Most women don’t like what they see in the mirror. Their skin isn’t clear enough, their waists aren’t small enough and their thighs aren’t slim enough; in other words, they don’t look like the slender, bronzed models that appear in the pages of glossy magazines. “From a young age, this kind of imagery taught me to suppress my desires, values, personality, and flaws. It’s an experience common to many women; we are shaped by ideologies of domination and control within contemporary commerce; projecting fantasies onto our bodies that are not our own,” award-winning photographer Eva O’Leary admits. In her latest series Spitting Image, Eva set out to document how women see themselves.
For Spitting Image, Eva returned to her small home town in Pennsylvania, known as Happy Valley. After contacting a local middle school, Eva interviewed a number of female-identifying students between the ages of eleven and fourteen who were happy to be photographed while looking at their reflections in the mirror. The outcome is a remarkably authentic study into self-perceptions in the time of photoshopped fitness bloggers, retouched celebrity shots and enhanced advertising campaigns.
“No matter how much I object politically or artistically to the rhetoric of commercial photography, I am seduced by its tricks – the ways it sweetens the body, masks the unpleasant, and transforms beauty and desire into myth,” Eva states. It is this unattainable myth that the American photographer explores in Spitting Image. The series is made up of insightful portraits of young girls looking apprehensibly at their own reflections, unsure of what they see. By snapping close-ups of the girls’ expressions, Eva sensitively documents the nuanced response of each sitter; some appear more confident and self-assured while others look at themselves with uncertainty and apprehension.
Spitting Image shines a light on the complicated, often paradoxical, relationship young women have with themselves. In so doing, she attempts to create an alternative aesthetic language to that of the upscale fashion magazines. Describing her work as “an alternate propaganda”, Eva faces the challenge with caution. On the one hand, she says, it is important to present the girls with images they like. On the other, Eva is acutely aware that giving them an image the young teens will like, would only feed society’s restrictive beauty standards.
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