Art in Our Own Image: Where MY Girls At?

So I was hanging with my girl, doing our coffee and fashion mag hang out day.  I peeped Marie Claire UK’s article Mothers and Daughters Get Naked from the April 2012 issue.  The piece is aimed at examining body image from different generational perspectives, and each mom (or mum, as they say in the UK) and daughter reflect on their confidence, shame, regrets, or goals regarding health, weight, aging, and self-image.  The images accompanying the piece were soft, artistic, ethereal, and featured mothers and daughter posing naked.  That’s right, they bared it all.  Sporting various gaits, sizes, and silhouettes, the duos showcased their figures proudly and unapologetically.  While one side of me is encouraged at the freedom these women felt to take it off, and feel empowered in their bodies, my wheels got to turning on whether women of color, particularly Black women, will ever be showcased and celebrated for their femininity and beauty in such a way.  In the current media climate, Black women are depicted on polar opposites of the continuum: we are sexless nurturers (mammy) or lascivious sluts (jezebels).  They are one dimensional caricatures, reminiscent of the sexual terrorism of slave days.  I often explain to my students that the roots of these stereotypes sprang from propaganda justifying slavery and the violent, rampant colonialism that interpreted the nudity of native Africans as promiscuity and asserted that slave women liked to be raped; that their sexual appetites demanded it.

Our bodies are art too.  Just as they are.  Mainstream only deems our bodies as art if we are in an Alvin Ailey production, or have made the cut to grace a runway. There is a blatant aversion to the black body.  If not reduced to sex objects or gratuitous comic relief, society runs from authentic black form like a cockroach when the lights come on.  The lips, the nose, the hair; the broader builds and unique carriages that don’t demand, but simply are a presence.  Yes, we are more than the filtered expression of white America’s standard of beauty.  However, you wouldn’t know that tuning into prime time TV, stopping by a news stand, or grabbing a movie at your nearest theater.  The expansiveness of hips and fullness of bellies, the ample and seasoned line of large breasts, hair too coarse to tame, or too short to fasten.  Hell, that is art.

I mean, when Erykah dropped this video, people went ballistic.  While one could only speculate her motivations, inspirations, and intentions, I have to wonder if Madonna, Jewel, Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, or Pink would meet such immediate criticism and dismissal if they released a similar video. Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore and Jessica Simpson were lauded for their magazine covers featuring their nude pregnant bodies.  Would this welcome reception, or even the invitation for the shoot be afforded, to Nia Long, Amber Riley, Toccara Jones, or Sara Ramirez?

Art is the beauty of the human form. It is the myriad of depictions of the essence of the human experience. If this is true, and art imitates life….when will I see the lives of all sisters framed in gold, featured in an editorial, or covered in a fine arts survey course? Here’s a little collection that stimulates my artistic side while honoring the art of woman in all of her shades, forms, and flavors:

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Please weigh in with your thoughts and comments.

QUESTION: Do you feel reflected in art and/or media?  Which artists, magazines, writers do you look to for inclusive and honest depictions of women?

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4 thoughts on “Art in Our Own Image: Where MY Girls At?

  1. Amira says:

    It’s interesting, because I’ve always looked to Black feminism to teach me about body positivity, about embracing ourselves (women) as complex, multi-dimensional people who are all caught up in the same struggle, though in different ways.

    It seems like there is a blessing and a curse to be found in existing on the margins of the mainstream, media-driven dominant culture– the blessing being that the patriarchy (or whatever the heck we’re calling it these days), has a harder time finding us out here. When we exist outside the norm, either as people of color, or queers, or immigrants, etc., we often have more freedom to decide who we are, how we express ourselves, and how we relate to each other. We can be a little more protected in our own communities, defining our own standards of beauty, ignoring and sometimes outright defying the roles the mainstream would like for us to play.

    Being on the margins is often alienating, as we don’t have access to the automatic goodwill of others, and we’re engaged in a constant struggle to be seen as legitimate in a society that would rather label us otherwise. But, there is power over here on the margins, for those of us who are learning how to embrace it.

    What is hard to wrap my mind around now, is how traditionally marginalized communities, in seeking our cultural and legal legitimacy, are now being targeted (and infiltrated) by the same media bullshit that has the mainstream folks walking in blind lock-step to the corporate agenda. It seems that as we are forcing the doors to open that have been historically closed to us, we also open ourselves up to elements of cultural brainwashing to which we were, in many ways, previously immune.

    My solution is to learn from my elders, to know my history, to be aware of my privilege, and to think critically about my own self-criticism. I am becoming a master at disputing my negative thoughts, especially when it comes to how I see myself, and I am trying (really, really hard) to be less critical of others who are finding their own ways of negotiating and reconciling their own complex identities. Everything that exists inside my own skin belongs to me. I am responsible only for the things that happen within this 5 foot, 3 inch container. If I’m doing the best that I can with what I have to work with, maybe I can let some of the other stuff go.

    • Thank you for your insights. Yes, internalizing the “bullshit” wreaks havoc on our communities, and sets a cycle of self-hatred in place that gets passed down to the next generation. I applaud and give you mad props for checking yourself on the temptation to be critical of self and others. We are all stumbling through the muck and pain of this as best we can. We have to push ourselves to afford kindness to ourselves, but especially to those trying desperately to find a sense of belonging here in Margin Land. Your comments are so very much appreciated…this is exactly the sort of dialogue for which I yearn. Thanks again!

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