When young artists start drawing self-portraits, they most often pay attention to what’s on the paper rather than what’s in the mirror. Their drawings are a reflection of what’s in their mind’s eye. It takes a lot of training to learn to trust what the artist is seeing in front of them rather than what the mind is telling them.
The same is true of myself when I started drawing self-portraits; I had an internal visualization of myself that was much more idealized than how I actually looked. That is to say, I did not draw myself as the plus-size, round-faced person that I am. After quite a few people and professors telling me that my self-portraits didn’t look like me, I started avoiding drawing self-portraits altogether. I didn’t want to come to terms with my fatness because it was (and still is) a primary aspect of myself that I hated. I loved art – why would I sully that enjoyment with struggling to represent myself as I really am?
I believe I’ve had low-key depression for most of my life, but in recent years it really put in the effort to make sure I knew it was there. During that time, my hatred of my body was dialed up to 200%, and if I even glanced in a mirror on the wrong kind of day I would fall into a horrible spiral of self-deprecation and self-loathing. I drew a lot of journal comics around that time so the awful feelings would have somewhere to go. The problem then was that I had to draw myself again.
Some days were fine, and I would draw myself as just kinda chubby and large, but never cute or beautiful. I couldn’t even conceptualize what a beautiful fat person would look like, let alone myself. On bad days I was incredibly vicious. I have some sketchbooks with pages of grotesquely exaggerated figures with bloated faces, drooping stomachs, and flabby limbs.
It was around this time that I discovered the artist Sarah Winifred Searle, a wonderful illustrator and comic creator who primarily draws plus-size characters. I had never seen fatness so lovingly and beautifully rendered before, and it blew me away.
I read her comic, “Fatness, Femininity, and the Media We Deserve” that she created for The Nib, and I saw my own experiences reflected in hers. What differed was that she had chosen to reject society’s treatment of fat people as jokes or as villains and to create work that celebrated unique bodies. This in particular struck me as powerful:
“Associative learning is a real thing. Our culture had assigned me negative net value as a fat queer woman, and I had believed it for a long time. I had to build myself a new environment to teach myself otherwise.”
When I started the 100 Day Project last year, my goal was to learn to draw myself honestly and without vitriol. Sarah’s artwork and mission was a big inspiration for that. I wanted to unlearn what our culture had taught me and to learn how to appreciate the body that works so hard for me every day. As I grew more comfortable drawing myself over the course of the hundred days, I had fewer and fewer periods of body-focused self hate. I still had bad days here and there, but I also had plenty of days where I drew my fatness as a cute, endearing aspect rather than a revolting aspect. I can’t begin to tell you how healing that was for me.
I think I’ll always struggle with my body image. My disgust towards my body is so deeply ingrained into my psyche at this point that I don’t know what it would take to get rid of it. Counselling is definitely helping, and the anti-depressant I take has been wonderful in giving me the ability to climb out of the negative spirals I still sometimes find myself in. For now, I’m going to continue using my art to build an environment to teach myself that I have value.
Peace and love,