Our Bodies, Our Selfies

I learned at a very young age that my body was a political vessel and one that I could use for my activism and for art. By the time I was a teenager I realized that others felt they had more ownership over my body than I did and had a lot to say about how I presented it, what I put on it, in it and did with it.

Self-portrait detail of  live body painting performance collaboration  with Natalie Fletcher and the Boise Film Festival, September 2015

Self-portrait detail of live body painting performance collaboration with Natalie Fletcher and the Boise Film Festival, September 2015

I feel like I've always been a bit of an enigma to people - a complicated woman that challenges the status quo and what it means to be a mother, an artist, a wife, a daughter, a feminist. Someone that they can't quite figure out and doesn't quite fit inside the box or the label they want to wrap me up in. In high school I was the captain of the high school cheerleading squad but also fat; in the theater club in leading roles onstage while dating the captain of the football team; a cute girl excelling in AP English but who loved Sylvia Plath and wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper opposing the proposed elimination of sex education being taught in junior high; super popular but wore a pantsuit to the homecoming dance. Needless to say, I was voted Most Unique Personality in my senior class awards ceremony. I grew up to be even more confusing to people: a pretty twentysomething woman who picked up dead bodies at night in a small Oregon town; a feminist scholar who loves Katy Perry; an Idaho mom to three who sometimes models lingerie; an activist with a loud voice who stood on stage and stood up to fatphobes and stood stripped to a bikini downtown Boise in the name of self-acceptance.

Photo courtesy  Melanie Folwell

Photo courtesy Melanie Folwell

Much of my work as an artist, activist and writer has been greatly influenced by those who came before me. As an academic at heart and a continual student in life, I find books and exhibitions and art as valid and important tools in my trade. You'll hear me speak in lectures about Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, the Guerrilla Girls, Roxane Gay, Marilyn Wann, Naomi Wolf, Betty Friedan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beyonce, and Charlotte Cooper to name just a few. I've found power in using social media as a tool for the resistance, as a radical means to reach the masses in fast and furious ways. It became even more apparent to me when my blog post about my stand for self-love in the market in 2015 (including photos and a video) went viral. The message spread so fast and the video has picked up by various sources (like Buzzfeed and HLN) and has now been seen somewhere around 200 million times.

I've long been interested in photography as an art history student, museum curator, and now, as an artist, as a instrument in the feminist revolution. It's a way for me to document using my own body as the canvas or the subject, a way I can take control of my image and my physical self. The selfie, the shorthand 21st century term for the self-portrait, has gotten a bad rap as something self-obsessed young girls do for "likes" in recent years, but myself and others are reexamining that idea. In 2013 Jezebel wrote a scathing article that the selfie was a "cry for help" and beautiful backlash ensued as the #feministselfie movement took hold, one that I've actively participated in (this article from TIME defines it and its history so well that I borrowed the title of this blog post from it). Seeing yourself and your body type represented on social media has been a powerful thing for me in my own body positive journey - seeing other women who looked like me rocking their amazing fat bodies online has been inspiring and revolutionary. And selfies aren't just about what you look like, they are about what you're doing in life, what moves you, what makes you proud, what makes you cry, what makes you YOU. “Selfies are one way for a female to make space for herself in the world: to say ‘I’m here, this is what I actually look like, my story counts, too,'” says Pamela Grossman, the director of visual trends at Getty Images, and co-curator of a feminist photo-curation project. “They allow girls to shine on their own terms.” They allow us to see ourselves, flaws and all.

My favorites are the least curated, messy, and unprofessional portraits, but I so appreciate that fine artists are also utilizing it as well in a fresh way. Women like Laura Aguilar, a Latina photographer in Los Angeles, with a major solo exhibition opening this year. “When you’re driving down the street of East L.A., you see so many women that look like Laura,” says Sybil Venegas, the Los Angeles curator of the show of Aguilar's self portraits.  “And no one’s going to pay attention to them. Because they’re poor, because they’re just walking with a bunch of kids … people don’t pay attention to those people. And so to have her and the work that she did, in particular her self-portraits — they’re really beautiful. So it really challenges what is beauty. What is beautiful? What is a woman or a man, for that matter, what do we have to look like in order to be considered beautiful?”  

Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, courtesy  L.A. Weekly + the artist

Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying, courtesy L.A. Weekly + the artist

And Audrey Wollen, a young woman whose performance art plays out in large part on Instagram with her Sad Girl Theory and poignant thoughts on feminism. Like me, a major part of her selfies hinges on the notion that "the personal is political," a term coined by Shulamith Firestone in her 1970 book A Dialectic of Sex. “If your feminism isn’t painful, you’re not doing it right,” said Wollen in this great piece about her work in the Huffington Post. “Because it’s a painful thing to witness how things are and your own participation.”

this is not a girl

A photo posted by tragic queen (@audreywollen) on

I love using selfies to subvert the long-standing tyranny of the male gaze and find in them self-empowerment through rebellion. Taking control of my image stops male (and female) objectification of a woman by using the very tools of oppression to dismantle it. Objectification on our own terms has radical potential. That's why I was thrilled when my friend, photographer and part of our team at Wintry Market, Anna Wiley, asked me to help her host 52 Selfies: A Year of Self-Love.  It's a Facebook group about a DIFFERENT kind of New Years resolution (or revolution): Loving ourselves AS WE ARE, RIGHT NOW. Today. This very moment. Each week, we will all share a themed selfie and write a bit about something we love about ourselves. Our goal is for all of us to look at ourselves with love and gratitude, not shame. Our goal is to get more women out from behind the camera and in front of it. Every selfie doesn't have to be a serious feminist artwork, it can be fun or flirty or silly or sad. You can still be part of the revolution armed with a little bit of courage, your unique story, and an iPhone.

This year, let’s try a new kind of resolution.

No gym, no diets, no changing ourselves. Instead of focusing on what we think society wants us to be, let’s love every inch of ourselves as we are. Radical, right?! Let’s try radical self love – feeling comfortable and beautiful in our skin. Read more about our project here on Anna's blog and join us here if you're interested in a safe sweet way to celebrate yourself in the new year.

Bring it on, 2017!