E talks female form, male gaze and more with the artist who’s helping women everywhere hold a mirror to our own self-image.
Though I could speak to her talent and intellect for days, Miriam Ross is a woman who needs no introduction–as with all good artists, her work speaks for itself. Her thoughtfully-rendered oil paintings capture the life inherent in the human form, and her projects page (particularly the Menstruation Celebration series) reads like a direct line to the female psyche.
Her newest project, The Body Journey, is yet another keen insight into women, this time en masse. Ross has crowdsourced for postage and basic drawing materials–red pens and simple outlines of the female body–which she mails to any interested female parties with instructions to draw as they see fit. The results are then sent back to Ross, and the finished products are nothing short of miraculous. I encourage you to scroll through the project gallery and see for yourself before reading the interview below. As you’ll see, Miriam Ross is not only “creating a worldwide conversation about body image,” but acting as an example for artists everywhere looking to affect real change with their work.
How did the project begin?
The Body Journey started as a seed that was planted during my semester abroad in college. I was taking a course called Art & Society, that explored the different ways artists communicate with our society through art. This was the first time I’d ever considered how my ideas and artwork could one day weave into the pre-existing world that I was entering. One of the assignments in this course was called “The Body of Our Time.” We were essentially asked, “If you had to fill a time capsule with images and ideas about ‘the body’ at this time in history, what would you fill it with?” This idea, while abstract, immediately struck my mind with one specific notion: the unachievable goal. The “Perfect” Body. All of the pain, all of the worries and concerns and changes people make to come closer to that unreachable satisfaction. Talk about a time capsule, more like message in a bottle. Help!
So The Body Journey’s seed grew into two different roots. The first root is body image. While The Body Journey does not focus solely on the negativity of body image, I introduce the “body image crisis” because so many people are truly unhappy with their bodies. We know there are a multitude of reasons why–the media, photoshop, food, sexism, eating disorders and mental illness–but it’s truly time to stop letting these reasons serve as excuses for us to suffer from chronic dissatisfaction and shame. The Body Journey sheds light on this emotional and physical journey that women, specifically, undertake by inhabiting a body. The project provides the support and tools for women that are needed to create an honest visual representation of their bodies, no matter how they feel about themselves. It’s like the all-encompassing self-portrait. We are gaining—or regaining—awareness and ownership of our bodies through art.
HOW DO YOU SEE THIS PROJECT IN RELATION TO YOUR OTHER PIECES? IS IT TELLING A CONTINUOUS STORY, OR IS EACH OF YOUR WORKS MORE INDEPENDENT?
The first root of The Body Journey is body image, and the second root of inspiration is art.
This project is within a different discipline of art than that of my paintings, but it absolutely informs the rest of my work. In my paintings, I strive to create honest and compelling representations of women, while simultaneously battling the burden of the male-gaze and body image issues in modern culture. I want to create art that connects to women and engages men. I know that my voice cannot alone speak to or for all the women on the planet. Knowing only the relationship I have with my own body, I paint from my own body journey, experiences and research. I wanted to learn about the relationships other women have with their bodies, and see how they represent this relationship.
Through my studies in art history, I’ve noticed that body image issues existed before modern culture. I think to vanity paintings of women during the Renaissance. The women in these paintings are often shown looking in a small mirror, tending to their hair with a tiny comb. The viewer might assume the woman is saying to herself, “Ah, yes, I look damn good.” However, sometimes I wonder if she’s looking in the mirror thinking, “Oh, crap, do I look OK?” In his PBS documentary, “Ways of Seeing,” writer John Berger states, “Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.” This quote perfectly sums up the universal amount of pressure put upon women. We know we are being looked at, and this becomes a psychological burden. This is how the “male gaze” affects women. It’s an important notion that I struggle with in my artistic journey and in my life as a woman. The Body Journey is beginning to reveal what lies beneath the burden of the male gaze—and it’s a lot of women with a lot of important stuff to say.
Director Anne Bogart has talked about in her beautiful book on theater about Limitations and the importance of putting yourself in the proverbial box. In this instance, you do so in a literal way by giving women an outline to add to as they see fit. How do you think having the outline has shaped the responses you’re seeing?
Rather than a limitation, I see The Body Journey’s outlined template more as a jumping-off point! For some of us, there is nothing more intimidating than a blank-white page sitting in front of you. The outlines are there to pre-activate the page for the participant. A woman who is anxious about drawing will take the template out of the envelope, see a body on the page and find a starting point. She might see the shoulders and immediately think, “Well my shoulders are MUCH more broad than these,” and off she goes with the red pen, making arrows point outward from the shoulders.
there are boatloads of communal spaces for others to discuss female bodies (commercials, magazine ads, etc.) But there aren’t many for us to discuss our own bodies, where we can construct the dialogue that’s happening on our terms. Did you have any thoughts in this vein while working on the project?
From a historical perspective, it seems the best way for women to express ideas has been through art. The art world is a place where women have felt comfortable to express autonomy over their bodies. We feel safe saying, “This is what I’ve experienced.” “This is how I feel.” Or simply, “This is my body.” Considering feminist art from the 70s, and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, art has served as a safe platform for women to be able to share our stories with the world. As an artist, I find this fact a combination of both the sad and beautiful.
Did you ever consider giving people the option to identify themselves in their submissions, or would you prefer that everything remain anonymous? In what ways do you think anonymity can lend power to art?**
Through The Body Journey, I’ve learned that when women enter a safe place where they can express themselves honestly and creatively, a fire ignites and magic begins. Our voices are heard in a more vibrant and powerful way. Our honesty and vulnerability become precious and rare, both sacred and strong.
The process of making a drawing is so personal for most women, that anonymity provides an extra layer of safety. The feelings and stories come from a deep place. Because our culture does not easily sympathize with emotion, it’s safer for The Body Journey to be an anonymous project. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, “What is most personal is most general,” and it’s true. The more personal women get with their drawings, the more deeply they will touch our souls and the more souls they will touch!
What have been the most powerful messages you’ve heard from the project so far?
Two general notions have surfaced through the return of drawings:
- We are deeply affected by what other people say to us about our bodies.
- We (women) apologize so much, to the point it is practically detrimental to our confidence as human beings.
What’s also noteworthy is that most women do not like jiggle, or movements their bodies make without their control.
In some cases, participants finish their Body Journey drawing by writing a note at the bottom, expressing gratitude for their bodies. One woman wrote, “At the end of the day, I’m grateful for my body. It performs a bazillion little miracles every second of my entire life! It’s just the coolest, most generous thing ever.”
looking at the various submissions Forced me to work through several internal biases. Have you Had any personal realizations in response to this project?
I try to remember that these drawings are perceptions—sometimes perceptions differ from reality, or what other people view as reality. Our perceptions are often relative based on context. For example, two women could be talking about their butts. Woman A says, “I have a huge butt.” Then, Woman B might say, “Eh mine is average. I wish it was bigger.” Then we take out measuring tape (yes, this is a hypothetical and strange situation), and we measure the women’s butts, to discover that both butts are exactly the same size. This hypothetical exercise teaches us the way we perceive our bodies is not always pragmatic nor is it mathematic.
I want to mention Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which is a body-image disorder characterized by a constant preoccupation of real or perceived flaws in ones appearance. Many people who suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder are under such emotional distress that they are unable to function in their lives. While a small proportion of our population is diagnosed with BDD (about 1%), I think that on a microcosmic scale, a lot of people suffer from some of the symptoms of BDD. We become hyperaware of body parts that seem different or remarkable in some way. We use clothing and makeup to hide parts of our bodies that we don’t want to be seen. We have Bad Hair Days and come into work late because nothing fit just right. These are pretty normal issues, but they aren’t discussed enough to actually be normalized. The Body Journey gives an opportunity for some of these unspoken anxieties and experiences to come to the surface.
I loved seeing the sheer volume of thoughts that some women had about their bodies. how doES this project speak to the mind-body connection?
It is fascinating to see how life affects our bodies and vice versa, how our bodies affect our lives. A lot of women profoundly connect all kinds of life experiences to their bodies. For example, one woman shares the extreme changes her body went through while she simultaneously went through divorce. Another woman noticed how starting college affected her body. More specifically, another woman shares her continuously developing love and appreciation for her curvaceous bottom once she quit ballet, a culture that is known for pressuring its dancers to turn their bodies into a paradigm of perfection. By relating our physical selves to our life experiences, I begin to imagine the body as a precious vehicle that carries us through the journey of life. We inhabit our bodies as we experience all of our ups and downs. Our bodies are inherently affected by all of the changes and beginnings and endings that we go through in life.
is this a project you think would have been possible 10 years ago? 20 years ago? How might you have executed it differently (if at all) were the internet not a factor?
The internet is absolutely and undoubtedly what helped this project spread its wings so quickly—and I am so grateful! But even with the internet, I don’t know if the world would have been ready for The Body Journey five or ten years ago. I believe that the world is ready now for this project in a way it wasn’t in the past. We’ve seen the Dove beauty campaigns, magazines with un-photoshopped women, other wonderful body love campaigns that raise awareness about body image. So we know the world has been made aware that there’s a general issue about body image, but what are the specifics? What are women really feeling? How can we put a voice to body image? As we gather more and more women to answer these questions through The Body Journey, the world will learn some of these answers and hopefully we can all move forward with empathy!
Any advice looking for others to fundraise through crowdsourcing?
I had the confidence to make an Indiegogo when I started to share my idea with people who do not unconditionally love me. I saw that they understood and liked the project, so I took the risk! You have to love what you’re doing and believe that it’s an idea that can inspire people or potentially transform the world into a better place! There are so many inherently good people out there, and if you share your special idea with them, they just might take a moment to support you! Every bit of support I’ve received fuels me more and more to keep pushing and working harder on this project.
I’m curious whether you’ve spoken to many men about the project? If so, how has it been received?
The men I’ve spoken to have been supportive! I haven’t yet sought out the opinions of many men, but it could be fascinating to host a panel of both men and women to discuss The Body Journey. I know some who would absolutely participate in this project if it were open to men. Maybe one day we will make a men’s version. For the time being, my hope is that men see this project and gain a better understanding (if they don’t already have one) of the great journey a woman goes through in her body. I am aware that men undergo their own body journey, but I feel confident in the relevance of this project being open only to women.
What’s next for The Body Journey?
The Body Journey is a journey in and of itself! The drawings are a starting point for a more comprehensive and expansive project. Each drawing I receive back in the mail helps the project continue to develop. They help me to better gauge what’s next. Some questions I’ve begun to ask myself are: How can we communally debrief about these drawings? How will we learn from them? Will the project develop into a program to bring to schools and organizations? Should the drawings be made into a book? How and where can we display the drawings publicly? With all of these questions in mind, The Body Journey’s current focus is to continue spreading its wings in all ways possible. We are reaching out internationally, gathering women who speak all kinds of languages, from all kinds of cultures and of all ages.
Through The Body Journey, I hope that women around the globe feel a sense of community; a community that provides comfort to those who feel alone in their journeys. Frida Kahlo, who created many amazing, dynamic self-portraits, wrote, “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” As Frida Kahlo hoped to connect a fellow female, I hope that The Body Journey helps us all to connect through our bizarreness, our flaws, and our wonderfully strange ways!
Any other projects with similar themes (or just general resources) you’d recommend?
In contemporary culture, many women are moved by the photographs of Jade Beall, creator of A Beautiful Body Project. Also, there’s “Lammily,” a doll designed by artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm, which received massive attention for her groundbreaking “average” proportions compared to those of Barbie.
From a health-based and historical perspective, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is a book that began developing in 1969, by a group of women who wanted to share personal stories about their lives and bodies and experiences with doctors. The women’s movement was gaining momentum, and this book was a revolutionary product of the time. It is most powerful because it promoted the idea of women taking full ownership of their bodies. This was the “puberty book” my Mom gave me when I was ten or eleven. (Thank you, Mom!)
Eve Ensler’s eye-opening and compelling play, The Vagina Monologues shares similar themes with The Body Journey, in that she gathered personal stories from several hundred women to create an amazing play and then a global movement.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Gratitude! I am so grateful that people understand the importance of this project. I am grateful to those who support the project, through donation, appreciation or participation!
There is a quote by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, “The position of the artist is humble. [S]he is essentially a channel.” I did not fully understand this quote until I created The Body Journey. Sometimes magical things happen during art-making that are beyond the artist’s control. In these moments I see that being an artist is less about being a “creator” and more about being a facilitator. Artists set the stage for magic to happen, but we can’t always be in control of what happens next. The Body Journey sets the stage with a number of elements–body image and art, women and creative expression, drawing and writing, vulnerability and strength—and thanks to the courage and dedication of the women who participate, the outcome has been tremendous.
In closing, I want to thank Miriam dearly for taking the time to chat. This was a conversation that really resonated with me personally, and I know our readers will feel the same!
pps: Follow The Body Journey on instagram!
**Note: The Body Journey promises anonymity to all participants, but it’s not restrictively anonymous; it’s in the hands of the participant. For example, one woman proudly wrote her first-name across her butt-cheeks on her drawing, which was awesome. Another woman posted her drawing on her own Instagram, inviting her followers to take a look.