Keira Knightley and the Power of an Image

Last week British actress Keira Knightly took a powerful stand against the manipulation of women’s bodies when she agreed to pose topless for Interview Magazine. Boston Globe Health writer Deborah Kotz explains, “Knightley chose to flaunt her underendowed, uneven breasts to make a point: Using Photoshop to edit celebrity bodies perpetuates the myth that beauty equals perfection….She wants the world to see that she’s not perfect, and maybe women will feel a little better about their own imperfections.”

In my own work, I’ve explored the often grotesque measures taken to reshape women’s bodies. Compared to footbinding or corseting, what’s the problem with a little digital manipulation? Kotz explains:

“The American Medical Association has taken a stand against digital body editing in ads since “such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents,” the organization states on its website….

….A 2012 British study found that women who viewed images of thin, rich women in magazines and ads were more likely to develop a negative perception about their own body. Another study published last year in the journal Body Image found that putting disclaimers on ads that featured Photoshopped models by stating that they were “digitally enhanced” didn’t prevent women from experiencing more dissatisfaction with their bodies after viewing them compared to a group who saw the photos without any disclaimer. On the other hand, a control group who viewed car ads, instead of models, experienced no negative impact on their body image during the study.”

Standards of beauty are continuously changing, but what is the often grotesque reality behind the extreme measures taken to reshape women’s bodies? A few years ago I began to investigate these notions by exploring various bodyshaping practices beginning with ancient Chinese foot binding. The vision of a teetering, helpless young bride was considered erotic, and a family prosperous enough to support a young woman made—by design—unsuitable for any kind of physical labor, gained status within the community. However, the reality of these treasured “golden lilies”, were deformed, painful feet, often malodorous due to rotting flesh and infection. Corseting began at a very early age in Victorian England and North America of the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme tight lacing had an understandably negative effect on the developing body of young girls, effecting not only outward appearance, but the growth and position of internal organs. The vision of the delicate swooning young woman at this time was considered ideal, but how robust and active could an individual be with a compressed rib cage, gasping for breath? A loosely corseted woman, by contrast, was judged not only to be imperiling her health but to be of loose moral fiber as well. Today, there is no longer a need for girls to be excessively corseted, when they are willing to carve out their own bodies through surgery or self-imposed starvation. The rise in incidence of anorexia, has  made clear how much young girls today have internalized societal ideals of beauty, just as foot binding and corseting of young girls and women were signs of past repression through the idealization of the female form.

One way young women measure standards of beauty is by taking in the images they see in the media. What might seem like a small gesture, such as Kiera Knightly’s simple request to be photographed as she is without allowing those images manipulated, makes a difference.

How do you heal the aftermath of sexual violence?

"I never think of myself as being in danger, I have never been assaulted while getting food, I can't even think of any situation where I was frightened for the safety of my kids." Sara

“I never think of myself as being in danger, I have never been assaulted while getting food, I can’t even think of any situation where I was frightened for the safety of my kids.” Sara

How does someone heal from sexual violence? A recent article from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/health/therapy-for-rape-victims-shows-promise.html?emc=eta1&_r=0 highlights a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine exploring effectiveness of a new treatment for victims of rape in Congo. The article notes:

Hundreds of thousands of Congolese females, from toddlers to grandmothers — possibly as many as two million, according to one study — have been raped by rebel fighters or government troops. Notoriously brutal attacks have included gang rapes and penetration with guns, knives and other objects that have torn apart women’s reproductive systems and intestines, sometimes beyond repair.

As a daughter, a mother, and a woman, these stories are sadly too familiar. And, at the same time, where I live and work, I am relatively safe. It is this dual connection that I was exploring in the series https://smithgarcesart.com/kindling/.

How different are the concerns of mothers the world over? How different are the needs of families—in cities, villages, refugee camps? Children need care. They must be tended to—fed, clothed, sheltered. These essential truths do not change no matter where you live, or what condition you find yourself in. These are the thoughts which occupied my mind as I took a group of local mothers to collect firewood in the town in which I live, and interviewed them to find out what the essential needs of their families are, and how these needs are met.

Traditionally home is the center of the family, the hearth is the heart of the home, a place where families come together for comfort and warmth. The kindling in these drawings echo this ancient ideal of comfort and security, just as the fragile and unsteady piles of wood echo the vulnerable position of women struggling to sustain their families in the most severe conditions imaginable. These drawings of kindling gathered by individual local mothers, and accompanied by their own quotes obtained in interviews, reveal how universal are the needs of families, just as it made clear how precarious and out of reach these most basic of needs are for hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers, and their children, world wide.

 

Selections

Below are selections from various series that I have developed over the past few years. Use the site navigation to explore the work in depth.

Veiled Identity

A few years ago while on vacation in Europe, I went to dinner with my husband, walking hand-in-hand on a lovely winding street. The shop keepers we passed on the street were friendly and smiled as we passed. I felt happy and light hearted as we headed to our much anticipated meal. Our spirits were not dampened on our return walk after dinner, despite the rain that had started to fall. I felt proud of my own ingenuity at adapting to the change in weather by tying a scarf on my head. Something had changed though: the shop keepers did not smile at me this time, their smiles were replaced with something else—scowls, angry stares, and flat expressions. One man looked from my face, to the scarf on my head. He took a step toward me, but then seemed to hang back uncertainly when he saw my husband walking briskly beside me. I was relieved when we made it back to the hotel without incident, and I removed the scarf from my head. The scarf in my hand was nothing more than a piece of fabric, and yet it made all the difference in the world to people who knew nothing of me, except that my head was covered.

I am a professional artist, a visual essayist working on editorial images focusing on the effects of social constraints, physical abuse, social injustice, and intolerance on women of varying cultures. Veiled Identity is an art project which seeks to understand what is behind the banning of the headscarf. The news in recent years is full of stories concerning debates throughout Europe about the criminalization of the headscarf. To some, the headscarves are symbol of repression, and banning it’s use is seen as liberating to the wearer. To others, the headscarf is a proud symbol of Muslim identity, and attempts to ban it’s use are rooted in racism. Lost in the debate are the voices of Muslim women, who are seldom asked what wearing the veil, or deciding against wearing the veil, means to them. Is forcing women in a democracy to remove headscarves liberation, or oppression?

I am looking for a number of Muslim women who would be willing to take part in my latest art project, by answering a few questions about issues related to identity and belonging. If participants choose, I am also looking for headscarves to photograph as models for  still lifes. All scarves will be returned upon completion of the drawings. Scarves which you may wish to donate will be exhibited with the drawings at a later date. Questionnaires should only take a few minutes to fill out, and will remain anonymous.

If you would like to participate in an art project that seeks to illuminate and understand these debated over identity, please feel free to contact me at ssgdesign@earthlink.net.

The Perfect Stone

This visual essay and collection of stones was first inspired by an interview I read regarding the then recent conviction of a young mother who was accused of adultery, and sentenced to death by stoning. The subject of the interview was the public official who was put in charge of carrying out the execution. In reading the interview I was struck not only by the horror of the penalty—what does it mean that in the 21st century there are still women being stoned to death—but by the thoughtful way in which this official ruminated on the correct way to carry out the sentence: a pit would need to be dug, many volunteers would be needed to throw stones, and the right size stones would need to be decided on. This last item,  though chilling, made me think—what is the perfect stone for killing a woman?

There are few outdoor places where stones are not plentiful, even in the town where I live, so I began looking for the perfect stone. What would it look like? What shape would it be? How large? Little things we take for granted take on new meaning when studied up close. Stones are natural and varied, they are often quite beautiful. They have no malice on their own. When drawing them they began to appear as fragile and helpless as the young girl whose recent death by stoning is described from an eye witness account below each image.

In the end of the interview, the public official drew his own conclusion of what the perfect stone would be as he held up his own closed hand  “about the size of a man’s fist”.