Bikinis, Body Image and Snow

Fighting the Flab

the mass circulation weeklies take British women to task

Much of my practice deals with the human figure and portraiture in its broadest sense. When I am drawing or painting a figure however, I am responding at one level in a purely visual way to a series of shapes, forms and abstract qualities. I am not making judgements on whether I ‘like’ the form. Every form is potentially of interest. It’s all a question of how you choose to view it. It’s what I love most about urban sketching or daily drawing; the challenge to uncover a pleasingly harmonious composition from anything falling within the field of vision.

This leads to something of a paradox, I admit. When I draw the daily self-portrait, I am relying on an intuitive instinctive emotional response as the basis for the work. Yet as soon as I begin to draw, I switch into an entirely unemotional and objective visual analysis of the image appearing on the screen. I simply do not see it as flattering or unflattering: it just ‘is’. So I am really surprised when people who know me comment on my unflattering self-portrayal, because it is so far from my own thinking about what the drawings signify for me. Interestingly, when I first encountered the work of Jenny Savile, I was shocked by the raw and brutal exposure of flesh before I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary painterly beauty of the images. So I do understand that there are other perfectly valid responses to the images I am producing.

I am, of course, not immune from body image and other self-image issues. Is anybody, these days? I find it hard, for example, to objectively look at photos taken of me by others, but that may be as much about aesthetic content and approach as much as anything else! What I do find slightly disturbing these days is the proliferation of extraordinarily flattering self-images posted on social network sites, almost certainly the carefully considered product of a severely self-critical appraisal of the imagery available for upload.

So much has been written on this subject, and I am not offering any new insight. But yesterday whilst wandering around Tesco’s, I happened upon the newsstand section and stopped to look at the other-worldly headlines of popular culture. Stamping the snow and ice off my shoes as I stood there, I was struck by the number of bikini shots on display. There wasn’t one magazine without a weight loss feature. I felt quite ill gazing at mass-circulation pulp, and thinking about the millions out there feeling pressured to fit a certain image. The madness of contemporary culture.

Despite the reactions of many friends to my scowling self, the irony is that in fact I see much of my work as an incredibly flattering presentation of me. I love the fact I can manipulate form, colour and line once I am dealing with a two-dimensional image. I continue to be intrigued about my self-perception being so at odds with that of the rest of the world, but it doesn’t matter. Doing these drawings has given me a new freedom of the self and a complete disregard for conventional norms of how one self-presents in a contemporary social media context. I feel liberated from the January bikini pressure model, and no, I don’t feel under any obligation to check the bikini out.

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