); and an important new discovery, Eris (the castaway woman). Yet even when we do astrology, to what extent do we experience and explore these things as having actual life rather than symbolic existence?

Were I to write an astrology book, it might be called something like Astrology in Real Life, revealing how we can use the chart as a map to a quest rather than as a purely mental construction. My inner woman is described in my chart as Venus in Taurus in the 11th house, conjunct the asteroid Photographica. She is trine a planet curiously like Venus, which is Uranus/Prometheus (few other astrologers would say this, however). I'll go through these one at a time. Venus is a complex archetype, and like many planets, her energy is colored by her sign placement, expressed through her house placement and elaborated in her aspects.

Venus in Taurus is an interesting mix of flirtatious and deeply committed. She is profoundly feminine; sensuous and biophilic. She is womanly in what you might call the true sense. She has a belly and hips and breasts. She feels her fertility and her creative richness; she is conscious of her sexual aches, cravings and desire for contact. She loves and is bonded to herself. Venus in Taurus is an exquisite image of female selflove and self-pleasuring. At her best, she is truly self-possessed and thus can afford to share herself. True to Taurus, she has respect for tradition but is also a rebel. Most of all, she is guided by one thing: her authentic values, which are the basis of every decision she makes.

She loves both sex and sensuality. She is bisexual and her attraction to women is related to her connection to herself and to the common bond that all women share as those who provide comfort and give life. Is she monogamous? She's bisexual; in theory and in practice, no. But devotion and loyalty are supreme to her.

In the 11th house, she is publicly visible and known; she offers herself as available to the community; she is someone respected for her integrity. The 11th is the most idealistic house and she believes in her hopes and dreams: they are there to be made real, and to be shared with others. Taurus in the 11th is a practical dreamer. Venus in this house not only believes in true love, she feels it as real within herself. She is possessive (a Taurus trait) but recognizes that when you are solid with yourself you can be there for others. Her desire to participate is an invitation to share (an 11th house trait).

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Chenoa from the London sessions of Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
Taurus is about deep bonding and the 11th is about friendship. There are paradoxes and there are points of harmony between these two layers, and this is one image of the new relationship (and erotic relating) model I am working out with women. I write about this extensively in the diary section of the Book of Blue.

Then we have an asteroid in conjunction, adding a special theme: photography. Martha Lang Wescott says of this asteroid, "While useful for showing the importance of photography and visual images, Photographica also relates to the brain's ability to retain and interpret visual imagery." I would add that it likely involves the ability to use visual imagery as a communication medium.

In using my camera, I explore, create and relate, and using my studio I create the space for others to do the same thing. The photographs then become a point of meditation for the subject, who can use them to explore her mental and emotional states, and make peace with her way of seeing herself. Finally they become public art that can extend the healing process beyond the studio, and the individuals involved, and into the world.

Book of Blue is about the use of visual imagery to heal the self-image of women, in the eyes of both men and women. We all agree that we are overwhelmed with idealized, reconstructed images of young women, and these cause disturbances in our ability to perceive women for who they are. More often than not, the personhood of women is robbed by false images and ideas about womanhood.

Venus trine Uranus is about creating an innovation that gets around this trap. It is about harmonizing beauty with technology (Uranus in Virgo), which is specifically a technology for healing; and an idea base (3rd house Uranus) that also comes in written form.

The Mirror of Denial, and the Mirror

In an article I wrote last year called "Pornography as the Mirror of Denial," I explored the idea that in using pornography, heterosexual men are holding a mirror to themselves into which they see a woman reflected. This woman, in my view, is designed to be an image of their inner feminine or anima. She becomes an image of his inner woman, who for whatever reasons allows him to make contact with himself through a feminine filter; which in turn facilitates letting go emotionally.

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Natasha from the Brussels sessions of Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
The problem -- the point of denial -- is that the women depicted in these images are not present; they do not respond; they are not available to talk to, share with, cry with, and to actually experience sex with. Therefore, each time someone lets go meditating on that image, this feeling of denial and unavailability is reinforced.

I would like to explore this theory a bit, however I want to define pornography first. To my knowledge there is no agreed-upon artistic, legal or moral definition of pornography. Nearly any image can be accused of it, which is dangerous. Therefore I define pornography as the use of an image rather than something inherent in the image itself; this includes the image-maker's supposed intent. The picture might be intended to sell lingerie or a DVD, it might be from a Coke ad, it might be a street photo, it might be a classical image or it might be a page from Playboy. If the image is used by someone for erotic gratification in some way, that's what gives it the distinction of pornography. "I know it when I see it" is in the eye of the beholder.

This being said, I think that the relationship between the image and the viewer is far more complex than nearly anyone gives it credit for being. When we look at pornography and find it mentally stimulating, one possible reason is because we identify with the subject of the image.

We could consider this a form of projection, that is, putting an internal idea or self-concept onto something in the outside world; but I think it's just as much about introjection: taking in something we see outside ourselves and allowing it to become part of us, or wishing it were; or seeking to identify some part of ourselves through the image.

In my article, I suggested that men experiment with setting pornography aside, and use a mirror instead. This way they would look for that inner woman in their own reflection, and make friends with her within themselves.

We can go over the many reasons why this would be considered taboo: for example, many would think that it's gay. After all it's a man relating erotically to a man. If he's looking for someone feminine in that image to connect with, it's even more gay; he's seeing himself as a woman, and potentially loving himself as one. Or it could be considered narcissistic; even the fear of being known for that would be enough to stop many people. In the end, exploring with a mirror is psychologically daring, but it can subvert the ego as well. Witnessing yourself in such an out-there state is brave and a potentially uncomfortable confrontation.

Autogynephilia and Gender Dysphoria

The idea of a man loving himself as a woman has been described as a form of pathology in the psychological literature, part of a trend of categorizing an increasing number of erotic feelings as forms of mental illnesses, commonly known as gender dysphorias. After a long struggle to have homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), there is now a movement to bring in many other similar feelings and experiences.

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Krissy from the Portland, Maine, sessions of Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
The clinical term for a man loving himself as a woman is autogynephilia. It was coined in 1989 by Ray Blanchard to refer to "a man's paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman." It has been used as a means of explaining the feelings underlying being a transvestite, among other things. The term paraphilic basically means a kind of fetish that you need in order to get off. However, I don't think it's a paraphilia. Blanchard himself has said that "an autogynephile does not necessarily become sexually aroused every time he pictures himself as female or engages in feminine behavior, any more than a heterosexual man automatically gets an erection whenever he sees an attractive woman. Thus, the concept of autogynephilia...refers to a potential for sexual excitation" [emphasis in original].

Everyone has this potential, obviously. So like much of psychology he is describing something that everyone feels at some time in pathological terms. Astrology is much more compassionate here; any astrologer will tell you that we all have Venus and Mars and identify with both to varying degrees. It would help if more psychologists studied astrology.

In a 1992 paper, Blanchard and his colleagues wrote that, "autogynephilia may be conceived as a kind of misdirected heterosexuality...autogynephilia competes with normal heterosexual attraction." Thus, according to this theory, if you use pornography depicting a female for sexual purposes, you are healthy; if you use a mirror and seek the vision of your inner feminine there, you could be diagnosed. The implication is that it's not 'normal' for a man to be too woman-identified.

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Hayley from the Portland, Maine sessions of Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
Yet I would propose that this happens to some degree every time a man is sexually aroused by a woman. He may not be consciously saying, "I am her," or "I want to be her," but I would propose that the feeling is pervasive. Many, many heterosexual men are fascinated by women to the point of envy. We assume this about gay men; but when you look at it closely there is nothing more gay than heterosexuality. (I will save my theory of why heterosexuals need to come out of the closet for another day.)

This can be a source of incredible pleasure; yet I think that if left unexpressed, or if this clashes with other values and it results in shame, the results can be painful. Hence, it's usually easier to project the whole phenomenon of the feminine outside oneself, onto women. It is easier, socially and psychologically, for men to disown their inner feminine aspect. And sadly, we see the results of this casting-off all the time. Many men view women as a kind of alien species. I am sure that most of them are not actually comfortable with women's experiences, feelings, or bodies, despite being obsessed with them.

As a result, many women view themselves as aliens, despite being obsessed with themselves. In creating my portrait series, I chose to explore female self-awareness in part as a way of claiming it within myself. I was curious what it felt like to inhabit female beauty; to see oneself as female; and to be female and also see oneself as human.

Gaze of the Inner Goddess

What about women, seeking their reflection in the world? They don't need to seek out pornography; women are told constantly how they are supposed to look and feel about themselves; they are constantly made to feel they must compare themselves to others. The entire world is holding up a mirror to women, and it is usually pretty harsh. It is impossible to live up to what we see, and this is a source of almost constant agony for many women caught in this ego-based hall of mirrors.

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Christine from the Toronto sessions of Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.
As a result, many women pay closer attention to other women than do men: down to the details, and viciously judgmental in ways that most men would never imagine. This is often in the spirit of competition, though I would not call it healthy competition. I have also learned through both photography and astrology that most women are profoundly judgmental of themselves, which they project onto other women, and express by being servile to men. In the words of my friend and collaborator Neisha Hirsch, "She wants what she wants, and she feels bad about it because we are all so programmed to please others instead of ourselves."

The idea of a Book of Blue portrait session is that the model focuses on herself, while I hold space and document the experience. The model may be dressed or nude; nudity tends to enhance the feeling of vulnerability, yet in reality is simply more basically human. Excellent images have come from sessions with the model dressed but I have not analyzed what feels different about them. I've also learned that nude modeling is something that many women contemplate and consider; in reality, a great many explore the territory. Sometimes it's about money and sometimes it's about fun and liberation. Sometimes it's for the pleasure of being seen.

I am aware that my presence influences the images, but it also makes them possible. My maleness is a specific factor; much of what women must contend with is the feeling of being looked at by other men, and now I'm there looking at them up close. We are exploring the space and the feeling of being seen.

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Sue Story from the Kingston, NY sessions. Photo for Book of Blue by Eric Francis.
This is a fine line to walk. I will work at different emotional temperatures and proximity depending on my relationship to the subject of the photo. In all, I believe that my presence "takes over" the aspect of the woman who is concerned about being seen, and allows me to do that part. The inner spectator is going to be in her mind anyway. Hakomi Therapy discovered that these inner roles could be occupied by someone external, thus liberating the person from having to do it themselves. I see my part as replacing the critical witness with a loving witness. This presents the opportunity to be seen by someone who is open, accepting and moreover not afraid of their self-judgments, which as I have learned, from much experience, can be quite painful.

I am willing to go as far with my photo subjects as they want, and have journeyed in this process through a diversity of states from grief to erotic self-exploration to dissociative experiences and many levels of what might be called 'ordinary consciousness'. More than a decade of experience as an astrologer, holding space for emotional and spiritual process, helps support this space and the process that unfolds here. (The aspect in my chart is the Moon conjunct Vesta in the 8th house.)

One potential result is that a woman will encounter her inner goddess, that is, her essential inner woman, through the experience of making the images, and seeing them afterwards. Some of the images are published, with the consent of the photo subject, and there have been some interesting dialogs between viewers and the subjects of the photos.

Is it Art, or is it Therapy?

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Semen and Mirror. Photo by Eric Francis / Book of Blue.
We are standing here at the threshold where art functions as a healing modality. When art is working this is often the case, though this particular process makes it more personal than usual. I never set out to create a therapeutic model -- only to make images and learn something about myself and the people involved. What I quickly learned was that the model was working out something in her relationship to herself; I was working out something in relationship to her; and I was meeting my inner feminine in many different forms. As she would feel her vulnerability, I would learn to empathize with her. As she would feel her sexual power, I would feel it as well. As she would witness her beauty as being something untouchable, I would feel this too.

I discovered that I was working right in the space where her self-image is created. So in a sense the resulting photographs are documents of a new self-image in the process of being developed, discovered or witnessed. It is fascinating to see, in models I have worked with over a long period of time, the ways in which facial features, the expression in her eyes and her presence with herself evolve over time. They are also documents of me exploring my own self-image as a woman; and a long process of aligning with the experience of women being in harmony with themselves. In my view this is correcting the experience of generations of women before me being conditioned to be in conflict with themselves; to disapprove of themselves; to be someone other than who they are.

My sense is that whatever else is happening, I am getting photographs of the real woman, not a projected vision of her. This would be the process of someone discovering her inner goddess. To do that, of course, I have had to know and love my own inner goddess; she in truth is the one who stands guard over the photo sessions and the resulting images, holding space for the process to unfold, and gradually teaching me to see women for who they are and not who I would have them be. I trust that my photo subjects are learning to do the same thing for themselves.

Yours & truly,
Eric Francis
Additional research: Pia Ruisi-Besares. Dedicated with love and gratitude to Betty Dodson.

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