“Beauty is always in flux”: How three artists are redefining beauty and inclusion
We speak to the creatives leading sessions for International Womxn’s Day as part of our New World programme with Today at Apple.
New World is a 12-week programme of free hands-on virtual sessions and Creative Guides taking place throughout February, March and April. Hosted by Today at Apple and It’s Nice That, these sessions will be focused on exploring the power of creativity to bring about change, fostering connection and collaboration, and learning new creative skills to rebuild a better world.
The topic of beauty has ignited impassioned debates amongst feminists for well over a century, and has led to iconic texts debunking the notion, like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. Though, in recent years, several authors, including Nancy Etcoff have rebuked past feminist theories by insisting we embrace beauty as an evolutionary force, rather than an oppressive one. It appears that the days when we idly accepted Eurocentric beauty paradigms without so much as batting an eyelid are on their way out. Across the creative industries, photographers, artists and writers alike are redefining and pushing what beauty is, meaning that today, beauty often takes the form of strength and fluidity, it is multifaceted and non-linear. Scroll through Instagram and spot an array of faces, or pick up a glossy magazine like Teen Vogue and find traditional cover stars replaced by incredible trans women of all shapes and sizes. Yes, the industry has a long way to go, but it’s undeniable that the makeup of our world is slowly but surely changing.
To explore the possibilities and limitations of beauty as a concept, we spoke to New York-based photographer Camila Falquez, London-based illustrator Sara Andreasson, and LA-based filmmaker and photographer Bethany Mollenkof. All three women will be leading our New World programme of virtual sessions with Today at Apple throughout March in celebration of International Womxn’s Day. These artists are continually challenging the very notions of beauty, power and representation through their work. By reframing narratives and looking for beauty where others may not see it, they’re showing us the possibilities of a new world where anyone can stand at the helm.
Sara Andreasson originally hails from Kristinehamm in the Värmland region of Sweden. She is known for her larger-than-life technicolour illustrations that explore confidence and beauty in all its guises. As a child, she wasn’t the biggest fan of authority and found herself regularly fighting against it. “I’ve always been terrible with it,” she tells us. “I hated being told what to do, so growing up and realising how much more restricting it is to be female was sometimes quite difficult.” On reflection, the societal norms and feminine beauty ideals that reigned supreme at the time were a challenge for young Sara to get her head around. She admits: “I remember feeling the pressure to look and act a certain way, which didn’t always fit me as an individual.” What would have helped? “Gender as non-binary I think would have been really helpful, as well as a broader definition of beauty.”
As the years went by, Sara began to see that “beauty is something that is always in flux” and over time, this ethos was translated into the illustrations that she’s known for today. Sara illustrates a different kind of beauty, often discredited in the norm; muscular is beautiful, big is beautiful, being Black, white or Brown is beautiful. Asked whether the representation is intentional in her work, Sara responds: “I believe that illustrators have a responsibility to reflect the world around them in a fair way, whilst being mindful of harmful stereotypes,” adding: “Making art in and of itself is political, it can truly be an act of subversion.”
On the topic of conscious shifts in representation, Colombian photographer Camila Falquez knows a thing or two about taking up space and ensuring there’s room on the podium for everyone. Camila is particularly gifted at harnessing the power she sees in her subjects to create beautiful portraits that convey a strong story or message. She has shot a wide range of public figures, from celebrities like Selena Gomez to politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden.
What’s striking is that there is no hierarchy in sight within Camila’s work. Whether its subjects are famous or not, Camila’s camera seems to take on the role of the great equaliser. During our phone call, she says that she feels most proud of the fact that “they’re positioned next to all of us, [on Instagram] Joe Biden can be seen next to Miss Simone, a trans woman who works the streets of the West Village.” She smiles at this: “I see myself as a little door; one that opens and closes to let my army of amazing warriors enter this alien space and speak their truth.” She adds, “I’ve chosen them because when I see them, I see all the beauty in the world.”
It’s not difficult to see that Camila’s main objective is to prioritise those who have not historically been acknowledged, and to ensure they are not left behind amidst the glitz and glamour. So, how does she do this? “I try to remove myself from the photo”, she says, before pausing and correcting herself: “Actually, I try to remove myself from everything I do.”
This sentiment rings true, especially when you look at Camila’s recent photography series Being in History, a celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community alongside a dizzyingly powerful manifesto written by Anisa Tavangar. Camila and a friend plastered the images across six buildings in the West Village and Chelsea, Manhattan, back in the summer of 2020. In 1969, the Stonewall Riots began on the very same streets, in response to a police raid on the morning of 28 June. Today, the riots are considered to be a pivotal moment in history, paving the way for the late 60s gay liberation movement. On reflection, she tells us: “While I was shooting Being in History, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the set of images. There was so much love, dignity and regalness. I refused to believe that people wouldn’t find the subjects beautiful.”
Camila tried to pitch the series to multiple magazines, when finally she decided to self-publish, which allowed her to retain control and avoid the inevitable edits and curatorial process that comes with selling your work to a publication. “Exploring and studying beauty has taught me that since the renaissance in Europe, beauty has been utopic, something that you can’t grasp. Beauty is instinctual.” She adds: “But it has always been used to define power and to put people in white and heteronormative cages.”
Camila tends to gravitate instinctually to a different kind of beauty, because, as an immigrant who moved to Europe from Mexico many moons ago, she has experienced being on the outskirts of society too many times. “I was very racialised in school,” she says. “I was the only South American there. I remember trying to be blonde and have straight hair – I now see that was just social and racial survival. So I have a lot of energy to keep going and be a part of the change.”
In a similar vein, Bethany Mollenkof uses the medium of portraiture to “reframe familiar narratives” and to “see others as they understand themselves”. She describes her photography and documentary work as a “thoughtful approach to tell complex stories about gender, culture, and identity”. Similar to Camila, Bethany is grateful to the subjects who grant her access to their lives and trust her to be vulnerable enough to be photographed. She tells us: “Beauty is being vulnerable enough to see others and let yourself be seen.”
Last year, Bethany became a mother during the global pandemic, which gave her time to think about motherhood, friendship and resilience. She tells us: “I met other women going through the same sacred experience. It’s humbling and beautiful to understand that pregnancy is a deeply personal and singular event but also so utterly human and universal. Humans persist and have been persisting for so long.”
The topic of motherhood has cropped up in Bethany’s work before, as in Birthing in Alabama, a project documenting the risks associated with giving birth as a Black woman. Again her objective here was to shift the narrative and encapsulate the beauty of Black motherhood, with all of its peaks and troughs. Over email, she writes: “It is easy to overlook the real people behind the headlines – especially in regards to abortion rights and abysmal maternal healthcare. I hope my work helps personalise these big, daunting topics. I want my images to move the narrative beyond just presenting the disparities. I want to show the real people – the women – impacted.”
Presenting an alternative image and questioning prevailing ideals of beauty is a sure way of creating a better, more inclusive new world. Awareness of different stories is crucial if we are to change the makeup of our society. As Camila put it during our call: “I’m not an agent that’s changing history – I’m one part of a huge movement. I can’t do what I’m doing without the trans women doing what they’re doing, or the mother in Puerto Rico doing what she’s doing.”
Sara Andreasson for Le Monde (Copyright © Sara Andreasson, 2018)
About the Author
Siham Ali is a freelance culture writer and commentator. She frequently works with Creative Lives in Progress and is the deputy editor of the annual print and digital magazine, Roundtable Journal. She's written for the likes of Vice, Gal-dem, New Statesman, Between Borders Magazine, ART UK, plus many more.