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, ran 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, 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 worthless 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 fuck 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 decided to write the essay about how cosmetic surgery 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.