She Flies with Her Own Wings

Bonnie came to the studio for one of my "Satin Sheets Mini Sessions." I wanted to write about her because, to me, Bonnie is a person who radiates inspiration. It's not the tattoos, it's something deeper. It's something about her relationship with life.

In 2010, Bonnie got a sudden and unexpected diagnosis of cancer. Since then she's undergone multiple surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. She didn't know if she would survive. After surgeries and chemo, the cancer is under control but due to some remaining malignant tissue that is inoperable, Bonnie will be getting chemo treatments every two weeks for the rest of her life. "I never know how it's going to affect me. Sometimes I bounce right back and sometimes I can't move for days afterwards." In addition to hair loss, the chemo therapy caused weight gain and varying degrees of sickness and fatigue and she eventually lost her job.

Bonnie told me that when she was in the hospital at the beginning of this ordeal, she was concerned about concealing her only tattoo from her mother. Today she's got so many that unless she's in full ski attire, they really can't be concealed. What I wanted to know is: what changed? What made her go from worrying what her mother would think to not worrying what anyone would think. In the aftermath of her illness and her recovery, she said she decided not to wait to enjoy life. She wanted tattoos so she got them. Simple. Each one represents an important part of her journey. The koi fish that changes into a dragon, the x-ray of the rose, the bird, the paw print, the ambigram memorial tattoo for her dad, words like "faith", "believe", "live", it's all part of her story. "My body is a story," she said while she was explaining them all to me.

Today, she said she is much more mindful of what she puts in her body, eating only lean meats like chicken and fish. She credits Herbalife and exercise with maintaining her energy and luminosity with keeping her mind sharp.

She told me about a Facebook post she read that asked if a smart woman was preferable to a sexy woman. "Why not both?!", she said, "I'm a smart woman. I'm also sexy. You don't have to be one or the other. I'm both. We're all beautiful and we shouldn't hide it."


In my profession and, let's face it, as a woman raised in America, I feel like I'm always hiding something. I am steeped in insecurity and body shame. I work with and photograph women who are unhappy with their bodies. They have parts they want to cover and "flaws" they want me to Photoshop out of their pictures. Many women tell me they want to book a photo shoot but they want to wait until something about their body is different. Usually, they want to lose weight first. It's frustrating for me, but I can totally relate. I always feel like I should wait. I don't want to buy new clothes until I'm a few sizes smaller and if I'm honest, I feel like I have to wait to value myself too. I feel like I have to wait to love myself or do something good for myself. I have to wait until I'm smaller, or until I've paid off my credit cards, or until I've gotten the roof fixed. What Bonnie says is "Don't wait to enjoy life." The henna-like tattoo on her right hand represents celebration and she believes in celebrating life. Now.

A theme that I heard throughout Bonnie's story was acceptance. She talked a lot about self-care and self-acceptance, but also about acceptance of life on life's terms. At the time of Bonnie's shoot, the anniversary of her father's death was approaching. She said she had accepted that she was just going to be sad about it. I thought about my own life and all the things that aren't the way I want them. I tried to think about what it would be like to accept those things. My roof leaks. I'll get it fixed, but right now it's going to leak. I weigh more than I used to. In time, I could lose 20 pounds. But right now, I just need bigger pants. I can enjoy my life and love myself and I can do that right now.

There is something special about this woman. She's not just an inspiration because she's a cancer survivor, she's a complex human being with a greater story than that. Being with her for an hour and listening to her talk about her life was illuminating. Something powerful radiates from within her. After spending time with Bonnie, I had a heightened sense of clarity, self-confidence, and a deep feeling of appreciation for my body as it carried me through my day.

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© 2021 Rachael Fern Photography, LLC
Winston-Salem, North Carolina