Making Ourselves (Up)
Negotiating Creations of Female Identity in a Post-Recession World
Spring 2011. Oakland, California. Ten women at Mills College were asked a (seemingly) simple question: What do you use to get ready in the morning?
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I was inspired to create a photo series featuring products and objects used to get ready in the morning from different women in my life, including myself.
The products/objects were laid out on a flat surface and photographed as an array of items that are part of our lives every day and represent choices and constraints both economic and aesthetic. These photos showcase the tools and practices by which we prepare/create our external selves, from within which we navigate this post-recession world. I used my digital camera to photograph objects after asking participants to lay theirs out as they felt inclined.
It became a study in culture, personal custom, and consumer choice – all coalescing to create identity, all gendered. The process of presentation itself fascinates me and I am especially interested in examining details of our often second-nature routines: what allows, motivates, and inspires us to present ourselves the way we do?
Personal presentation, I believe, is a mostly-unacknowledged art and maybe we don’t all muse upon what we take out of our medicine cabinets in the morning – maybe we just buy what’s on sale – but whether or not it’s a conscious process, we are constantly making ourselves (up).
We must present ourselves as students, as workers, and must embody an often-precarious balance of unique yet professional, interesting yet not too controversial – all to be viewed as viable candidates for opportunities that we hope will ultimately lead to fulfillment and some level of economic security in the midst of continued widespread economic uncertainty, far too real to many of us.
I wanted this series to convey how “little” choices perhaps represent some of the most central aspects of ourselves. These represented selections and practices – consumer choices, aesthetic choices, even sociopolitical choices – are inherently structured by new levels of economic limitation as well as ever-rising expectations and demands in a world in which, frankly, the degrees we’re pursuing and the dedication with which we are pursuing them rarely seem to be adequate any longer in themselves.
These images as glimpses into the medicine cabinets of others are answers: They are answers to my project’s prompting question, but they are also wordless replies to deeper inquires (which can be read as blending microeconomics and social philosophy) …
- What can we now afford to use, to present, to reveal?
- What is the cost of navigating the post-recession world as a woman?
- How do we maximize our utility of self within harsh (harsher, harshening) boundaries of fiscal constraint?
- How does what we use speak to how we aspire and what we aspire to?
- How do we prepare our faces to face our world(s)?
- When personal economic success is said to be attained by “selling yourself” as a candidate, how do we (perhaps subtly) resist selling ourselves out?
These photos additionally speak to the distinct identities of participants, some of whom present as boyish women, subversively-feminine women, sometimes genderqueer (always genderfabulous).
In compiling this series, I was struck by a pastiche of unique elements that appeared, such as men’s deodorant, imported kohl, tiny cosmetic brushes, rather decadent perfume, a homemade facial toner of lemons, talcum powder, lipstick, and glitter. (See if you can spot these as you look through the photos.)
We create a demand for re/viewing and reclaiming what women look like as we experiment with conventions and expectations to make them our own, to make them us – our art, our armor – as we strive to remain ourselves yet marketable in a less forgiving economic context.
Within the everyday struggle toward independent economic viability – through our studies, jobs, and involvements – we find space, however small, to nurture identity. An example of that space, a morning routine, is what I wanted to focus on. We create a demand for tools to prepare, present, and perhaps subvert, and existing markets supply our revolution(s) and our endeavors. Products are mixed on (or intentionally absent from) our proverbial artist's palettes for the canvas of external self that extends and shifts in response to both internal factors and externalities as we move forward.