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Women’s Body Image and Mental Health


In March 2020 Theresa Lola, Young People’s Laureate for London (run by London’s literature development agency Spread the Word) began a residency at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, running a series of poetry workshops focussing on the exhibition The Four Ages of Woman. The first session took place at the museum, and the subsequent lockdown meant that the final two sessions took place online, in April. Poems written in each of the three workshops will be published in weekly blog posts.

In the initial workshop based at the museum, the seven participants focused on women’s body image and mental health, and began by looking at Elise Pacquette's Eating the Heart Out and Protecting the Heart, on display side by side in The Four Ages of Woman exhibition. Participants were encouraged to write a poem in response to these works, whilst closely considering the use of imagery in both the artworks.

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Eating the Heart Out

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Protecting the Heart

Eat Your Heart Out - Shaniqua Benjamin

The heart tastes like fresh burnt charcoal from a BBQ pit,

Sending the body haywire

Attempting to digest whether it is to soothe or endanger

As smoke rises from a shadow zone slowly edging closer

To gobble up traces of muscle.

The heart smells like excessive charred petrol,

Fumes rushing in on what was once fresh and pure

Exhaled slower than it was invasively inhaled

Giving self-love a chance to breathe.

(A line from the exercise based on the work of Elise Pacquette, describing the taste of the heart) - Elspeth Wilson

It is only ever lying on one side of your bed at night although you don’t know what you’re waiting for.

The participants then studied the poem The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, (watch here), as well as The News Reported She Wore Her Body To The Event by Amy Key (view here). Alongside these poems, the group looked at Make Me Beautiful by Lisa Biles, on loan to The Four Ages of Woman exhibition. In this piece, the artist has subverted the influence of the media by (in her own words) ’physically destroying the 'ideal' through cutting and tearing images from different media types. Only to piece back and recreate other images that tell a different story of 'me' having power and in control. A position where I control the media.’

Lisa Biles Beautiful

Make Me Beautiful

In response to the poems, and Biles’ mixed media artwork, participants created visual collage poems, combining writing with headlines from popular women’s magazines.

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Theresa Lola biographical notes:

Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian poet and facilitator, and is the current Young People’s Laureate for London.

She is an alumni of the Barbican Young Poets programme, and was joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. In April 2018 she was commissioned by the Mayor of London's Office to write a poem for the unveiling of Millicent Fawcett's statue in Parliament Square, which she read at the ceremony.

She has facilitated poetry workshops at St Mary's University, as well as primary and secondary schools. Her debut poetry collection In Search of Equilibrium (Nine Arches Press, Feb 2019) is described as ‘a glorious hymn to being alive and wounded’.

Young Peoples Laureate for London programme:

Launched in 2016, Spread the Word’s Young People’s Laureate for London programme aims to give London’s young people a voice through poetry. The Laureate is an advocate for young people in the capital. The role sets out to:

Raise the visibility of poetry in the capital, nationally and internationally

Engage and inspire London’s young people with poetry

Support the development of London’s talented young poets

The current Young People’s Laureate programme for 2020 is supported by Arts Council England.