”The history of art is about how we look. It is not only about the men and women who – with their paints and pencils, their clays and chisels – created the images that fill our world, from cheap trinkets to ‘priceless masterpieces.’ It is even more about the generations of humankind who have used, interpreted, argued over and given meaning to those images. – Mary Beard, How Do We Look”
We have only one mirror in our house. It is a full-sized mirror and today it stands in the bedroom of my almost 16 year old daughter. Yesterday I saw it in the bedroom of my almost 14 year old daughter. Occasionally, I go find it to stand in front of it to remind myself of how I look.
With my children, I watch puberty open the doors to this self-consciousness. Slowly there is more attention to hair, to skin, and to clothing.
Today I am using the book How Do We Look by Mary Beard as inspiration. It is a book I plan to use for as a supplement for our ancient civilizations block I am beginning with the teens. She asks questions concerning the term “civilization” itself and makes the argument that “how we look” has mattered as much to the viewers as the artists themselves over the millennia.
As much as some of us can’t get around the whole “selfie” thing, this is not new. We are a species that can be obsessed with the way we look. This is not new. When we look at ancient civilizations and the monuments that rulers erected of them, we see the evidence. Ramses II, who was born about 1300 BCE, tried to assert his claim to power by erecting images of himself. The question Mary Beard poses is “this over sizing a mark of self-confidence or anxiety?”
The “selfie” is the art of taking photos of oneself and of course, the viewer is just as an active participant as the artist. Whether it is a fully manicured selfie or a “real and raw” selfie, there is a purpose and intent behind sharing how one looks.
I am always interested in how people see themselves, especially my children. I want to know what they see when they look in a mirror and if there is a gap in perception with what I see as their mother.
Do they see themselves as powerful and perfect as they are as viewed from a parent’s rose-colored glasses?
Or do they compare themselves to an ideal that was set long ago that still permeates today’s Western standards as Mary Beard asserts that the “Greek sculpture of the body, as it emerged from ‘Greek Revolution’, was well established as a beacon of western civilization” and ”the ultimate symbol of civilization itself”?
Placing the Greco-Roman sculptures and the way they represented the human body as idea, “we are also facing our own assumptions about what make a satisfying image of a human being; the focus is alway partly shifted onto us as viewers and onto our own prejudices.”
Or is the comparison more personal, wanting what the other sister has in terms of hair texture, body proportions, and facial features, impatient with the body’s in-between stage of art in progress?
One fundamental truth of the art of the body: “It is not just about how people in the past chose to represent themselves or what they looked like. It is also about how we look — now.”
I won’t start a discussion here on beauty ideals or under representation of other types of beauty in the mass media and even in social media in general but I have to ask myself this question:
Had I seen more selfies of happy brown women with stretch marks and messy thick dark hair when I was a little girl, would I still have had to go on this decades long journey of self-acceptance to finally be happy as a brown woman with stretch marks and messy hair thick hair?
Maybe the selfie as an art representing how we look can be powerful enough to have our own revolution on changing our cultural landscape but as Mary Beard states:
“In the end, images of power are only as powerful as those who view them allow them to be.”
- Copy one of the quotes found in this post.
- Write a poetic letter to yourself describing how you look physically right now.
- Draw how you see yourself.
- Look the way you want to look and take a selfie.
How I Look:
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