Stop Sexualising my Paintings

….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.

The Problem

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.

The Realisation

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.

“Like No One’s Watching”

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.

7 thoughts on “Stop Sexualising my Paintings”

  1. Shaming is a powerful tool to control people. A tool that is used by the patriarchal system. This is used to control women as patriarchy fears women talking about feminism which empowers women.

  2. This line – “We cannot seem to fathom that someone could want to be beautiful but not attract sexual attention.” – Reads like it is spoken by someone beautiful. I’m not traditionally “good looking”. I’ve never been mistaken for a beautiful person. There have been and are times in my life that I’ve wanted nothing more than to be the “hot piece of a**” that soaks up sexual attention. I will never be that person. I’ve come to expect and accept that, and that’s not the issue. I get what you’re saying here, and appreciate the essay, but i gotta say, that one part comes off a bit tone deaf. I’m not saying that that line isn’t true – for you or others. it is true and it is something we should all hear and learn. But it’s a line that I’ve only ever heard come from “beautiful” people.
    I love what you do for the artistic community, and certainly appreciate your voice here. I mean no disrespect to you by saying this either. Hope you can understand though and appreciate that the less attractive people in the world, might not share that sentiment quite so enthusiastically, as we’ve never had the experience of being sexualized. I suppose that sounds terrible. No one deserves attention they don’t want, sexual or otherwise. I’m rambling now. I apologize.

    • Firstly, I’m so sorry it took me this long to get around to replying to your comment! I intended to sit on it for a while to make sure I looked at it from all angles… and then I got distracted. But I have thought about it a great deal!

      As someone who has dealt with serious confidence issues and body shame, I can fully empathise. I’m grateful that you think I’m objectively beautiful, but it’s taken a lot of work to even remotely feel that way, and I still don’t if I’m not wearing makeup, haven’t styled my hair or am not photographed in the right way. Body image is a sticky subject for me, one that I’m actively navigating, so I know intimately how it feels to crave being seen as beautiful, and thus I also know the feeling you’re describing of being frustrated that someone you perceive to be beautiful has an issue with being seen that way. Like someone wealthy complaining of the burden of money when you can’t afford rent and are frightened of losing your home. It’s annoying and reeks of privilege.

      That said, I think that it’s possible for both to be true. That you yearn for the kind of attention I receive, and also for the attention I receive to make me deeply uncomfortable. My yearning to be beautiful has little to do with wanting to be the object of sexual desire and everything to do with feeling safe and accepted. And being fortunate enough to be considered beautiful shouldn’t mean I have to quietly entertain or be grateful for the sexual advances I receive from strangers. Knowing that there are people out there who yearn for such attention does make me grateful in some ways, but I can be both grateful and uncomfortable- the two experiences do not cancel each other out.

      The purpose of this article was to separate beauty from sexuality, and I think that still stands. In the same way that many people still falsely believe that being healthy and being skinny are perfectly correlated, all that is beautiful does not have to be sexual, and all that is sexual does not have to be beautiful, even if many see them as one and the same.

      I think both our experiences are completely valid and I’m sorry if my article hurt you in any way, it certainly wasn’t my intention. “Both things can be true” is a philosophy I’ve adopted in recent years, and I hope that you agree that both of us are justified in feeling what we feel about this issue. I also hope that it can help you to see things through my eyes without dismissing or undermining your own lived experience <3

  3. Fantastic insight into your art and I’m sorry you had to experience this. I look at Beauty like a deep pool or natural spring. Artists can usually dive pretty deep beyond the surface and find beauty in everything but a lot of non artists and non creatives stay shallow with sexualization and can’t seperate themselves from base shallow desires. There is nothing wrong with sexualization until you weaponize it against someone else. It takes less than a millisecond to know your physically attracted to someone but you don’t have to announce that expression. We have control of that. When I was in college and had to draw a nude figure for the first time my brain switched on to a more clinical mind. The nude person before me was now lines, shadow, light, movement, and expression.
    There is so much beauty, expression, and life in your artwork. I love that you explore those intimate private moments of zenful joy. Keep being amazing!

  4. Rachel, Why don’t you consider writing a book about this problem. I think you hit the nail on the head about how many, many women (and men) feel about themselves as either worthy of being noticed for their sexual promise or their truth about who they really are 99% of the time. We men feel we have nothing to offer the woman unless it’s money, Tall, good looking and tan (I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s on an Ocean town where if you were NOT tan, you were not sexy!!!) Plus I grew up thinking my manhood should be at least 9″ or more or else I was useless to the woman. Sad but true. We men deal with similar objectification as women when it comes to sexuality. Unless we are 6’5″ tall, tan, (if you live near an ocean) a boat, and making millions with a 9-10″ phallus (yes I went there) but I have been to women’s only gathernings as a guest and that seemed to be to no. 1 topic women talked about and giggled naming names of a certain man; that we are useless and have NOTHING to offer women. We do not get objectified like women do or shamed should we show an ounce of skin (by other insecure women)l if the woman is beautiful, took care of herself and has a beautiful body, a byproduct of simply lack of drinking, smoking, drugs, etc. and living a wholesome life. You are truly a beautiful person inside and outward and even I find myself wishing I could find a woman like you; beautiful (body Wise, face wise), smart, talented, opinionated, and not afraid to confront something that bothers her immediately as I’m a SapioSexual – a man attracted to a woman not only for her looks, but for her intelligence. I just wish women and men would realize that we in the art world deal with the same insecurities as 99.9% of the population does and if we “dare” to pose nude, show skin, and have a tiny bit of security of how we look nude, why should we be shamed or objectified due to what we do!? Why should we feel shame for helping other artists with pose reference. I consider what you do pose reference wise, to be the first and currently ONLY gift a woman has offered our artistic society for pose reference ever and to NEVER be ashamed for it. I went through 4 years of extremely expensive art college so I could get a job in the animation industry only for them to do “cutesy” “Cloudy with a chance of meatballs” art instead of truly cool animations of humans in various worlds and only the web series “DuSK” finally lives up to what I wanted to create 20 years later. My point is, after 4 years of hard work and extreme sacrifice for me especially, a man stood on our stage at our school of Ringling College and while being from ILM, said….”I’ve looked through over 200 portfolios (this was 1998), and I’ve saw great figure artwork, but NOTHING we could use for our company!” YIKES! $500,000 down the drain. You see, he said on stage, “If ONLY we had other artists pose for you showing what they are looking for in how the human body moves, via sword fights, attitude, expressions, laying around, etc., you will NEVER understand the physics of the human body and what we are looking for in gesture to the final animation!” You DO THAT. If ONLY you were born 20 years before you were born, you were what he was referring to as far as what you offer other artists! You show extreme bravery and confidence with your poses of which I purchase every library you offer on Gumroad!! One day soon, I will draw every one of your poses!! I’m buying each package for my future. PLEASE do not let these Aholes get to you and your mindset. You are doing what every artist has needed for over 500 years being an amazing artist yourself, you KNOW what we as figure and animation artists NEED to complete our task and NOONE that I can think of has done such revolutionary and self-sacrificing work for us since Edweird Mybridge in the 20’s! NO ONE. Your are a very, very rear gem and perhaps my point is – write a book of why YOU are needed and screw the overtly insecure of sexual perverts! The human body as far as we know is the greatest gift GOD gave to the Universe and especially Women for they can create LIFE inside them! You are the greatest creation by the Universe ever! All those atoms, billions of years old that traveled trillions of light years came together into creating and forming YOU, Rachel Bradley. Look at what you have become!?!? Any negative speak is only jealous speak! Remember that!

  5. It’s the right approach to have. What others think is external to you and you don’t have any control over it. That’s sad but true. And we can only find peace inside ourselves once we understand it.

    Men, myself including, have the tendency to sexualize a lot of things. I would argue that we are, most of us, built like it. When I look at your painting, I see a beautiful woman having fun, being confident and happy by herself and that makes her sexy. It brings the thought that I may like to have a girlfriend just like her and may sexualize it a bit. Not porn like (well for me) but maybe erotic like (didn’t mean to be rude here) and sadly for you, you can’t do anything about what I see and think over your painting. I know that was not your intent and as an artist myself, I can totally see the beauty of the painting and appreciate the style, the lights and shadows, the emotion of the character, etc.

    It’s like if you had painted a piece where you intend to show strength and courage, and you’re being accused to show violence and domination. I know you were talking about sexualisation of your arts, but it was only to show that, whatever the author’s intent, what is seen depend on the viewer and his/her background history. I think this last bit is to keep in mind (background history of the viewer).

    That being said, to see that with social medias, people have forgotten everything about respect and discretion, sadden me a lot. You may think something, it doesn’t give you the right to express it to the world. It may hurts someone and may brings conflicts. It’s like in the real world, you may have a judgmental thought on something or someone, but you won’t scream it to the world. You keep it for yourself and you friends.

    Well, the point is, you don’t have control over others thoughts, but it’s frustrating to see that people do not have any respect now and can’t restrain themselves from saying anything that might hurt without fear of any consequences. On this point, I’m with you.

    (I’m sorry if I might have said anything rude or not appropriate, English is not my first language, and it was not my intent.)

    Love your art by the way. And nevermind what I’ve just said, I can see the beauty and the intent in it and it inspires me to do the same. Keep it up.


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