“Stop Relying on That Body!"
By: Shanté Carlan
My ideas of a "perfect" body as a teenager were distorted at best. I found myself going through ever changing desires of wanting to look like Paris Hilton and Melyssa Ford, both women on extreme sides of the physical spectrum. I’ve had a curvy body since I hit puberty at a barely-double-digit age, and my sense of self was based on what I was watching on television. Although I was consuming other forms of media, television had the biggest impact on how I perceived the world and my place in it. When I wasn't seeing women with bodies like mine outside of music videos, I only saw my body as an oasis for men who would have only wanted me for sex. Nothing more.
Fast forward a decade or so and we see the introduction to the archetypal Instagram girl: her contoured face, waist trainer-assisted hips, and laxative tea-selling image have sent both men and women in a tizzy to be her or as close to her as they can be. I see these images and think of how I'd perceive myself as a teenager now. I'm almost certain there would be a deeper level of disdain now that we've been given access to on-demand bodies. When we allow ourselves to be swayed by what we see around us, how do we learn who we are? Where are we allowed to truly be ourselves and grow in love?
When I first picked up a camera I found myself emulating the works I saw. I was sexualizing my subjects and never considered it because I felt they looked good. I never saw how I had a hand in shaping someone’s self-perception until I did a shoot with my cousin who was single digit age at the time. After we finished and I looked through the images, I saw her doing the same things I saw myself do: she saw how her body looked and how it was perceived and received in the outside world and acted according to what she viewed. It was then that I realized that just telling her she was beautiful and smart wasn’t enough. She needs to be around women who have more than just a “desired” body. Those same women have ambition, intelligence, and dreams. We rarely see that because there’s an image they uphold for others to see, whether or not they get paid for it.
I made a vow afterwards to view myself as more than a photographer and take my craft more serious with what I want to say and the message I want to portray. Even now, I have to constantly remind myself while shooting that there is a very thin line between what is sensual and sexualizing a subject. It’s very easy to go the sexy route, it’s always been done and is usually the default. Body image and representation go hand in hand; as an artist, you have to trust yourself enough to know that it’s your job to push the boundaries of your subject without relying on their bodies.
Art has the ability to transport us to another place and time. It can paint an image of beauty, illusion, and more. As a Photographer, my goal is to ensure that a story is told through my work. Women creatives, including myself, utilize our crafts to tell our stories on our own terms. My photos have always surrounded women: working girls, visual artists, and all around celestial beings. With social media, we've slowly erased the middleman from ensuring our work is shown to our personally curated audiences. However, I believe we need to be mindful of how we share our stories and the message we want to portray through our art, specifically in regards to our bodies.
In our generation, everything is seen before it’s heard. When you’re an artist you take on the job of shaping how people view themselves and others. It is important that the work you put out will make younger you proud and love herself deeper.
Ask yourself this: How will you be there for our little sisters with your work?
We’ve got a long way to go, and it starts with us.