The female form has repeatedly been represented in the visual arts throughout history. Through the centuries, the depiction of this form has gone through many transformations. From the Venus of Willendorf to Manet’s Olympia, to the contemporary fashion photography of today’s magazines, the underlying motive to create a feminine ideal remains the same. Modern media is full of the feminine icon aesthetic that no one can possibly live up to. The incredible influence of these images on the general population has had an effect on how countless women view themselves. There is a staggering difference between how women see themselves physically and how their bodies exist in actuality.
This series of photographs, Perception Deception, explores the discrepancies between physical reality and self-perceptions when it comes to body image. It is a very personal series because each image is a self-portrait depicting my constant struggle balancing my own perceptions with reality. The photographs represent a physical manifestation of inner feelings. The main focus of this work is the idea of constructing identity based on subconscious factors impressed upon us by our culture, connecting our self-perceptions with our self-worth.
Numerous women, including myself, sometimes equate the physical being with the emotional self. Many might consider physical perfection as a translation for happiness, satisfaction and feeling whole. Using myself as the subject, these images explore my physical self-perceptions and the inconsistencies that separate these perceptions from reality, and in turn how this is reflected in others. I personally cannot remember a time when I was not concerned with my outward appearance in one form or another. My self-image history is a long roller coaster ride of emotions full of inferiority complexes. So many times I think if I just had a better body, then I could be fully happy. These feelings of inadequacy and weakness have been so engrained in my psyche, I realized I had started to accept them. That is why I decided to use this subject matter for my series of images. I am connected to these ideas on a highly personal level. Creating photographs and making statements through art is a way of catharsis, exploration and understanding for me.
Perception Deception has greatly evolved since I began work on the series almost two years ago. Knowing I wanted to create a body of work about the skewed body images of women, I experimented with various ways of showing how women view themselves (myself included). One major challenge was incorporating various cultural influences on self-perception into the photographs. I knew I wanted to include fashion, film, fantasy and art history into the photographs, but it wasn’t until I decided to work in the very genre that I was criticizing, that I knew I was onto something. I also thought about specific stereotypes, icons and symbols that could come through in each photo.
Many of these influences are constructed as expectations that can never be reached. These include body types for actresses in films, physical expectations for brides, and idealized females in fairy tales. I began shooting the photographs using location lighting with a Pro Photo 600B light kit. Hershey Kiss Hips and Kit Chin were shot using location lighting. Not every image in the series utilizes location lighting, however. I also wanted to use a variety of quality of light and took advantage of natural light in several of the photographs. There are interior and exterior settings in order to have an array of environments and also to have some connotations of domesticity. Images such as Wedding Wattle and Fairy Tale Calves make use of ambient light.
The purpose for many of the icons and stereotypes stated previously is, at its core, a way to sell and market items to specific groups. Looking at fashion photography, for example, the scenarios many times are ridiculously unrealistic. I can’t help but see the humor in it. No one really looks or acts like the people in fashion magazines. For an average person, these images preach that the right clothes are the only requirement to being ideally beautiful, thin and happy. This is where the disconnect comes in. A woman can never truly become this ideal her mind aspires to be because it doesn’t truly exist. Conscious of this fact, the psyche begins to react negatively to the present physical state. Personally, no matter how I am feeling about my body during a particular part of a day, these thoughts will never truly reflect reality. I will always perceive my physicality inaccurately because I know I can never achieve the feminine ideal set forth in the media.
There were other changes and modifications in the creation of this project. Firstly, I changed the title from Perceived Reality to Perception Deception. This new title better encompasses my concept and reflects a playful undertone. When I proposed this thesis project in June 2008, I was making images using compositing and light drawing. The drawing element represented how I perceived my body. I knew at the time that I wanted to shift away from the light drawing and explore new ways of relaying the message of the series. I have been able to do this with much success by replacing the drawing with physical manipulation instead. In some images, such as Mafia Mom Pooch, I stuffed my clothes with towels to create bulge. In other images, such as Marilyn Arms, I used the Transform Tool in Photoshop to stretch and distort my skin.
Each image represents at least one influence on the feminine psyche. Then at least one body part is distorted to represent a skewed self-perception. Setting up the camera on a tripod and either using a self-timer or with the help of an assistant, I posed myself within the composition. Using various methods discussed earlier, I manipulated, stretched or exaggerated a certain body part. The point being that as women, we feel so much pressure to look perfect that our mind begins to pick apart every element of our bodies to unrealistic critiques. Legs that are perfectly normal to any onlooker may seem very grotesque and larger than life to the person they belong to. A woman’s hips may not even be noticed by another person, but are so completely exaggerated in the woman’s mind that she thinks every one is staring at her in judgment. These feelings creep in to my mind more than I would like and they prevent me from truly learning to love myself.
Another important aspect of these images is that in each one, I am the model, yet it is obvious that I am not a professional model. These photos also represent how even though I am making a statement about the influences on women’s idea of beauty, I am definitely trying my best to look attractive in the photos. While creating these images, I found this extremely interesting. Here I am, trying to make a statement about how we should be happy with who we are and not give in to outward cultural influences, and I am very concerned with how I’m going to look in the photo. It seems ludicrous considering the final product. So even though I am consciously aware of some of the influences on my physical self-perceptions, I still couldn’t help but fall back into the beauty trap and even pretend that I am someone else.
The idea of dressing up has connotations of becoming a different person. There is definitely a performance aspect to these images. Putting on clothes and wigs that alter appearance is one very important part of this series. I wanted viewers to interpret these images as depicting separate women. Once it is realized that they are all of the same woman, then it becomes clear that body image is a very personal, yet universal issue. Dressing up also brings up feelings of wanting to be someone else, which I find myself sometimes wishing I have someone else’s body- or at least just exchange one body part. This slanted idea is one that enters my brain frequently when I see someone with what I consider to be, a great pair of legs, for example. I immediately wish I had those legs, but I then have to remind myself that this woman who I am envious of has her own set of self-image problems. I am not alone in this issue and it is very important that this series is accessible to all viewers.
Humor is a major part of this series. Body image, I realize, is a subject matter that has been used many times over in all art mediums. I think this goes to show how important of an issue it is. An important issue is usually a very serious issue. I wanted this series to shed light and challenge self-perceptions and influences, but I also wanted it to be approachable. Humor, quirkiness and wit are elements that I like to incorporate in my work because they are little windows into my personality.
The creation of this series is a way to further understand our perceptions of reality. This is an ongoing personal exploration of my physical and cognitive self and will hopefully help others become aware of the discrepancies between their self-image and reality. These images expose the falsity so many of us believe, that our physical bodies equate who we are as a person. We are so much more than what our culture leads us to believe through representations of the ideal female. We are multi-faceted, unique, caring and brave, none of which are tied to our outward appearance. This series has been in the making since I started comparing myself to the unrealistic feminine ideal my culture has told me I should aspire to be.