By Simi Johnston
Simi Johnston is a student at Sarah Lawrence College who works in mixed media arts and studies gender theory. She grew up in vermont and recently went on birth-control.
A week after my 20th birthday, I had my first naked photo taken of me. At the time, I was in Alaska with my family. With thousands of miles separated us from society, my sister, a professional photographer, asked if she could take photos of me. We wandered deep into the rainforest. Among the trees and my kin, I removed my clothes. I left nothing on; no shoes to elongate my legs, no thong to frame my ass, no bra to erect my breasts. As she photographed, I stood proud of what I had to offer her lense. I felt the woods, my body free from manipulation of society, my sister looking at my shape in awe of my growth. It’s corny as fuck, but I felt liberated. At the time I didn’t care who saw these photos. I was in art in a purest way, untouched by all the labels I had in “real life.” I was not sexy, or beautiful, or even female. I did not bend my shape into the given female form. I did not push out or suck in. I did not think about my angles or mimicking the images I wish I looked like. I was simply a naked creature.
When I returned home, things changed. Two months after we returned home from Alaska my sister asked if my photo could be shown in galleries in Los Angles. Suddenly, I felt nervous. I wondered about the consequences of having a nude photo in public. My female friends were split on the subject; some said it was just art and “they would do it.” Their nonchalance reminded me of my attitude before I was faced with the issue. Others worried about negative judgment. One of my male friends told me he would not want a girl he was dating to have public naked pictures, even if it was “just art.”
Eventually, I decided to allow my sister to show the photos. I did not want to devalue my experience by not allowing others to see the photo. I knew audiences might label the photo, but I realized this was not different from labels females receive every day. This experience validated for me what many female artists have expressed in the past: that being female in the art world is a double-edged sword. There is a liberating aspect of art, a liberation that women are not often given the space to feel. Art provides us an outlet to process or escape confining labels or critique. However, as a woman creating art, you subject your work and self to these very labels and critique your art may have attempted to question in the first place.
Caroline Biggs is a graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, fashion addict, pop cultural junkie, and girl-about-NYC.
So I want to start by saying I have never really been a “tattoo person.” I quote and marginalize said persons because I always saw those who reveled in permanent body art (and I’m not talking about the occasional small of the back or hip tattoo) as committed to a lifestyle decision: that of being a woman who expresses herself via bodily adornment (that lasts FOREVER mind you). Unlike fashion, which constantly shifts and evolves stylistically, tattoos were more like a piece of statement jewelry—something that doesn’t define the person’s aesthetic but definitely functions as the focal point. And being the fashionista that I am, complete with outfits that are more often than not comparable to that of a costumed figure skater, the last thing I ever needed was to draw more attention to myself.
Then, at 18, after a weekend of heavy drinking and amidst the low-rise jean craze that I fell victim to, I got my first tattoo—a cartoonish flower on the small of my back that did not and will not ever represent anything symbolic other than being 18 and saying I had a tattoo. The entire process took about 4 and a half minutes (all of which I was crying from the pain of the needle) and I left Manhattan, Kansas forever marked with, well, a fuchsia cartoon flower. I was sure that was all of the tattooed symbolism I would ever need.
I am so sorry it has been so long, dear readers! I’ve been over here soaking in the summer sun, whittling away
my gobs of free time (I wish, haha! Picture a wry, slightly sarcastic face saying that) wee bits of free time working with my hands rather than my head. It has been a big shift, even from past summers, when I was apt to consume countless books. I have been stretching in new directions: learning bike mechanics, biking long distances, grilling, baking, crocheting, drawing. I hardly recognize myself! It feels good, and even mildly subversive, to be almost completely devoted to physical and creative endeavors. The general modus operandi of my life has been more strictly academics, intellect and book learning for a number of years. What a change this summer has turned out to be!
I am back here now, though, for the duration I believe. We have been collecting some content to publish in the near future that I will begin posting tomorrow morning. The next week and a half or so we will be running a series on feminist firsts. We have some wonderful writers who have written about their own feminist firsts and I trust you will find the pieces inspiring and insightful.
In the mean time, I’m going to sit down and begin actually writing through some of my own feminist observations from this past quiet month of my new ways of being, to share with you.
Thanks for sticking with us in these lazy summer days.