(Note: this post focuses mainly on cisgendered women’s experience of beauty standards as it applies to self-portraiture. Not everyone in my class identifies as a woman, and I wish I could include that perspective more in this post, but it’s not my experience and I can’t even begin to do it
justice in the timeframe I have to write this post. My apologies for that; I’d prefer to be more inclusive.)
Generally, when a woman is sitting in front of a mirror for hours on end trying to perfect something, she’s not striving for her face to look exactly as it does. There’s a cultural beauty ideal in place that bears no relationship to what anyone actually looks like, though woe betide you if you try to ignore it. Flipping the script such that the ideal you’re striving to replicate is already on your face—it is your face—is a necessary component of drawing a likeness.
Trying to create a realistic, accurate likeness of yourself is a quietly revolutionary act. To do so is to state that your own face is a valid subject for art as it is, without the sort of prettifying symbolism that the left brain traffics in.
None of the portraits done for this project look standard-issue “pretty” to me, and I found that striking during the critique. I mean this as the highest possible compliment: pretty is generic and average and nonspecific, like faces averaged with a computer. This is how we look at ourselves when we’re hard at work and less concerned with beauty than with how intricate our own eyelids are. These portraits were created with very dark charcoal, which Professor Ruby notes contributes to the sense of seriousness and weight. There’s strength in these expressions. The portraits are looking you straight in the eye, and the expressions are neutral. There is no deference to the viewer to be found here.
It’s unusual to see women’s faces displayed publicly with serious expressions. This is presumably out of a show of consideration for what the (generally presumed to be male) viewer will think. There’s so much policing of women’s expressions because it is assumed that we should be outwardly pleasant and deferential when in public. Expressions of negative emotions or no emotion get in the way of the male viewer’s ability to believe that a given woman is just that thrilled to see him, a generic stranger. “Telling women to smile” turns up 66,600 Google hits as of today (and 48 million without quotes). This leads to a certain amount of self-policing: most women will make much more of an effort to look happy in public than men will. Even when I was a kid, I used to consciously smile when I played the cello publicly. It was partially because I enjoyed it, and partially a performance of looking pleasant while I was being watched. Ms. Hagar, my cello teacher, once told me that I never played as well in public as I did privately because I devoted too much mental energy to what the audience thought of how I looked while playing. She was right: this societally-encouraged concern for appearances hurt my ability to do well at more important things.
Spending 20 hours with a laser focus on how I actually look as the goal for my final product, I had to forget about judging the way I look in the mirror and start to respect what I see in the mirror. We all did. I could see from the finished portraits that my classmates spent time focused on getting the highlights of their piercings and shadows of their noses right and making their lips accurately asymmetrical, instead of creating perfect button noses and bow lips. I can see the six people I spent this month learning with and all the trouble that we put into learning to really see ourselves, and I am so proud to have been a part of this class.