Phoenix Rising

I have PTSD.

Sometimes it feels like my brain is broken, like shards of glass are poking into my skull.

To say this diagnosis sucks would be an understatement, but I am learning it is mine and mine alone to heal.

I am a survivor of assault and domestic violence, and mine is a story of repeated trauma, something that is common in the survivor trajectory.

If I were to make a timeline of ages when my body and/or soul were violated it would go something like this: 5 years old. 17 years old. 18 years old. 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 years old. 26 years old. 28 years old. 29 years old. 31 years old. 32 years old.

27 years of sustained abuse in total.

 Not all of those years are moments of trauma but each of them represents a re-traumatization of sorts, patterns of abuse that I learned and relearned and normalized over the years whether it is was verbal or physical, psychological or spiritual. Boundaries that were crossed by others, or even me because I did not know my worth. Instead I knew I occupied a body that served as a target of objectification, a soul fragmented beyond recognition.

With each of those years I could make a small cross, marking the site as a grave, a way to honor the loss(es) that occurred. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, writes about this practice of memoriam in her book, Women Who Run with Wolves, empowering each woman to take a look at their lives and offer Descansofor the losses they experienced. She states that every time a boundary is crossed, or a loss is faced, a part of our soul dies a little death. It is with Descanso that we can offer some healing to those parts of our souls that have died yet not been laid to rest, it can ease the ghostly wondering and feelings of deep hopelessness.

It wasn’t until this past summer that I took my own Descanso, laying out my pathway of tiny crosses through the mountains and valleys of my life. What surprised me was how vividly the memories came flooding back- the first time he hit me, the way it felt when I fell to the cold wooden floor, the sound his fist made when it met my jaw, the ringing in my ear for days after. I also remembered the times I called out for help. The medical center at my university that simply told me to apply ice and sent me on my way, never once making a note in my chart that I was being abused by a fellow student. The police department on my campus looking at my arm- black and blue- from where he last attacked me, only to say it wasn’t part of their jurisdiction and that I should file for a protective order with the city. The calls I made to my housing department, begging for a transfer or at least a police officer to patrol more because my ex-boyfriend was repeatedly violating the protective order and stalking me and my young daughter. I remember dropping to the floor when he was outside my apartment, hoping that he couldn’t hear me breathing and muffling my daughter from talking- “let’s play the quiet game,” I would say, trying to make a game out of it knowing all too well that at any moment he could break in and abuse me or worse. The time I ended a toxic relationship and my safety was once again threatened by a man I thought I could trust- how deep that deception ran as he stood over me and said, “I will ruin you.”

Along my Descanso I could build a mausoleum for the time I sustained nine months in 2011/12 of being stalked by my ex, a then Ph.D. candidate in one of the country’s best public intuitions in the world.  At the time I was an undergraduate single parent on welfare nearing the end of my degree. Dropping out would have been the easier option but I felt a dutiful need to do all that I could to pull my life forward for myself and my daughter. So, I chose to commit a form of soul suicide, internalizing the trauma and abuse, relying on over the counter sleep aids to keep the demons at bay, numbing myself in every way I could so I could simply get through. My abuser was my ex and my neighbor, and he had constant access to me; walking to my car to take my daughter to school or going to the grocery store became a warzone for me. Driving home at night, after my full day of classes and work, with my young daughter in the back of my car, was like setting off a bomb inside my head, the carnage of my trauma and re-traumatization was seeing him watch as my car drove by then praying that he would not come to my door, demanding to be let in. I knew my university would not to help me, I was alone in this battle. Every single day for those nine months I lost a part of myself. At the gates of this mausoleum let it read “Fiat Lux” the motto of my university and hang my honor cords from graduation day over the entrance; a golden symbol marking my academic successes- but also a reminder of how those same cords tied me to a life of trauma.

Put the ghosts to rest, let them find a sanctuary from all this wandering.

As my Descanso comes to an end, the years 2017-2018 can be marked as a mass grave in remembrance to the souls lost, with collective stories sharing a similar narrative of abuse and silencing.

Build on these hollowed grounds a monument that reminds us we suffered together, but we also spoke out together, and we did what we could to shed light on the patterns of abuse.

“#MeToo” could be the marker above the names etched into a cold marble wall, with dates of the abuse honoring when each of our souls died a little.

Lay flowers here, let the space be vibrant with growth and joy, let the tired ghosts find refuge from their aimless wandering, spirits sent adrift for years, with unfinished business. Generations of hurt and sorrow and hiding in the shadows. Rejoice for us. Rejoice in us. But never forget the lessons learned, let this Descansoserve as a beacon of light in the darkness, guiding fragmented souls’ home.

By Melissa Barker – Founder, The Phoenix Project

#ProjectBoobs: Interview with Body Positive Artist, Antonio Páramo

Antonio Páramo is a self-described body positive illustrator from Mallorca, Spain living in Cologne, Germany.  Antonio says that many people who know him only from his art assume that he is female, because unlike many male erotic artists his portraits of nude women don’t objectify or sexualize women. 
His portraits of women show scars, stretch marks and strength, capturing the unique beauty of the hundreds of women who request nude portraits from him regularly.Antonio is a clear example of just why Lips does not require our submitters to be a specific sex or gender. The ability to create art that disrupts mainstream perceptions of sex is open to everyone.
In this interview, we’ll share posts from Antonio’s latest series “#projectboobs”  in which he draws the boobs of different people to demonstrate diversity and to fight against the censorship of female nipples and nudity on social media.
Here’s to sexy men making sexy art🥂

What is a topic you are passionate about?

I’m all about body positivity and specially fat acceptance and my work is very related to it. I really think everybody have the right to feel sexy on their own body, and to achieve that we need to stop judging other people’s bodies and start accepting all bodies as valid and beautiful bodies.

Do you think women need an online space for free expression? 

I think safe spaces for women are sadly necessary nowadays. Some people think I’m a woman when they approach me on social media so I have tried a little bit of both sides and it’s undeniable that being a woman on social media is harder. I think women will be limited on the Internet until men learn who to behave and truly respect women.

What is art to you? What is the philosophy behind your art?

For me creating art is more important than Art itself. I just couldn’t live without creating. It sounds like a cliché but it’s true. I always thought my life had no purpose until I started being and artist.

Is art therapeutic for you? 

I like to think that my art is therapeutic both for me and for my followers and clients. I help them feeling better with their own body and learning to love it a bit more, and they help me giving me inspiration to keep creating. I also find it very relaxing and I spend a lot of hours everyday.

Could you share a story about your creative process? 

I used to get inspired by plus size models, now I’m still amazed by them but I’m getting more inspired by just normal people out there. They all have different bodies and that’s so cool. I have drawn hundreds of people and I still haven’t found two that look the same.

What are some under-the-radar female artists you admire?

On instagram: @munrou_, @lachicaimperdible, @kinkykarrot

Do you have a personal story you can share with us about your own sexuality? 

When I was single I met a beautiful woman on Tinder for a one night stand. When we were on the bed she took a Nintendo DS and asked me if I wanted to play. Turns out she was the most amazing Super Mario player I have ever met in my life and we end up playing until dawn.

However you express yourself, we want you to share it with the world. You can submit images or text posts directly to our site via this link or email us at

The O Project: Exploring Female Sexuality Through Art

Why is the exploration of female sexuality important? Well, for starters – it makes up 50% of sexual experiences on the planet. Additionally, honest discussions of female sexuality helps to disrupt mainstream sexualization of women.

According to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association (APA), Sexualization occurs when a “person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making,” Sexualization of girls and women takes place in such moments as when we imbue a child with adult sexuality or we set unattainable definitions of sexiness.

During Lips’ Sex Positive Art Pop-Up Gallery, we were introduced to “The O Project” –  a photography series produced by Smile Makers in collaboration with photographer Marcos Alberti. In the series, over 20 women are photographed before, during, and after self-pleasure while using a vibrator made by Smile Makers. All four frames of each woman were shot from the neck up, leaving everything below the waist hidden from view – even from the photographer.

Projects like these help us to understand the difference between sex-positive and sexualization. In the O Project, women are not sexual objects – they are in charge of their sexuality, demonstrating personality and pleasure.

Smile Makers took some time to chat with us about this project and their work to promote women’s sexual health.

Could you talk a bit about the O Project and Smile Makers?

Smile Makers is on a mission to normalize the perception of female sexuality. We accomplish that in two ways: first, we offer our 100% body-safe vibrators and lubricants exclusively in fashion, beauty & health stores, including Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Goop. Second, we conduct social impact work on a global scale through educational initiatives, charitable donations, and medical partnerships. 

What was the inspiration for this project?

Driven by our mission, we wanted to bring the conversation about female sexuality and pleasure out into the open in a tangible way. At this time, we came across Marcos’ 2016 “3 Glasses” project which normalized drinking in moderation. We were inspired by his similar methodology and goal to destigmatize a behavior that is largely criticized in the public and reached out to him.

After we explained our mission to him, he was more than happy to partner with us, and we’re so glad that he did. The final images he shot are fun and provocative, but also empowering, for both the viewer and the women photographed. Through seeing the final frame of each woman grinning into the camera and after speaking with the women afterwards, we discovered that they felt more confident in their bodies and sexuality after participating. We hoped to get the same positive reception from those viewing the project.

Why does Smile Makers support erotic art as part of it’s educational work?

We believe in the transformative power of art, how it can spark dialogue and incite change. Art, especially of an erotic nature, can depict and inspire new ideas on controversial topics. Through their work, artists can parcel their thoughts in a tangible package that can be easily shared, commented on, and liked.

For instance, “The O Project” was covered by over 300 publications in 40 countries, and this massive reach was caused by pure interest – we didn’t spend a dime on media investment. Seeing as conversations around sex are often fraught with anxiety, we were thrilled to see that our photographs could transcend boundaries and spark dialogue, increase awareness, and educate. 

Who are a few artists you would recommend to our readers? 

We’re particularly smitten with a couple artists who paint in watercolor, including Noomi (@eroticwatercolor) and Tina Maria Elena ( Our interviews with both of them can be found on our blog here and here.

Could you talk a bit about your pleasure workshops and sex education classes you provide to rural communities?

We know that sexual well-being is an essential part of overall health. However, many people around the world don’t have access to correct information on the subject. We thus make it part of our mission to equip those on the frontlines of patient care with the knowledge to best assist underserved communities in sexual health matters.

This involves us travelling to a rural family planning clinic in Malaysia to demystify female pleasure and sexual pleasure products to 60-year-old nurses so that they in turn are more informed to provide marital counselling to patients. We also conduct talks on female sexual pleasure at hospitals and universities, including the International Islamic University Malaysia.

There, we worked with religious authorities to address public concerns on the intersection of faith and sexuality. By being on the ground and partnering with health professionals, we push the needle even further about sexual health. More information about our social impact work can be found at

What are some upcoming projects?

We are underway with a new art project in collaboration with artist Anne-Laure Herrezuelo and Asia’s first sexual wellness festival, SPARK Fest. Without spilling too many details, I can say that the project does involve interviewing a range of men and women about sex, such as how they perceive it and what prior sex education they received. At the same time, we are hoping to bring The O Project to as many gallery exhibitions as we can. Most recently, the photos were on display at the Lips x Future of Sex pop-up in New York.

On the social impact front, we are continuing to conduct our sexual pleasure workshops with one of Malaysia’s largest family planning organizations. In addition, we are forming long-term partnerships with multinational NGOs with the ultimate goal to normalize the perception of female sexuality around the globe.

Lips is a digital platform and community art project that encourages readers to express their sexuality (whatever it may be) openly. Our goal is to start discussions that empower female-identified and marginalize individuals to express themselves and to inspire others to listen.

Authenticity and The Modern Working Woman

Lean In was celebrated by many as the “silver-bullet” to the pressing issue of inequality in the workplace. At the same time, the book was also heavily criticized by scholars for its simplification of gender issues and inability to generate meaningful change.

Until now, those on both sides of the Lean In argument have simply agreed to disagree. However, a new study published in the Harvard Business Review gives scientific weight to the idea that changing women’s behavior does little to remedy gender discrimination.

Changing one’s behavior to please employers and foster success is a cultural norm that goes far beyond Lean In and discussions of gender equality. I argue that authenticity – a concept that is often held separate from our professional lives – is key to breaking down systemic inequality.

When our authentic selves, independent yet intertwined with our political identities, are recognized as valued, we can begin to move away from toxic myths of womanhood, success, and intelligence that limit our own potential, and prevent patriarchal systems from being dismantled, to evolve toward authenticity instead of bias.

The Study

Measuring the societal impact of women changing their behavior to better suit workplace “ideals” can be both difficult and problematic. The HBR study shows progress in this area through creative data collection methods.

Scientists performed an experiment in which women and men at a company were tracked by digital communication and sensor technology throughout their workday to measure “who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.”

Before conducting the experiment, researchers hypothesized that women didn’t have the same access (whether self-imposed or not) to mentors, managers or senior leadership. But, the data proved otherwise.

After this data was collected, anonymized and analyzed, the research team was surprised to find “…almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role.”

And concluded that, “arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean-in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

The Modern Working Woman

When popular texts discuss women’s inclusion in the workplace, they typically refer to a very specific type of woman. The Modern Working Woman is middle to upper class and understands the practices required to succeed in the ‘boy’s club.’ Being too feminine is perceived as weakness and self-expression is bad for business. She remains the standard upon which women are judged by their peers – male and female – thanks much in part to a homogenous cultural definition of a successful woman.

The Modern Working Woman is an ideal, a myth.

Anyone interested in understanding how we create cultural myths in our society should most certainly read Roland Barthes. In his book Mythologies, Barthes writes, “myth is a system of communication…[a myth] is a message.” He continues, “myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.”

As this particular myth was developed and maintained to perpetuate patriarchal culture, messages that at first seem “empowering” are ultimately stripped of progressive potential.

As the above study demonstrates, the idea that women need to work harder or find other access points to power only perpetuates masculine dominance, making it harder for women to advance. Lean In may help women understand how to navigate patriarchal structures – but not how to dismantle them.

Embracing Authenticity

If leaning in isn’t the solution – then what is?

To discuss true inclusion and equality in the workplace, we have to think bigger than leaning in or making the hiring processes more female-friendly. We need to understand that authenticity in the corporate setting – especially when that authenticity is expressive of female-ness, black-ness, trans-ness, or other-ness – is discouraged.

In a 2015 article titled “Authentic Workplaces Don’t Try to Make Everyone the Same,” authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones write: “Does your workplace reflect a relative balance of males and females in leadership positions? A healthy range of diversity regarding age, skin color, religious conviction, culture, or/and sexual orientation? Yes? Before you congratulate yourself on how diverse your workplace is, what if we told you it might not be diverse enough — or at least not in the ways that matter most?”

Goffee and Jones go on to discuss how “true diversity means that people within the workplace are allowed “to be themselves: to have a voice, exercise discretion, express disagreement, show what they really care about, feel ‘natural’ or self-fulfilled on the job.”

To solve the ‘diversity’ problem in tech and all workplaces – we need to be more authentic, not just in our means of self-expression, but also how we discuss root causes of obstacles. Instead of asking women to lean in, we should ask company leaders to allow authentic expression and opinions, as well as be more open to what constitutes “productive” behavior however that manifests in an individual.

Most importantly, we need to encourage and allow authenticity at work not just as a business “best practice,” but as a must-have for societal progress and human happiness.

{Written by Lips CEO, Annie Brown – Originally Published in Conscious Magazine}

Art as a Tool to Fight Racism: Interview with Choreographer Shyamla Eswaran

Shyamla Eswaran is a performer, choreographer, educator, and writer. When she submitted some gorgeous bollywood-inspired photographs expressing female sexuality through dance, we knew right away we had to know more about her. Shyamla specialises in cultural dance (Hip Hop, Bollywood, Classical Indian and Brazilian Samba) having trained and performed each style in its country of origin. She was recently featured on Daily Mail for a viral racist incident, which makes the fact that she works with young people to alleviate intolerance through dance even more powerful.  

Tell us a bit about yourself…
I am a full-time Performing Artist, Choreographer, Educator and Writer with a Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law and a BA in Communications. I specialise in cultural dance (Hip Hop, Bollywood, Semi-Classical Indian and Brazilian Samba), having trained and performed each style in its country of origin. In 2017 I paraded in Rio Carnival with samba school division-winners Império Serrano. I’ve trained with Brazil’s top Choreographers and Samba Queens, practice Classical Indian dance (Kuchipudi) with Shri Raghavan Nair Ji and regularly travel to India to train and to further her cultural knowledge. My workshops and classes promote cross-cultural interactions, diversity and belonging through the arts and through working with children. I regularly tour my range of cultural dance workshops and shows around Australia.
What are some of your current projects…
In May I had the pleasure of performing my choreography along with four other dancers at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Sydney to open the runway show for @camillawithlove “The Long Way Home” Indian-inspired collection. Last month I ran my “Hip Hopping From Bollywood to Brazil” cultural dance workshop at TEDxSydney amidst a crowd of 5000 people (the biggest ever in the event’s history in Sydney). This month I was confirmed as the Bollywood choreographer for this year’s Schools Spectacular, a huge arena show that showcases the talent in NSW public schools including a 2700-strong choir, 2300 diverse dancers, an 80-piece symphony orchestra, a world-class stage band and incredible solo performers. I also recently became a regular contributor to the Arts & Culture section of Desi Australia, Australia’s most popular Indian Magazine, and am currently developing a welfare workshop to deal with racism in schools.
What is a topic you are passionate about?
I am passionate about The Arts and using it as a tool to fight racism. Growing up in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire I was bullied for my Indianness from the age of 4 onwards. I tried to fit in with the white Aussies around me. It never worked. Now, thanks to my work as a cultural educator and Indian/fusion dancer and choreographer, I spend most of my days in a kurta, rocking my ghungroos (Indian ankle bells), jhumkas (Indian earrings), maang tikka (head jewel), big red pottu. I’ve performed Bollywood gigs since I was 20 but only started training Classical Indian Dance (Kuchipudi) last year with my Guru Shri Raghavan Nair Ji. It has changed my life. Through dance I heal from the racial bullying I experienced as I child, I develop pride for my culture and I remember who I am as a person. I am also very passionate about Aboriginal and Indigenous rights, having worked as the Associate Publisher of Australia’s first Aboriginal Rights Magazine “Tracker.”
Do you think women need an online space for free expression? 
Absolutely. One of the most powerful things I have experienced in the last year is connecting with strong, passionate women through Instagram from around the world who are interested in the the same intersecting areas as myself (Indian dance, human rights, working with children, education etc.) On the flip side, as a female performer I struggle to deal with and filter unwanted interactions with men trying to flirt and connect on a non-artistic basis. I make it clear that I am engaged and use social media as a self-employed artist to promote my work but it doesn’t stop the requests, “waves,” random “hi’s” and subsequent abuse when some men don’t get the response or attention they want. I think it’s a massive problem so have taken it upon myself to repost these interactions in the hopes it will make them think twice about doing it again. I also try to explain to them why what they are doing and expecting is not appropriate in as logical and kind a manner as I can. Every interaction is an opportunity to educate.
What is art to you? What is the philosophy behind your art?
For me art is about expression and connection, both with myself and others. I aim to promote cross-cultural interactions, diversity and cross-cultural appreciation to try and open eyes and hearts. Changing someone’s mind can take a very, very long time (if at all) – but through the arts we can reach people’s hearts and that’s where true, lasting, positive change begins. After years of working in human rights, I realised one of the best ways to effect social change is through the arts and working with children and kids learn best when they are having fun and given the freedom to create.
When did you start dancing? 
My dancing life began when I was 4 years old. My mum thought it would help with my coordination and focus as I was a clumsy and hyperactive child. Dance classes were the only place I felt appreciated amongst my peers for being myself. Because of the racial bullying (being the only Indian in my school at the time) I never felt like I belonged. Through dance classes, I grew more confident and developed a skill that, to this day, allows me to feel good about myself. But I still run into door frames (often!)
Could you discuss the incident of racism we mentioned above and the work you are doing to fight racism through hip hop classes for youths?
I was told “go back to where you came from” by three teenagers as I sat in my parked car curating a playlist for my Hip Hop Flashmob workshop in Bathurst, NSW. It’s classic Aussie racism. On the plus side, their suggestion to “F@#$ off and go eat a curry” helped me decide what to have for dinner! People were shocked and appalled but it’s nothing new to me. Last year a 3 year old boy said it during my show! By the end he was dancing the hardest and smiling the most and it was a perfect opportunity to educate those with no exposure to Indian culture, encouraging them to embrace and appreciate difference before they start school, but so much more needs to be done when they receive toxic messages like that at home. My dance workshops encourage participants to express/explore their own cultural and personal stories through movement and dance while allowing them to learn about and appreciate other cultures. I teach that behind the joyful appearance of cultural dance (Brazilian Samba, Hip Hop and Bollywood) are stories about day-to-day life, struggle, resistance and triumph. They are: “Hip Hopping from Bollywood to Brazil”, “Dance Through India” and “Hip Hop Flashmob”. Beyond introducing children to Indian culture, my preschool shows “Bollykids” and “The Bollydance Express!” are about promoting multiculturalism, diversity and belonging. They are fully immersive shows that bring the sights, smells and sounds of India to preschool students and promote cultural diversity as something to be appreciated and celebrated, as opposed to merely tolerated.
Is dance therapeutic for you? How so? 
Absofuckinglutely! Dance is life. It is my release, my place for self-exploration and expression, my way to give thanks for the gift of my body and the only place where I can truly lose myself for hours and hours on end. If I don’t dance I get depressed. I know because I stopped at one point to focus on my studies and it was the most down I had ever been. It is where I turn to release AND replenish physically, emotionally and spiritually.
What are some under-the-radar female artists you admire?

So, so many…where to begin?! See my “Queens” Insta story highlight for longer list but as far as the lesser-known ones go: @amritha.shakti (Singer/Songwriter), @poojakannan90 (Dancer), @probablyjustart (Painter), @hibakhanart (Visual Artist), @reena.paints (Painter) @sudarsnak (Tamil-American ballet dancer), @poornima_23 (Dancer, Creative Director & Stylist).

You can follow Shyamla on Instagram @shyamladance

However you express yourself, we want you to share it with the world. You can submit images or text posts directly to our site via this link or email us at