"I grew up feeling insecure about my own body, always comparing myself to the girls I saw in magazines, which weren’t very inclusive during my teenage years. I was also bullied in school because of the way my body looked so I sort of approached this project, in part, as a form of therapy, to overcome the issues I’ve been dealing with. And sure enough, this has proved to be the very way I’ve made deeper connections with the women I photograph."
Twenty-seven-year-old, London-based photographer Jomile Kazlauskaite is talking about the inspiration behind her ongoing photo project, Under Her Skin, an honest and tender series exploring women’s relationships to their bodies. Full of beautifully styled portraits, close-up nudes and handwritten statements, it explores cultural beauty standards around the female body and the effects of societal pressure on our self-image.
Kazlauskaite grew up in Lithuania, a Baltic country she describes as rich with cultural history and a strong sense of community. "When I was born it was only a few years after the country had restored its independence from the Soviet Union, and growing up in a post-Soviet society instilled in me the importance of freedom and its expression, as well as a responsibility towards my community and a respect towards other humans," she says.
We've been given this body to carry us through the highs and lows of life. We may not always love it and that's okay, but we must learn to treat it with respect.
These values naturally trickled through to her photography, which she began in earnest as a teenager, when her dad got her a digital camera. "I instantly became drawn to the way photography allowed me to tell stories through images," she says, "and as I grew older I realised how interested I am in people and what they have to say." Eventually these became the parameters within which she started Under Her Skin. "I wanted to create a safe space for women to share personal stories about their relationships with their bodies and in doing so to make a commentary on body politics and beauty standards in today’s society."
Under Her Skin was Kazlauskaite’s final project while studying for an MA in fashion photography at London College of Fashion – an interesting twist considering her images show what’s behind and beneath the way we present ourselves to the outside world. Explaining how she got there, Kazlauskaite says: "From the very start of the course I was interested in body politics in the fashion industry, and in how the body can become this project which needs constant work in order to maintain the image that was implied to be quintessential by the media. I generally see the body as a core element of fashion culture because without a body, all garments would become useless."
Kazlauskaite began working on this project during the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns and so the first images she took were of herself, exploring her own body. As the world opened up, she started to include other women. "I actually didn’t know the majority of the women you see in this project prior to shooting them," she explains. "Social media was a great way to connect with people who were interested in participating initially and I still use social media to cast for it now, but I also find people via word-of-mouth recommendations from my previous sitters, and friends who know someone who might be interested too."
Kazlauskaite says that shooting the images is always a collaborative endeavour. "We start by talking about our relationships with our bodies and how they make us feel, and everything in each image is a visual clue to each person’s story," she says. "We choose locations that are relevant to the individual, we pick the looks that are the best representation of their personality, we talk about certain body parts that they love or hate and then we concentrate on those for the skin shots."
Using different kinds of images for each photoshoot in Under Her Skin, Kazlauskaite wanted to create a layered story for every participant, offering different ways of looking into their experiences through an eclectic mix of colour, black and white, and Polaroid pictures. Some of the images feature words handwritten by the women, tracing the contours of their own bodies with the thoughts and feelings they raised during their photoshoots.
One of Kazlauskaite’s favourite images from the series is of Justice, who wrote "the first time someone called me fat I was nine" across a close-up of her skin. "Justice actually influenced my approach for the project in many ways," the photographer recalls. "We had such a beautiful and insightful session, where we talked more than we took pictures. We spoke a lot about how other people perceive us and she said: 'The first time someone called me fat I was nine. I wasn’t fat but I was to them. The last time someone called me fat I was 25. I was fat but I didn’t care.' I knew instantly that this is the quote we’d put on the skin shot. It was probably mostly because I related to it myself – I never thought of myself being overweight until I heard it from someone else."
Elsewhere, an image of a young woman named Daniela echoes a similar message. It reads: "'You look like a Whale' – Mom." "That was a common expression Daniela’s mom used to describe her while she was growing up," Kazlauskaite explains. "Being skinny meant being pretty and finding a husband, according to her mom, and so it was truly inspiring to witness her being so confident and fully embracing her body during the shoot, even after growing up with a bully in her own home."
And then there is an image of a mother and baby, skin touching skin as they cuddle. "This is a very special image for me, of my friend and her baby girl," says Kazlauskaite. "I found her postpartum body so beautiful – it’s the body that just gave life to another person, what could be more magical? It was also incredible to witness the slight change in her own perception of her body – she was a bit self-conscious on the day of the shoot but when I sent her the final image, she saw herself through my eyes and now she has this image hanging in her bedroom. It gives me great joy to help women see themselves from the outside, and maybe feel more liberated too."
Under Her Skin is, in the end, a space for women to share their stories, says Kazlauskaite. As long as she keeps meeting people who are willing to share their feelings about self-image and beauty, female power and finding confidence, then she’ll keep shooting pictures. Meanwhile, she hopes the core message of the project continues to shine through. "We’ve been given this body to carry us through the highs and lows of life. We may not always love it and that’s okay, but we must learn to treat it with respect," she concludes, the experiences of all the women she’s photographed echoing through her words.