….and anything I do, for that matter, unless I explicitly sexualise it myself, first.
Ok, so I’m going to start by saying it’s unlike me to write a strong opinion piece. I’m not a fan of inflammatory content, from myself or from others, but this one I feel is important to my work and the message I am conveying and to a social problem more collectively.
This problem has been growing slowly, gnawingly, for a while now. As a woman who paints exclusively “pretty” women and who shares educational resources (or, more crudely, who shares photos of herself in her underwear), I receive a lot of comments that make me uncomfortable. Aimed at both me and at the subjects of my paintings, these comments often completely blow past the intention of the work and onto praising or criticising their sexual appeal.
I’ve endured this silently, even thanked people for this unwanted attention, as the same insidious social norms are at play that shame a woman for wearing nice clothes when a man she doesn’t know harasses her. Rather than it being the problem of the person objectifying her and projecting their own problematic and invasive views, it becomes the problem of the way she expresses herself. The responsibility is placed on her to change the way she behaves if she wants to avoid undesired attention.
When people have commented on the sexuality in my work, I have felt great shame. In both my artwork and my reference photos it is very rarely my intention to create sexual content, and when someone comments on them in a way that draws attention towards the sexuality they are seeing, I have felt I did something wrong for creating it. I have felt like I have to make a choice between making content that I want to create (but receiving attention I do not want), or receiving the sort of attention I yearn for (but not creating work that is true to me).
It was not until recently that I realised how external that problem is.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to have this painting shared by a large account on Instagram. This was doubly exciting for me, as it happens to be my favourite painting I’ve ever done. It was the most authentically-me piece of art of I have ever created, and I love that so many of my viewers can see themselves in it. That’s exactly what I want my art to do. I want my art to take those little, goofy, less-than-perfect moments and show how beautiful they are. I want people to see those less-than-glamourous moments being depicted as glamourous. I want people to feel good about being the way they are.
And then, buried among the kind and wonderful comments and the tagging of friends who related to it, I saw this exchange:
I’m no stranger to criticism, as is no artist who has been sharing their work for any number of years, but honestly it never stops hurting. Aside from the usual “ugh, I need to get better at anatomy” feeling, and from the additional heartache at the broken back comments (I used myself as reference for this piece and have a disfigured back from scoliosis that I am very self-conscious of) there was that familiar, previously described feeling of shame once again rising.
I felt ashamed for having depicting the character that way. Even though I took the photo myself, modelled for it myself, painted it myself and designed the character myself, I felt like I had done something wrong in making something that could be sexualised by others. Even if it was true to the original image, even if her body was not the focus of the painting, even though it never crossed my mind that this messy and playful and candid moment could be interpreted as sexual, I felt ashamed.
I simmered on that for a while. I’ve been a life-long people-pleaser and it’s only been in this past year that I have come to recognise that behaviour and grow from it. And, because of that, I finally became aware of how this issue was entirely external.
It wasn’t that I had painted something overtly sexual. It was that these people were projecting their own flawed and invasive opinions of sexuality upon my painting.
It wasn’t that my (admittedly glamourised) painting of a woman having fun and feeling confident and pretty was inappropriate. It was that these people were confusing my opinion of beauty with with their opinion of sexual-appeal. They were entirely missing the point of the painting and becoming enraged by their own projection of misplaced sexual energy. And I find it highly ironic that these people, who likely feel they are defending women with these comments, do not realise that they are sexualising the depiction of a woman being entirely herself in the safety of her own home away from any eyes that might sexualise her, all while shaming a female artist for the way she chose to express herself.
The Broader Problem
This whole issue stems back to the fact that, as a society, we really struggle to untaggle beauty from sexuality. We cannot seem to fathom that someone could want to be beautiful but not attract sexual attention. We cannot see past the ways in which that beauty is consumed by others and to the fact that, primarily, that beauty stems from confidence that is entirely one’s own. And we REALLY need to stop deciding on other peoples’ behalf what is and isn’t sexual.
If the viewer looks at this piece and sees sexual energy, that’s ok. We can’t control what people find inherently sexual. But we certainly can stop sexualising that on other people’s behalf. We can let people express themselves as they so choose and understand that just because we find something or someone else sexual, it is not our right to label it as such. Their sexuality is not ours to claim and throw around and point out to others. Our sexuality should always belong to us (and, in the case of my artwork, that belongs to me as the artist).
The Message Behind My Art
It’s important to me that people understand what my art is about. I don’t paint beautiful women because I want to sexualise them (I happen to be bisexual and demisexual and thus do not personally conflate a woman’s beauty with her sexuality). I paint beautiful women because I want people who view my work to see themselves in my work and feel good about it.
I’ve never felt any personal connection with the beautiful, passive, emotionless, perfect women who dominate our media. I yearn to see more messy, playful, wonky women being shown to be beautiful. I want people to be able to relate to such media without also having to feel that they aren’t beautiful for doing so. I want my art to begin closing the gap between what is seen as real and what is seen as beautiful. I want to take “average” and “real” and make them feel just as desirable as anything else. I want people to feel they don’t have to change in order to be beautiful.
And, while I respect that there will always be those who do not relate with my method and realise that others will never understand my message and only see it as sexual, I also know there are thousands who see exactly what my work means and feel confident and validated and liberated because of it. So, I will continue to fight that uninvited sexualisation by carrying on doing what I do for those who want to see it and being honest and outspoken about why I’m doing it <3.