Louise Brown's (@goodstrangevibes on Instagram) empowering illustrations of the female body were censored by Newcastle University last week during a charity feminist art sale. She spoke to Arts editors Rosie McCrum and Julia McGee Russell about her feelings towards this and the work that still needs to be done to de-sexualise the female form.
What happened at the FemSoc stall on Wednesday? What was your response?
My work was displayed as part of the Feminist Society Art Market raising money for West End Refugee Service, alongside @womxnabouttown and @tamaindaisyrees. After setting up, I went back to working upstairs in the library until I got a call from the society’s President, Becky, telling me my work had been censored by the university library due to deeming that it could cause 'offence' or may be 'surprising'. I was furious and disappointed. What aspect of the female body is offensive? Why in what we assume to be a progressive institution, such as a university, are we still battling with the discourse that women's bodies are inherently sexual, or offensive to the eye? My art is directly made to counter sexist attitudes towards women and their bodies. Female bodies are not inherently sexual. Women's bodies are not offensive.
a women’s body does not exist to satisfy the male gaze or as a sexual object.
Some would argue that the library is a public space and that nudity of all kinds is inappropriate, what would your response to this be?
Firstly, my work is not photographic nudes, it’s illustrations. And the work presented were simply interpretations of the female form, they were not sexualised.
If we continue to censor the female form, we contribute to reinforcing the discourse that it is inherently sexual and only desirable and worthy of appreciation when abiding by dominant 'beauty standards'.
Secondly, as put by the feminist society Facebook page: ‘consider the amount of Renaissance art that depicts nudity, you can often find these in library resources and other similar educational spaces. Why are they privileging one type of art over the other?’
Thirdly, I believe that this attitude is damaging. On a surface level people may not see this attitude as problematic, or a big deal. But it is a big deal. People need to see depictions of bodies that are not in line with dominant beauty standards. Hiding feminist artwork in the face of media and other outlets bombarding young people with a single, restrictive and quite frankly unattainable standard of so-called 'beauty', is a dangerous move. Vast depictions of the female form should be in our day to day lives in order to counter the mainstream, in order to prevent eating disorders and negative body image. It's not just about my right to show my art, it's about the wider implications of censoring the female form. Maybe there would have been young people walking into the library and seeing our art, and you know what, maybe they would have really benefited from seeing women with hairy legs and fat rolls. Perhaps they would snigger and laugh, unused to seeing depictions of nudity, but maybe it would have reassured their teenage selves that they are worthy regardless of their appearance, that any body is worthy of love and should be celebrated. If we continue to censor the female form, we contribute to reinforcing the discourse that it is inherently sexual and only desirable and worthy of appreciation when abiding by dominant 'beauty standards'. Surely Newcastle University does not want to contribute to such a damaging construction of the female form? So, while attempting to minimise offence, the censorship of my art and the female form only works to perpetuate the patriarchy. This response to my art highlights its importance in challenging dominant sexist discourse.
Why in what we assume to be a progressive institution, such as a university, are we still battling with the discourse that women's bodies are inherently sexual, or offensive to the eye?
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into making art, especially art with such an empowering message?
In the process of recovery from an eating disorder I began drawing my own body - forcing myself to see my body as art and worthy of appreciation. I did this in the evening, a time I used to spend staring at my naked body feeling hate and repulsion. This new habit directly challenged these previous destructive thoughts, by drawing and liking the art I produced I then began to appreciate the body that had inspired them. This then progressed to me drawing a diversity of naked bodies accompanied by phrases such as 'there is no such thing as a bad or perfect body' - messages I wish I had heard more when I was younger and maybe could have prevented the illness I experienced. I want my art to help people, like me, who could have been saved from disordered eating by reminders that they do not need to change to be loved, to be worthy.
It’s important men feel included in feminist pursuits, and realise feminism is for men too.
What makes your art, and art in general, feminist? What do you want your art to achieve? Why is feminist art important?
I believe in actively protecting human rights and promoting equality through my art. I wish to harness art’s unique capacity to question the status quo, spark debate and inspire activism. My art is feminist because I advocate, with illustrations of diverse naked bodies and typography surrounding them, that destructive societal standards of beauty and social norms can be deconstructed and overcome. My artwork promotes treating people, regardless of their physical appearance, with equal respect. I hope by exposing people to different bodies surrounded by accepting messages that they will internalise and actively participate in forwarding this way of thinking.
What do you think it means to be a feminist in 2019? What would you say to those who don’t identify as a feminist?
Feminism, for me, is about challenging inequalities. Feminism is the belief that regardless of your biology, you are treated equally in society. This does not necessarily mean laws do not differentiate between men and women e.g. when it comes to parental leave often the mother needs more time to physically recover. However, it means that the laws apply equally. It means making sure that a law or social norm or practise does not disadvantage one person more than another, based on something as arbitrary as biological sex. I also believe being a feminist means being an intersectional feminist, we cannot ignore that facets of identity intertwine with gender inequalities and can produce complex implications where one individual’s experience of oppression is vastly different from another’s. For example, for a Black woman, it is not just that they experience racism and sexism, it’s that these two combined produces an oppressive structure which we as feminists need to acknowledge in order to dismantle. If we ignore how gender inequalities affect different individuals, our activism will be deeply limited.
How do you think people can use art in a way that normalises rather than objectifies the female body?
We can show more diverse depictions of the female form. While I think it is super important in and of itself to show diverse body types that individuals can identify with, I also think it can be good to show these diverse body types doing things, highlighting how a women’s body does not exist to satisfy the male gaze or as a sexual object. For instance, I draw women surfing, dancing and protesting. I also draw men, as men do of course also experience pressures surrounding their appearance, though to different extents and in different ways. It’s important men feel included in feminist pursuits, and realise feminism is for men too. There are plenty of ways in which men are disadvantaged by gender norms. We need to challenge the socialisation of men to view women’s bodies as inherently sexual and existing for their pleasure, and I think by including men in the movement will also help to challenge this discourse.
Are there any feminist artists that inspire you?
Loads. To name a few on Instagram that I love: Frances Cannon, Ashley Lukashevsky (ashlukadraws), Florence Given, Polly Nor and Hannah Hill (@hanecdote).