I have always felt uncomfortable in my body. As a child, I remember people commenting on my ‘chicken legs’ and ‘little pot belly.’ These comments followed me through school and into my young adult life. I am embarrassed to admit that I have on many occasions wished, above all else, to have a flat stomach. The cosmetic rituals I chose to explore were decided upon purposefully. I was fifteen years old when my friends told me that my boyfriend would expect my vagina to be ‘clean’: free of hair. And so, for many years, I dutifully waxed my vagina, despite the discomfort, the first-degree burns and bruising I experienced from different waxes. For years I was convinced I looked my best with fake tan smeared across my body, ashamed of my white legs. Over time many friends and colleagues have discussed with me certain cosmetic rituals – body-correcting practices – that they underwent for the same reasons I had, and I began to develop this research as a way to express comradery with these women.
Affective-analytical results of research in SKINNYFAT (2016) and SPANK (2016)
My visual works Skinnyfat (2016) and SPANK (2016) deploy Photoshop’s ‘airbrushing’ and ‘liquefying’ tools. I have transformed my body into the image of the ‘Glossy Magazine Girl’ – and I have stared that image in the face. These editing strategies, by which the photographic apparatus attempts to control the definition of ‘woman’, are resisted by foregrounding their artificiality. The power of the apparatus relies on the ‘naturalisation’ effect of these editing tools. To reveal the labour of editing is to undermine the naturalness of the edited image. Once again, such a method of practice-based and ‘carnal’ research generated results that a traditional ‘disincarnate’ feminist critique could not: it offered up to analysis the affective-emotional complex evoked by the contrast of the ‘fat’ and ‘skinny’ me, the effects of shame and embarrassment at seeing my body ‘fail’ to meet the norms of female gender embodiment. But it also highlighted the farcical comedy of this failure, and so alleviated my position of disempowerment.
Throughout my undergraduate and post-graduate studies, I have read feminist literature that discusses the ever-shrinking female body. I understand how damaging and unrealistic the Glossy Magazine Girl is for women and the expectation of our bodies. Despite this knowledge, and my own desire to fight this expectation with my work, I found after 100 hours of editing (for my collection of work Womanhours) my size 14 body down to an advertising-approved size 6 that my relationship with my body changed. That alleviation of disempowerment I mentioned earlier did not last long. After the completion of my Masters, and finally the Womanhours exhibition, negative behaviours around food began to develop. I spent hours in the gym, berating myself for not working harder. I was stuck in a cycle of shame, loathing myself for the failure of my body, and feeling guilt after eating. Eventually this led to more destructive behaviour around food. Behaviour I still feel unable to discuss. The irony of my research's intention and my current state was not lost on me. After twelve months, I sought help at a clinic that specialises in eating disorders. I have been diagnosed with EDNOS, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified33. My body and food behaviour do not sit within the current popular view of an ‘eating disorder’: I do not have a body type obviously suffering the effects of an eating disorder (I am not dangerously thin), nor do I binge eat. As a result, I have been met with doubt when I have confided in others on this matter and I continue to feel awkward discussing the help I am receiving. My body continues to fail against many norms, it seems. I am not just failing the norm of the perfect ‘healthy’ body and behaviours, but the norms of the diagnostic criteria of ‘unhealthy’ bodies and behaviours as well.
This brings me back to my main point. I have been given every opportunity to have the knowledge and power to resist the negative effects of representation of gender in the media. But I remain vulnerable. My methodology of carnal sociology and self-portraiture gave me the experience to explore the vulnerability and realities of how negative the effect of the pressure to be the perfect Glossy Magazine Girl. Today this image is not just found in fashion magazines, television or print media but is saturated across the Internet and all interactive social media platforms. Everyday new versions of this perfected image surround me. They surround women’s everyday life.
For my Masters of Research completion exhibition, I exhibited all of the videos included in this paper, as well as the photography and lastly my SPANK billboard. The billboard was created to be life size at 4 x 2 metres. In the centre of the gallery there stood my natural figure in-between the two advertising-normative versions of myself. My mother arrived early, before all of the guests, to view my work without interruption. As we looked at SPANK, she said ‘Very good honey, but you do look so much nicer as the version on the left.’ She is not a villain in this instance, but a product of her upbringing. Her own mother thought it was imperative she complete a deportment course at sixteen. I have read her notes from this time and the course did not encourage a healthy approach to body image or food for a teenage woman. I explored self-portraiture and carnal sociology because I felt weary with the discomfort I felt for my body, and was resentful that I felt so much shame. I decided, somewhat naïvely, to channel these feelings into my artwork. My intention was to use my own body to be fierce and push back against the male gaze, and the lens of gendered advertising. I was aware of the firm grip gendered advertising had on my perception of my body. Carnal sociology gave me the opportunity to immerse myself into the research as a full participant. I was not able to avoid the emotional and affective responses of the research. And although I continue to feel uncomfortable, this ‘body knowledge’ has made me more determined to reject any more shame.