I've been away from my desk for a while - well, actually I've been dating another desk. The one at the library. It wasn't planned... it sort of just happened! It all started when we returned from Budapest in late January. Laci said his six-week paternity leave with the kids had gone too quickly and that he wanted to be with them a little longer. If you know me, you know that my wheels started turning. The possibilities!!! Truthfully, there was only one thing I could think about doing with a six-week stay-at-home dad - finish my PhD. It's been collecting dust for some time now and this nagging voice in my brain stated it plainly - now, or forget about it. I knew I'd never be able to forget about it. I had invested years of research and writing. So I went for it. I pulled it down from the shelf and began my six-week love affair with the local library. A few days ago I submitted a polished draft to my committee for review and returned to my work as photographer and full-time mom, where I feel I truly belong.
But my time with my thesis has changed me and being a photographer has changed my view of looking at images of women. My dissertation was a study of the images (high art, magazine images and silent films) produced in Canada in the 1920s. It was more tied to my life as a photographer than I had ever realized. Luckily, the vision of beauty has expanded in recent decades - in the 1920s it was far more narrow - and the 'love your body' movement has done considerable consciousness-raising about wellness, individuality and body shape standards. What hasn't changed however, is the obsession with perfection and the fear of scrutiny. This month's Elle Canada, p157: "Are you ready for your filter-free CLOSE-UP?" I was thrown back to the 1920s. Are you kidding? No one is ready for a filter-free close up!... except apparently the perfectly airbrushed 14-yr-old on page 157. This type of content is called scare copy and was very popular in the 1920s. It's disingenuous and condescending and I can only hope that today, it's even laughable. Yet, there it is, in Elle.
It reminded me of why I decided to write a thesis on images of women - women's bodies do not stand in for who those women really are, but get co-opted for rhetorical purposes, giving viewers false pretence of life in a perfect body or with a perfect face. (Consequently, even these models don't know this life, for they themselves end up airbrushed to suit the desired image of advertising artists). The link between academic work and real life is not always clear, but for me it's really important. So, I closed my project with one small paragraph, which I will likely be asked to remove because it lacks academic polish, but it's from the heart:
In the early stages of this project, separating the images from real women seemed difficult, even if it was obvious that the two were not directly linked. Perhaps closer to the truth is that the link between the two runs unevenly in one direction. Artistic work may not necessarily have been informed by the lived experiences of real women, but for many real women who idolized what they saw, artistic representations informed how they saw themselves. The 1920s was only the beginning of the mass reproduction of the female form and appropriation of the female image by artists. With today’s images of women being even more complex, subversive and more abundant than ever, the work of decoding what we see has become a challenging task. My hope is that this project contributes to the spirit of feminist work that unpacks the visual imagery that belittles and undermines women in everyday life.