11 Icelandic Women Open Up About Body Image

As mystical as the geothermal hot springs of southern Iceland may seem, they're actually one of the country's go-to vacation destinations, where you can find both tourists and locals — which is why photographer Helga Nina Aas visited the springs this summer: As body positivity becomes a global conversation, she wanted to find out how Icelandic women feel about their bodies.

Aas tells Refinery29 that, much like women in the U.S., Icelandic women deal with pressure from the media to look a certain way. "Some women are only happy with themselves if they have worked out vigorously, watched everything that they have eaten, and feel like they're at their peak," she says.

Fortunately, according to Aas, Icelandic women are finding ways to resist limited ideas of beauty in their everyday lives, starting with the example they're setting. "Many of us choose to be inspired by women who respect their bodies and have a happy balance with family, work, spirituality, and health," she says. "It was a great personal reminder to talk about myself respectfully, especially around my own daughter."

Ahead, meet the women Aas interviewed and photographed, and learn more about the state of body positivity in Iceland.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Ásdís, 21, student
"The best thing [I've heard about my body] would be one time, when I was not dressed up, not wearing makeup, and had messy hair, a stranger told me I was beautiful. I felt kind of shocked hearing that. I’m used to getting more compliments when I dress up and wear makeup. It might not sound like a lot, but after that, I started feeling more confident about wearing less makeup in public, not hiding every freckle or imperfection from people.

"When I was in elementary school, I hated my pale skin, red hair, and freckles. That wasn't exactly the beauty standard in Iceland. People calling me 'ginger' resulted in me dyeing my hair blonde, but I’ve learned to embrace my natural hair color and have grown it out now. It’s finally all back to the natural color. Today, my hair has become my favorite trait, and I would never dye it again.

"I think women can be very judgmental, both about themselves and others. Me, and most women I think, compare themselves to other women. I try to talk positively about other women and appreciate their beauty. I often find myself nudging my boyfriend and telling him, 'Did you see that woman? She has such beautiful hair, eyes, etc.' I don’t like it when women judge someone’s appearance. I especially hear a lot of women today hating on other women who have had plastic surgery or wear too much makeup.

"You can never really please everyone, so you should just do you and try to be happy without bringing other people down."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Bára, 18, student
"Both the best and worst things people have said about my body are simple compliments; as much as they boosted my confidence, they made me think that maybe my body was the only thing about me worth complimenting. Hearing those comments, while still so young, has affected the way I look at my own body.

"I used to be very judgmental of other people's appearances growing up. I would comment on specific things about women’s bodies that they perhaps had no control over and therefore could not change. Hearing bad things about my own body and knowing how horrible they made me feel made me realize quickly how ignorant I had been. Since then, I've tried not to think badly about a body. It amazes me what the female body can endure. I find it beautiful at every stage in a woman’s life."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Frida, 23, pilot student

"[I've been told I have a] great waist, hot butt, and that I'm sexy. [But] rumors about me being bulimic actually led to me taking anxiety and depression meds.

"I catch myself judging women for their figure, but I know all too well how that feels, so every time I do, I try to think about what's positive about their bodies instead of [what's] negative."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Agusta, 38, yoga teacher and healer
"The best thing that someone has said about my body is that it is strong, tall, statuesque, and flexible.

"The worst thing anyone has said to me is both that I am fat and that I am too skinny. If I have a tummy, they ask if I am pregnant.

"I think and talk about how other women’s bodies fluctuate. Sometimes, I criticize, but other times I am very giving if I see the other woman is hurting because of their weight. Nowadays, I think I seek out the positive and beauty of the person and focus there."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Birna, 36, cosmetologist and student
"The comments [I've received] about my body that stood out to me were: 'You have so many birthmarks — you are like a leopard.'; 'Don't you regret all your tattoos?' (Me: 'No, it is part of my story and my story makes me who I am today.'); 'Wow, those scars; did a shark attack you?' (Me: 'No, it was a car crash, but you should have seen the car.'); 'Unbelievable that you have given birth to four boys. You have such a good-looking body.'

"I think all good people are beautiful; they have something appealing about them. I would never make a bad comment about someone's looks. That is so unnecessary. People must just feel really bad about themselves to make such comments. I love when people are confident with their appearance, even with all their so-called 'flaws.' I like myself more today than when I was young, even though I have more birthmarks, scars, stretch marks, pimples, and wrinkles. I take good care of myself."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Hanna, 33, photographer
"I have been pretty lucky regarding comments about my body. Still, I've somehow soaked in the comments other women make about their own bodies or those around them.

"After I gained weight, I noticed how people got really excited if I talked about going to the gym and so on, but I hope that's because I want to get healthier and not because my figure might change. A few years ago, I started working toward self-love, and I'm getting closer every day.

"I try to think positively about other women. Most of the time, I succeed and, if I don't, I always feel bad afterwards."
Thorbjorg, 18, student
"I would have to say that the worst thing someone has said about my body was, 'You kinda look like a porn star,' when they saw a picture of me in a bikini. I found it very offensive.

"I think that every woman is beautiful in her own way and that's what makes each and every woman perfect."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Anna, 52, counsellor, speaker
"'You would be in such a great shape if you would tone your stomach muscles.' These words, said to me by a coworker 20 years ago, hit me hard. At the time, I was self-conscious about my stomach and remembered myself as a little girl, thinking about myself as fat because of my round face and belly. But, since then, I realized that my self-esteem only relates to how I look in a limited way. It has much more to do with how I think and talk about my body.

"I‘m a swimmer, and one time when I was pulling on my swimsuit, my friend said to me, 'Why are you hiding your body like that? You have a great body.' I was putting on something similar to what a scuba diver would wear, and realized that every year my suits covered more of my body. I bought new swimsuits [after that], and today I'm grateful for my body. I would lie if I said that middle age hasn‘t sometimes made me insecure, but it has also made me laugh out loud because of my vanity.

"I've said things about other women's bodies that I regret. That only reflects my own insecurity and has less to do with them. We come in different shapes and sizes. Let's embrace that! My stomach, flat or not, does not define who I am. When I feel self-confident, I don't judge others and myself as much. I'm feeling so healthy and sexy this summer — that's a good feeling."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Olga Helgadóttir, 28, photographer and office manager
"I have been told that I’m disgusting, a pig with glasses, ugly. I have been told that I need to scratch my face until it bleeds to get rid of pimples, that no man will ever want to be with me because of how ugly I am and how fat I am and because of the size of my ass. I have been told that I am polluting the environment by looking how I look. I have been ashamed of who I am and how I look, but I am really trying to change this by accepting who I am and trying to see something beautiful in myself. I am tired of hating myself and always putting myself down.

"I think the best thing anyone has said to me about my body is when a dear friend told me that she never saw me as 'the fat girl.' She never noticed that I was that big — she just noticed my personality and said that I was beautiful just the way I am.

"Most of the time, I notice other women's beauty or something particular, like their hair if it is really long. But I really try not to talk about others' bodies, especially since I have been having wakeup calls and I want society to change. I wish we would stop focusing so much on looks and focus more on personality."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Ellen, 34, photographer
"I make an effort not to think too much about what other people think or say about me — especially if it is negative. I try to love my body as it ages and I treat scars and stretch marks like souvenirs of what my body has experienced, both good and bad.

"I try not to talk about other women's bodies. We are all shapes and sizes, and that is what makes us special. My mother was a big role model to me and my sister when we were growing up in regards to this. She never talked about how she felt about her body in any negative sense. She never talked about being on a diet or wanting to look any different than she did. We didn't even have a scale at our house."
Photographed by Helga Nina Aas.
Ásgerður, 20, student
"The best things [I've been told are that I have] nice legs, a beautiful body, and nice curves. The worst things [I've been told are that I'm] too masculine, too fat, too short, and bulky.

"I think there are way too many criteria that women need to fulfill in order to be considered beautiful. I myself try to not look and judge women by these standards. Rather, I try to see the differences and uniqueness in each woman and appreciate that."
Aas' work is featured in Body Talk, a photo exhibit presented by Refinery29 on display at this year's Photoville, which runs September 13-24. Body Talk explores the cultural variations of body positivity and the act of claiming space both across the gender spectrum and the globe, captured through the lens of female photographers.

Photoville is the largest annual photo event in New York City built from repurposed shipping containers, combining over 75 exhibitions, nighttime events, workshops and panels in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is free and open to the public.
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