Rae Threat's New Brand of Beauty
In coordination with Level Ground, we’re profiling the artists who are presenting groundbreaking art at the Level Ground Festival in October.
Below, Jarell Wilson discusses how artist Rae Threat challenges modern beauty standards in her new work, #THEUNTITLEDBODYPROJECT.
In a recent viral video, Jameela Jamil, an actress on NBC’s The Good Place, spoke about how she dislikes photo editing that lightens her skin or alters her nose to make her appear more White. “It hurts my feelings,” she said. As I watched this, I thought that it was rather brave to talk about how this erasure made her feel, particularly brave to refute the belief that Whiteness and White beauty standards are some goal hovering just out of reach of “lowly” People of Color.
Similarly, artist Rae Threat’s new work, #THEUNTITLEDBODYPROJECT, resists the corruptive forces that attempt to define beauty in our world.
#THEUNTITLEDBODYPROJECT is a visual reflection of how society and culture have formed the ways we view our bodies. Through a variety of media–photos, film, sculpture, and live performance–the project displays people as art by embracing their bodies in powerful and vulnerable postures. The work sparks in the observer the desire to be so in love with their own bodies that they may begin to see themselves as works of art. Rather than being the defunct goods we thought no one else wanted, our bodies are put on display to be celebrated.
Threat’s work occurs alongside artists like Lizzo, Jazmine Sullivan, Janelle Monáe, Demi Lovato, Gabourey Sidibe, and many others who have built a movement of racially sensitive body positivity for years, in contrast to problematic, white approaches to body positivity by Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer. which often lacked racial sensitivity and at times seemed racially hostile. This larger conversation of body positivity is diverse and, importantly, trans-positive, moving beyond individual personalities to a grander narrative of beauty that takes into account its economic and cultural effects.
“It's important to see more diverse faces and bodies because the lack of representation irresponsibly makes the majority of us out there who aren't thin or white feel like we aren't to ‘standard’, that our 'unconventional’ looks are ‘unattractive,’” Threat said about her piece.
In a reversal of the norms, this new movement–as seen in Threat’s work–uses beauty to inform gender rather than let beauty succumb to prescribed gender roles. This new movement uses beauty to empower the victims of the beauty industry rather than use beauty to make money for the industry.
Perhaps the strongest part of Threat’s work is its embrace of a broad range of bodies, of the kaleidoscope of humanity–different hues, tones, and shapes as well as different expressions of gender. Since the advent of modern Western capitalism, only one “brand” of body has been deemed as valuable by marketers: the image of the almighty, masculine, White, cisgender, able-bodied male, lording over those who don’t measure up. In this narrative of beauty, no one is truly beautiful; rather, everyone is just fighting to be beautiful, even the people who would be considered “on top” by these rubrics. And because profitable products are constantly shifting, the rules of this beauty narrative are always shifting.
Jamil spoke to these rules and the shifty ways we have been forced into them. Because skinny was in, Jamil “didn’t eat a meal between the age of 14 and 17.” Because small noses were seen as more White and cute, she allowed herself to be “hurt from a cultural point of view.”
Threat concurred. “Media and society feeds us to think that we need to fit a certain mold and that mold isn't one size fits all. That mold makes the people who don't fit in it feel like we need to improve our looks to be accepted, and that becomes a life-long struggle.”
Threat, and the participants in her creation, give us a new narrative of beauty. The beauty is in the struggle to love oneself. Each story is different, but maintains a common thread: each participant must learn how to love themselves, to drown out the myths and the stereotypes placed upon them by society. All of us have had some narrative placed on our bodies by the larger culture. What #THEUNTITLEDBODYPROJECT inspires the viewer to do is start that journey of self-discovery. Threat provokes the viewer to do something society wants us all to think is impossible, to look in the mirror, and not see anything wrong.