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Invisible Bodies Part One

Invisible Bodies is a short term column by Natasha Matila-Smith, here is part one. 

In Amalia Ulman’s Instagram art project, the artist convinced her 90K followers that she was an over-consumptive, materialistic, timid flower.  Using common tropes of ‘femininity’ found on Instagram, Ulman used her posts to question the literal construction of femininity. Ulman posed in Kardashian-esque fashion – mirror selfies in hip bone grazing body suits while forming a written narrative about female empowerment. Not to make fun of female agency, but to garner public response. This artist featured on various news sources as someone who outsmarted and outwitted the public; now she is not only an artist, but a critically acclaimed artist. Ulman even features on the Forbes: 30 Under 30 list, whatever that means.    

I turn to Ulman’s work to discuss another unquestioned stereotype – women who access their naked or partially naked bodies to investigate various concepts – these are typically thin to average sized women. Actually, thin white women – to be specific – are more often recognised in this category:  Carolee Schneemann, Tracey Emin, Marina Abramovic and numerous contemporary artists like Amalia Ulman. This over-celebrating of thin bodies as vessels for bravery and revolution feeds into a culture of fat shamingAs a result, the fat woman’s body is still relatively invisible and excluded from these ‘revolutionary’ art spaces. 

In the Instagram format, women’s bodies in general are more vulnerable to criticism. Many posts relating to a woman appreciating their own figure or physicality are met with claims of vanity and shallowness. To Ulman’s credit, her works depict a socially constructed image of femininity that was constantly critiqued and monitored through follower comments.  ‘Smile’ is one of my favourite directives from complete strangers, as if appearing approachable and happy is more important than actually being happy.  Ulman, though, at the end of the project is able to walk away relatively unscathed and still be a thin white woman of privilege.  In a sea of Instagram selfies, many much more creative and critical of social conditions, how is Ulman so visible?  It is ultimately because this is nothing new; she is typical of society’s current beauty standards – thin, white, young. We know at this point that the media and digital worlds are saturated with images of thin white women, so why are we not more critical of the exclusion of invisible bodies?    

For fat women, the reaction to their bodies in any scenario, is amplified. I don’t wish to vilify thin women for participating with their naked bodies, but the prejudiced views towards fat bodies, particularly fat women, should be interrogated. Literally everything tells us that being fat is the worst. Much like poor people choosing to be poor, it is alleged that fat people choose to be fat, that contributing factors like genetics, addiction and medical conditions are all excuses.    Apparently being fat is a byproduct of an unhealthy lifestyle and it should be avoided at all costs.  Also fat women have no feelings and they tinker between being sexually fetishised and not sexual at all. Sure, the Renaissance period appreciated the fat woman’s body and painters like Lucien Freud have consistently used her as his subject. The fat woman though lacks agency. 

Self-acceptance aside, it is really the way that fat bodies are curated and policed that should be changed. Painting a fat woman, exists as a way of slowing down and filtering their image. 

Ownership of the concept of a woman’s body is more than dictating how they appear physically, it is about who holds the power over these concepts.  At present, the power is held by patriarchy but we’re not changing things by revisiting the same themes with the same strategies. Self-agency is important but so too is doing away with idealised attractiveness.  It is vital for women’s bodies that aren’t thin or white to be included and acknowledged in these conversations. We are never going to decolonise our beauty standards (or any standards really) if we are always congratulating and accepting of the familiar.      

Natasha Matila-Smith    

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