I’ve never been the “girly-girl” type. I didn’t grow up playing with Barbies, or dress up in princess costumes. I played with dinosaurs, rolled around in the mud, scraped my knees, and didn’t care much about how I looked. My mother cut my hair into an uncanny bowl cut, I wore nothing but red Lands’ End pullovers and leggings, and I would run away and hide every time I needed a bath. It wasn’t until I was in middle school, that I began to notice that people treated you differently based on the way you looked. All the popular teenage girls were pretty, fashionable, and kept up with the latest trends. The boys wanted to date them, teachers treated them with respect, and they received a lot of attention. The geeky kids with pimples, unkept hair, and ill-fitting clothes were generally either bullied, or ignored. Why was this?
I, as a young goth teenage rebel in high school, chose to protest against this idea of beauty and popularity. I refused to dress and look like everyone else, and in turn I got bullied and laughed at on a daily basis. Teachers saw me as a ignoble dropout, I was failing classes, and hated basically everything. I remember one day in class a boy came up to me and said: “You know, you actually might be pretty if you wore less black clothing and did your hair”. In that moment I probably told him to shove off, or ignored him entirely, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said. Would people treat me with respect if I presented myself differently? Something clicked in me after this point. Suddenly I wanted nothing but to be pretty, accepted, and no longer bullied into sitting at the rejects table at lunch. I started buying colorful trendy clothes, wearing dresses, perfume, doing my makeup, and using self tanner. I threw parties, I made friends, I socialized, and even though I was giving in to my once profound hatred of materialistic views, I was happy. I enjoyed the attention, I liked being complimented, and I felt good about my physical being.
This idea of the visual appearance of the human body has dramatically effected my daily living; the way we present ourselves physically changes the way we are perceived by others. It changes the way we behave, the way we feel, and the way others view us. During the four years I’ve spent at the University of Michigan, I’ve explored this idea through my artistic work in the school of Art & Design, as well as written work through the Sweetland Minor in Writing. I’ve composed personal narratives, argumentative essays, poems, wearable garments, photographs, video pieces, all revolving around the idea of the body and perceptions of the body. This exploration over the past four years has led me to understand myself, speak honestly about my ideas and observations, and has helped me develop my skills as a writer and artist.
The first paper I wrote revolving around this theme was in my English 125 class, where we received a prompt instructing us to write an argumentative essay taking a stance on something (anything) we had strong opinions on. I chose to write about the media’s effect on body image in an essay titled The Media Effect: “The media has a strong controlling grasp on how you should perceive your body, making you more judgmental and critical of others and yourselves (Page 1)”. For a short three page paper, I talked about a lot of different ideas. I spoke about how advertising is a reflection of how our culture perceives the physical appearance and expectations of men and women, and if you bought these products you would be as fabulous as the models wearing them. I talked about the effects this had on people, how some would turn to extreme methods such as bulimia or anorexia. I talked about plastic surgery, and when Susan Boyle performed on Britain’s Got Talent and wowed everyone with her amazing voice regardless of her shabby appearance. Towards the end of the paper I expose myself a little, and talk about how this media effect has lead me to become a judgmental human being, who bases opinions on appearance.
This essay was packed with so many ideas – I consider it being a rant, or cluster of thoughts that had been brewing in my mind for too long. While it wasn’t the most effective piece of work, I can acknowledge it now as a starting point, an introduction to topics later to arise in my work at the university.
Around the same time as I was writing The Media Effect in English class, I was also creating wearable art pieces in some of the prerequisite classes in the art school. I found I could transform seemingly boring project prompts into something more fun and interesting, and what was interesting to me was creating pieces that could be worn on the body. I was discovering new materials, clothing no longer had to be made with fabrics, they could be sculptural, made from cardboard, anything! One of my favorite assignments to this day was one where we had to design something at least nine inches off the ground, that could transport a body nine feet across lateral space without touching the floor. We were put in groups of four, had five sheets of foam core, precision knives, and one week to finish it. I remember being so horrified by this assignment, and had no idea what I was going to do. After sitting with my group for thirty or so minutes I realized that this could be turned into something fun, it didn’t have to be a chore. I told my group that we were going to make a foam core runway that was nine feet long balanced on triangle shapes, and then we were going to design and create our own wearable garments out of foam core. Other groups made stilts, a wheel, and ledges, and we had our runway performance and geometrically shaped garments.
This was a point where I began exploring the different ways a body could be presented, and how garments or wearable pieces could change the way the wearer feels, behaves, and responds. It was the beginning of my exploration of materials, new mediums, and how they translated when worn on the body.
The following year, I was in English 225, which was another argumentative writing course. The first assignment in this course was similar to the prompt I received in my English 125 class. We had to pick a topic we weren’t very informed about, learn about it, then take a side and form an argument for or against the topic.The Media Effect essay crossed my mind here, and I remembered how I had spoken briefly about plastic surgery. This was a subject I didn’t know much about, and was curious to learn more about it. In my research of plastic surgery I learned that there were actually two types: cosmetic, and reconstructive. Cosmetic surgery is purely for changing the physical appearance of someone to improve the patient’s appearance and self-esteem, and reconstructive is to fix abnormal structures on the body from trauma, tumors, disease, infections, etc. After this discovery, I wrote Beauty is the Beast: An Argument Against Cosmetic Surgery. This essay argued against the negative aspects of cosmetic surgery, such as that it enforces an unrealistic view of beauty, it has health risks, it’s addictive, it can cause psychological harm, and it’s entirely unnecessary. I pulled examples from patient cases, celebrities, and news articles to argue my points.
This essay was quite powerful, and in the process of writing it I learned a lot about the extreme notions people will take to make themselves “perfect”, or change their physical appearances.
Shortly after this class, I began working on a project for the Art Prize show in Grand Rapids. This specific show was through the Grand Rapids Goodwill, and the challenge was to create an avant-garde garment to display in their downtown window. The garment had to be made entirely from materials they sent to us, which consisted of a large box of goodwill clothing. They also sent us a coupon worth $50 to use in the Goodwill stores to get extra needed material. I ended up making a piece made from woven green placemats, which I took apart and rewove onto the dress, and used a pair of XXL women’s leather pants and foam core (surprise, it returns to haunt me..) to construct triangular pyramid shapes. The green braided placemat pieces wove around the contrasting black leather pyramids, creating a snake like effect on the body.
This garment was one of the first I made using unconventional materials, and it sparked my interest in what I call ‘Wearable art’, a sub-genre of fashion design that follows less rules, and is more dependent on sculptural qualities, use of material, and thoughtful design. This piece was my way of taking used, unwanted items and making them into something entirely different, transforming them into one unified garment.
The following fall, I enrolled in an English 325 course that focused on personal narrative essays that draw from our life experiences. Our first assignment for this class was to write an eight to ten page essay about something we desire, or something in the past that we’ve really wanted. The prompt requested that we be candid, to try and tell the reader something surprising. It was here I remembered High School. How much I wanted to be successful, beautiful, desired. How much I wanted to change the way I looked to impose a different opinion, and how it led me to making extreme decisions. Thinking back to the plastic cosmetic surgery essay, I realized I was no different from those desperate people wanting to change themselves. They went to extreme measures, and I did too.
“My heart is skipping beats; hammering into my chest as if to escape. I’m carrying a purse that was lighter a few moments ago. In fact, it was nearly empty when I walked into the department store. Just a few things: maybe some gum and my cell phone. My girlfriend is in arm’s reach, parallel to me as we walk through the aisles. She turns to me, making eye contact and nodding. Her eyes are slits of snakes. She hisses “Good luck” to me before disappearing behind the sea of clothing racks. I take a long and deep breath, inhaling as if it were my last, as my eyes narrow to match hers. I scan the ceiling for those little black bubbles, as they scan for people like me who want to pop them. They’re like bottled bubbles blown from a child if they got stuck to the ceiling and turned black. No longer transparent or friendly, no, now they hunt for snakes like me.”I decided to write the essay Stolen Desire about my serious shoplifting addiction I had towards the end of High School. My family didn’t have much money, I didn’t have much money, yet I wanted to be this person. This imagined beautiful person, with perfect clothes and confidence. It became a severe addiction. I was arrested twice, and my essay covers these moments in vivid detail. This essay was workshopped in my class, and to my surprise, people were very supportive. I was so afraid of being judged or laughed at for acting so foolishly. It was hard for me to write this essay, since it has had such a negative impact on my life, and it’s embarrassing, but it felt good to put it out there in a room, out of my head.
With this essay I learned a lot about myself. It was a moment for me to try and put my affection for clothing, for the body, into words:
“Clothing can have the power to distinguish the wearer from others, and to be the object of attention that others do not receive. Maybe one looks inspiring or stands out in a crowd — pleasure is obtained from this person because he or she is memorable. For a moment you thought about this person’s clothing in a positive and longing way. Perhaps you are envious. Through your thoughts and positive compliments, this person has gained a sort of power over you. For me, when I see someone well dressed according to my own ideas of fashion, I look up to them and sometimes even feel intimidated. I want to be like this person, I want their clothes, and I want other people to want what I have.”
It became a turning point for both my writing and artistic work. It was a moment where I realized how important the physical form of the human body is to my work; it inspires me, and gives me this drive to further identify aspects of it’s importance. I also began to understand the power of honesty, and how sometimes it’s better to share your experiences rather than tucking them away.
At this point in my Art School saga, I began taking studio photography classes. Here, we were given very vague and open assignments like, transform a face, or use lighting to evoke a certain mood. To some, this was a struggle. These types of assignments give you almost total control of the final outcome, which can be terrifying. You have to get creative. Sometimes in this class I would just bring in a model, tons of props, makeup, and see where the shoot took me. Our professor motivated us to “play” or so he called it, which I related to. It was like learning to paint or draw as a child, where you could do anything, and learn along the way. For the “transforming the face” assignment, I took inspiration from the cuttlefish, which is a fish that can change it’s color, shape, and texture to camouflage in with a surface or background. I thought about how a human might do this to blend in with their surroundings, how it changes the body and it’s movement. As a result, I spent four hours on hands and knees painting a model white, black, and gold, to blend in with a textile I found at a fabric store. I then photographed her against this textile using studio lighting techniques I had learned. Even though it took about an hour of painful paint pealing to clean her up afterwords, the shots came out vivid and powerful.
With this project, I began to explore the different ways the body itself can be transformed, and what it means to be camouflaged, or unseen. Painting her body also changed the way the model behaved and moved within her space. She took on a different personality, as she contorted her body to fit with the pattern.
The next essay I wrote in the English 225 class was on a lighter note than the Stolen Desire piece, but still written in a personal narrative form. With this essay, I began to further investigate the idea of behavior, and behavior changes based on environment, or our culture. This essay titled Bizzarre Behaviors of the Female Gender, explores the strange properties of the female gender that I have noticed in myself, or other females I have been around and witnessed. This essay was set up with six different chapters, with different titles for each idea or aspect of the female behavior I wanted to bring to light. Within these titles I spoke about various ideas, for example: “Goo-Hoarding”, or how some females buy pounds of new beauty products even though there are half used ones sitting on the counter at home:
“Whenever I set foot in Ulta, a beauty store large enough to house about fifty elephants, it’s like I’m a five year old kid entering Disney-Land for the first time. The floors are shiny and glisten under the many rows of illuminating lights above. The sales clerk awaits me in the entryway, seemingly as excited and starry-eyed as myself. She hands me a shopping basket and says warmly: “Hello there! Welcome to Ulta! Let me know if you are looking for anything.” She smiles so hard she squints and I feel like I’ve just been hugged by Mickey-Mouse. Rapidly my basket is filled with products. “What? These shampoos are buy one get one free? I need these, I mean, I’m going to run out of the ones I have eventually,” I reason to myself. “Oh, this mascara will make my lashes three times more voluminous? And this eyeshadow shade is limited edition?” Before I know it they join the product party in my shopping container, dancing and jingling every time the basket bumps into my merrily maneuvering legs (Page 2)”.
While this essay does carry a comical tone, it’s also very honest and forward. I draw from personal experiences, creating a vivid image for the reader to envision. In both Stolen Desire and in this essay I was able to further investigate these driving forces of perception and behavior that have confused me for some time. While I don’t come to a clear conclusion in either paper, I was still able to put an idea to words and better understand these stray thoughts I’ve had over time.
As I’m approaching my final days as a college student, I can say I’m almost an entirely different person than I was four years ago. I’ve discovered and developed my interest in the human body and wearable art work, as well as in my writing. I’ve been able to voice opinions, and speak from personal experiences to better understand these ideas, and determine why it fascinates me. This progressive growth and interest has led me to base my senior project in the art school on wearable garments, fused with narrative stories.
For this project I’ve chosen to create five sculptural wearable art pieces that are fused with various forms of technology such as LED lights. This has been a year long project, heavily influenced and inspired by both my artistic work in the past, and my essays that revolved around the human body and behavior. Alongside the wearable pieces, I will be writing either a poem for each garment, or a narrative piece that places the garments in a world, and on a character. The final show will display the wearable garments on mannequins, with the narrative pieces placed alongside them.
With this project I’m able to dive in a fully explore ideas of garment construction, and electronic programming. I’m able to continue the investigation of behavior and behavior changes based on a garment. I’m able to continue writing narrations that revolve around a piece of clothing, or the human body. This project wraps up everything I’ve been exploring the past four years and bundles it up into one concise idea. I’ve grown a lot since my painting days in high school, since my first argumentative essay in English 125. Where I was once stumbling, I now feel in control.