In her article Thinner, Smoother Better Rhianon Lucy Cossett reflects on the common although largely unspoken practice of retouching 'selfies' before posting them online. Picture software, now standard on mobile phones, can lighten your skin, slim you down, enlarge your eyes and fade out those blemishes. Girls and young women are making full use of all editing options, creating aspirational, ‘post-truth’ versions of themselves for public consumption. Selfie Culture tends to be viewed as proof of the narcissism of the young, but something more disturbing is at play. Alienation from the actual physical body must occur when falsifying its image is the established norm. On this point, Cossett’s youthful testimony is poignant:
'Those of us who know what it is like to grow up in a culture with a value system that places your body above all else will know just how much energy this preoccupation expends – how it bleeds away at your ability to act in the real world, to achieve things.'
Hollowed-out beauties in fairytales are the women who win. Smooth-skinned, correctly proportioned girls capture princes’ hearts and become the bride. They receive love, social status and the victory of being chosen above, and envied by, all others. The selfie-manipulator may have similar goals in mind but if your beauty is rated by public consensus, there’s little hope of ever gaining autonomy and, as increasing incidence of eating disorders and self-harm demonstrates, it is getting harder for girls to cope with the threshold into their adult bodies. For our girls to have a chance of manifesting unashamedly in the world the obsessive judgement of their bodies needs to stop and we know this! We know that life is a complex and substantial business that takes so much more than a well-cultivated facade to live well, yet beauty and happiness continue to be conflated, making beauty a girl’s heart’s desire.
Thinking around and along these lines, I began this series of portraits: THE BRIDES. I started with flawless, feminine effigies The Barbie Doll and The Madonna but soon found myself getting interested in the less-than-fairytale narratives of brides including Miss Haversham, Ophelia and Mrs. Rochester, all three abandoned and unchosen. Persephone, the girl compelled by her appetites to live half her life in darkness, also became a subject. Other paintings feature child brides and bartered brides. Twin portraits show a drag king bride distancing from her femininity while a drag queen bride yearns towards his. The portraits themselves are intentionally schematic in style. Subjects sit rigidly, within patterned frames or areas of polished metal leaf, reminiscent of early icon paintings of saints and martyrs. The aim is to make portraits that have a universal or iconic quality.