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.

Stoning in Syria

PerfectStonefigFive72Possibly lost in the tragic news of the summer was story of two women stoned to death in two days by ISIS in Syria. Working on my series, The Perfect Stone, a few years ago 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 question of what would be necessary to cary 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?

I hope the video below, and the visual essay, can serve as a proper memorial to women targeted for honor killings in the 21st century.

 

The Invisible Woman

Black PearlsHave you seen Ralph Fiennes’ powerful new film The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens and his lover Ellen “Nelly” Ternan? Based on real life events, the film is beautifully acted by Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristen Scott Thomas, and others including Joanna Scalan as Catherine Dicken’s (Mrs. Charles Dickens). The film can be seen as a powerful meditation on the role of women in Victorian society. Without giving too much away, it is worth thinking about who exactly is “The Invisible Woman” in the story. The art direction and cinematography reminded me of Black Pearls, a drawing I did years ago based on an 1862 century photograph by the French photographer Onésipe Aguado titled “Woman Seen From the Back.” The drawing is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I first saw it in the wonderful photography show The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century: Selections from the Gilman Paper Company CollectionThe links above take you to interesting commentary on the image from the Met’s site as well as a link to the show’s catalogue. Onesipe-aguado-woman-seen-from-back

A few thoughts on a cold day

From the series Kindling:

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.

“By this accident of birth, my children  thrive while others go hungry.  How can this be? It's not right.”  Sonia

“By this accident of birth, my children thrive while others go hungry. How can this be? It’s not right.” Sonia

Video Preview: Extreme Beauty

This video is a preview for the series Extreme Beauty which contrasts socially accepted standards of beauty with the extreme measures undertaken to achieve them.

Artist Statement: “If tiny feet suddenly became fashionable, would American women subject themselves to foot-binding?” This was the question posed in an article of the Los Angeles Times, denouncing breast implants, with the headline “Draw the Line at the Knife”. Standards of beauty are continuously changing, but what is the often grotesque reality behind the extreme measures taken to reshape women’s bodies? 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. 

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.