Students who crafted artwork for last month’s honors art show at Hinsdale Central High School in Chicago’s western suburbs had a tendency to focus on “modern day problems, like body image, politics, women’s role in society, and social media,” write Everett Eck, Kunal Jobanputra, and Sanya Sawlani for the Devils’ Advocate, the student newspaper at the high school.
“My entire comic book revolves around the [ideas of] fakeness and artificiality, as it manifests itself in art, politics, and the intersection of both,” the paper quoted senior Julia Baroni as saying. “This is something I love to discuss and talk about, so I decided to express it artistically.”
“I painted an acrylic figure that’s symbolic of women’s body image conflicts,” said Anushka Nair, a junior. “I chose school restrooms as the setting, with other symbolic items placed in the space to convey the feeling of confronting your own appearance in a place you fear being judged.
“I made this as a bigger series to reflect on my own struggle with accepting the way I look,” she said. “It’s something I had to deal with that took me years to get over, and self-esteem is a topic I’m passionate about discussing, too.”
Many university courses explore questions about body image through contemporary art-making strategies, sometimes through broader courses in art history or archaeology. The University of Illinois defines questions that are central to the study of art history, which can lead to jobs in museums, libraries, and the management of visual resources—not to mention adding a sense of purpose to your own creations:
Why are the objects that we call “works of art” made? Who makes them? Who sees them? What functions do they serve? What kinds of meaning have they offered to viewers in the past? What kinds of meaning can they have for us now?
The details in some course syllabi from universities around the country provide a few more specifics. At the University of Washington, for instance, Art 203 examines how the human body is portrayed in popular visual media, considers relevant art history, and uses drawing, collage, photography, and other methods to investigate students’ stories about the body.
Although women have come a long way in recent years, the culture at large, including media and the arts, continues to place a great emphasis on how women look. These beauty standards can affect young women and their body images.
To be blunt, the beauty ideal in American culture is—wait for it—to be thin.
“Large populations of ‘average’ girls do not demonstrate clinically diagnosable eating disorders—pathologies that the culture marks as extreme and unhealthy—but rather an entirely normative obsession with body shape and size,” writes Arielle Cutler at Hamilton College in New York. “This ongoing concern is accepted as a completely normal and even inevitable part of being a modern girl. I think we need to change that.”