Body dysmorphia and art in lockdown

tw: eating disorders, depression, dysmorphia

In lockdown, most of us have had no option but to be affronted by our own reflections moreso than usual. For some this is a treat, and has led to some questionable sartorial choices, but we love to see it! And while initially this may seem like a very First World Problem, anyone with a history (or present predicament) of eating disorders, depression and the like will be finding this difficult. When struggling to discuss this in a healthy, or at least productive, way, I began thinking about not only my own body, but the images I have been exposed to during the days, weeks and months of various degrees of isolation. 

Glimpsing through my own Instagram account, where I document the art I'm interested in, I noticed that much of the works I'm drawn to are depictions of bodies. There must be something psychoanalytical in there, and I thought I'd think about this in a bit more detail. Here I look at two artists whose work I love, and talk about them in relationship to the way I have adapted to viewing my body and my mind; it's not always a rose-tinted narrative, hence the trigger warnings in place, but it is fairly light, and I'm always looking at new ways to engage with art and communicate these methodologies, so why not try to use artworks to unpack feelings that are not only hugely stigmatised, but are just plain awkward to discuss.

Nevine Mahmoud, Bust (Witches tits), 2018. Blown glass, resin, steel hardware, 17.8cm x 39.4cm x 29.2cm. M+B, Los Angeles. 

Seeing the work of Los Angeles-based artist Nevine Mahmoud again was actually the main catalyst for writing this piece. OnlyFans (a subscription social media platform where users can purchase content from individual creators; the subtext here is that it is being used for NSFW content a lot at the moment to supplement income) has accelerated in popularity since lockdown, and while this has been a source of income for a lot of people, it has made me think about the commonplace sexualisation of different women, in different, fetishising ways, and how we are simply resigned to it now. Cashing in on this, via avenues such as OnlyFans, is a great way of taking something back from a world, and a gaze, that can be draining and, quite frankly, paranoia-inducing and terrifying, when a seemingly passive sexualisation mutates into real threats to your safety. (NB: this is not to say that there is any link between OnlyFans and stalking or the like; they are two separate things, and OnlyFans only goes as far as to highlight the casual sexualisation of young, and to an even greater degree, famous women). This is quite the diversion from my point, but Mahmoud's sculptures atomising and anonymising the body parts, emphasis their status as works of art. This is a strangely invigorating epiphany when you are struggling with your own body, or perhaps your sexuality. 

Mahmoud's pieces are juicy, voluptuous, and are decent contemporary adaptations of the artist's gaze; cutesy pink nipples solidify the sculpture 'Bust (Witches tits)' as an art object rather than a body part. They are concurrently realistic and surreal, much like the sensations of living with eating disorders or dysmorphia! It is refreshing to think of parts of the body as beautiful in their own way, shaped as they are, without judgment, but imbued with stories and experiences. Looking at these pieces I am reminded of vulva casting workshops, and other examples of body positive activism, spearheaded by the plus-size movement. Although in the strictest sense the body positive movement wasn't made for me, I can still learn from it, besides that's again deviating from the point I'm making; Mahmoud's work allows us to not only view different kinds of bodies, but also make the body funny and textural. Why does it feel like some light comedy can't come into play here? It can! And while the premise of separating our minds from our bodies is not necessarily the route to accepting ourselves, it's an interesting idea and a new way of thinking about the different parts of the self. 

Elizabeth Glaessner, Horse Carrot, 2020. Oil on canvas, 60cm x 72cm. PPOW Gallery, New York.

Another American artist, Elizabeth Glaessner, uses a soft painting technique I am very fond of in order to create sweeping, almost melting landscapes and bodies, where the boundaries of both expand and dissolve together. The features of the artist's figures are not hyperrealistic, something that is rather therapeutic when experiencing difficulties with understanding and perceiving your own body. Using gorgeous greens, blues and yellows, works such as 'Horse Carrot' make me think about how dissolving the boundaries of the physical bodily form might help free ourselves from thoughts, and indeed practices, of disordered eating, and similar branches of confusion and loathing around the body.

A resource that has really helped me think about this differently in recent times is an Instagram account called @freedfromed - it is a lot looser than the sort of help we might choose to seek out, which is not a negative thing; instead, through communal virtual activities such as gentle yoga and poetry IG Live sessions, the thought processes which lead to eating disorders are addressed and explored in a way that feels very safe and un-pressurised. It's an incredible channel and groups eating disorders and anxiety together, so the journey feels truly holistic.

Elizabeth Glaessner, Blue Burner, 2019. Gouache, pastel and pumice on paper, 12ins x 9ins. PPOW Gallery, New York

With some extra free time on our hands, as well as being forced into an almost showdown-style confrontation with our own bodies, some have found life drawing sessions to be a tonic. With short and long periods of sketching poses (some one minute and longer ones held for up to twenty minutes), it can be a great distraction from the mind's wonderings, despite the fact that it is still gazing upon a body in order to draw it. This is an obvious fact, but when battling dysmorphia and the like, it is worth remembering that we do not (of course I can't claim to speak for everyone but I feel this is largely true) cast the same scrutiny over the bodies of others, especially strangers, as we do to ourselves. These majestic, brave, beautiful, and ultimately calm, bodies perform in front of us, in states of simply being. They sit before us, frozen, awaiting our creative interpretations, and they are things of beauty, of power. I look to myself, my hands creating the artistic depiction of these bodies; one body illustrating another. We are one together, and there is power in both positions.  

Nevine Mahmoud, Headless, 2017. Portuguese marble and steel rod, 20.3cm x 3.8cm x 12.7cm. M+B, Los Angeles. 

This is part of an ongoing discussion, and one that I am trying to open up. Here are some resources if you are struggling with any of the issues I've discussed:

Anxiety UK
BEAT (charity for support with eating disorders)
BEAT helplines
FREED instagram page (as referenced above)
Mind on Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

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