Art, Beauty, and Permission

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This is a picture my wife took of me the other night with her new camera. To a lot of people, it’ll be just a good picture of me taken by my wife. For the two of us, however, it means a whole lot more.

After many years of not being able to do her art due to a grueling work schedule and fears about other people’s reactions to her pictures, my wife has decided to pick up her photography again. If you ask her, she’ll probably joke that it’s all my fault. In some ways, that’s the truth: I helped her decide which camera to buy and then encouraged her to buy it. To put it another way: I was a person close to her giving her permission to go and do her art.

Our society is really weird about art. We love art and revere artists (to an extent) and yet our culture actively seeks to put down artists, especially if they do things that are really different. There is a culture of treating art as if it were somehow “less useful” than other things that one could be doing. Many artists (whether they do it professionally or not, regardless of skill level) will hear things like: “That’s just luck.” or “My kid could do that!” or “Can you make any money from that?” Insinuating that the art is just some sort of hobby, and that if you’re not going to try and make money from it, then it’s not “serious” art.

In the arts, there are a lot of gatekeepers and jealousy. Both my wife an my mom are visual artists. The wife does photography (among other things), and my mom does impressionistic paintings in several mediums. Both of them have experienced through the art world (mostly through clubs and shows) an antagonistic attitude toward what they do. Sometimes it’s jealousy, either in regards to skill, time, or tools (this happens a lot with cameras, it seems). Sometimes, especially when being judged in shows or being chosen to be shown in a gallery, there’s a “gatekeeping” that happens when the judges either don’t like your art, don’t think it’s proper art, or have some sort of jealousy towards the artist for whatever reason. Add on top of this issues of gender, race, age, attractiveness of the artist, etc. This is just true for the visual art, but for all types of art. We have a lot of gatekeepers in our society who decide what is “real” art and what they consider “just a hobby.” I mean, think of Bob Ross. Now, his paintings aren’t my cup of tea and I find them kind of boring, but his paintings influenced millions of people to get into art. But there are gatekeepers in places like New York who totally pan his art and wouldn’t consider it “real” art or Bob Ross a “real” artist. Yet, Bob Ross painted nearly every day and it made him feel fulfilled. Regardless of the art, isn’t that what is thought of as a “real” artist: someone who makes art?

Is all of the art that’s created going to be good, highly skilled, or everyone’s cup of tea? Of course not. But it doesn’t meant that it isn’t art, and, in an ideal world, it shouldn’t mean that people should get jealous of another’s skill or equipment. Unfortunately, it will happen, because, as I like to say, we’re all humans doing stupid human tricks.

These stupid human tricks aren’t just limited to the reactions to artists, though. This picture is a picture of my body. My fat body. My wife titled this “Gina being classical” and really loves this picture of me. She told me that it was a beautiful picture.

I didn’t believe her…at first.

All of the old tapes, all of the crap about beauty standards, came rearing their ugly heads in my brain. The first thought I had was “wow I’m so fat!” which got the brain weasels dancing to ugly, unworthy, and all of the other crap that has been instilled in my brain over the years. I’ll admit, that when she posted it to Facebook, I was worried about what others would think of the picture. I know there are people who would see this picture of me and fat shame me (even if only in their heads), or decide that I need to be told what I can do about my health. In other words, I know there are gatekeepers of beauty, deciding who and who is not beautiful. Our culture is really horrible about bodies in general, and fat bodies in particular.

But then I kept looking at the picture, and once the brain settled down (somewhat), I saw more. I saw that this is how I am, and how the world sees me. Most importantly, I finally saw this as how my wife sees me: big, bold, complicated, and, yes, beautiful. I feel her love for me in this picture, and that she saw the beauty of my body as it is (even if I didn’t).

And, surprisingly (to me anyway), many people on Facebook agreed with my wife’s assessment. This is a beautiful picture of me. I have permission to be beautiful in this body, regardless of what others think.

Technically, both us don’t need permission from anyone else to do our art or to feel and be beautiful in our bodies, but with the way our society is, sometimes we need to get that permission from outside ourselves to feel justified in taking that power. But once the decision is made in your heart, you realize that you never needed that permission in the first place, nor do you have to justify your art, or your body, to anyone.

3rd Week of Lent: The Dadga and Healing my Relationship to Food

Right now, I’m in the middle of my time with The Dagda. Getting up earlier to make breakfast took a bit of getting used to, but it’s been nice to sit and eat with my wife before she goes to work in the morning. The other side of having to make food for others as ritual is that it really brings up the messed up relationship I’ve had with food and with my body. I’m facing the reality of being the one who feeds people and eating with others. It’s complex: There’s the whole idea of finding it hard to eat publicly, but yet, I have to feed anyone who comes to our house, or, as will happen next weekend, I have to make dinner for others outside of the house.

Some of this also brings up a lot of the complex feelings I have about my own body and how I look. The Dagda is teaching me to love my belly. He chides me when I think about hating it because he shows me his own big belly and laughs, saying “If I, a god, can have a big belly, so can you!”

I was looking for something to represent the Dagda on my altar, and there were a bunch of pictures of big muscle-bound bearded men with six-pack abs in the depictions of Him on Google. I raised an eyebrow, and He said to me “That is definitely NOT me!” I see Him more as I have Him depicted in the tattoo on my right leg: big fat belly, club, and cauldron. He’s a father-type figure for me, and brings about the seasons. He helps bring about Justice for those who need and deserve it. He has the ever-full cauldron that will feed those who are in need and deserving, but be empty for those who are greedy.

He came to me in the middle of my second degree initiation in my old coven. It was weird because I thought I had had a name all picked out for my witch name, but when it came time to say my witch name “The Dagda” came out of my mouth instead. I actually don’t remember the name that I was going to use, but after reading about Him, I started to understand why He came to me. I no longer use His name as my witch name (which He was flattered that I did), but He has been my patron god ever since.

So, if I make you food or ask if you want a snack during this time, know that it’s a sacred thing. The kitchen is my temple, the stove one of my altars, and food is the sacrifice we make for being human. I will not be ashamed to partake of that sacrifice from now on.

How do you see Deity? #showmehecate #showmethedagda

My friend Ember has an interesting project going on about body positive and diverse representations of deities of beauty (Freya, Aphrodite, etc.), which has poked at some of my brains to write here about how we represent deities in general. In my workshops that I give about the language we use to describe the body and health (which you can find here), one of the things I ask of participants is to think about how deity is represented in their traditions. If you look at a lot of the deity specific art, the vast majority of what you find is western standards of beauty and race. Most of what’s depicted are thin, white, model-looking (cis-normative) men and women who look like something out of Heavy Metal magazine. Heck, I’ve even seen a Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower magazines with a hunky looking Jesuses on their covers!

It’s difficult for us to picture deity in our own minds in other diverse forms unless they are particularly described as such. The Dagda, who is one of my patron deities, is a deity that loves His food and is described in stories as fat. He comes to me that way, too, and is quite fond of my own big belly and loud bodily noises (which can make for some interesting times). He doesn’t really care that He’s a big fat God and working with Him has been helping me to accept my own big fat body. One way to put it is that I’m learning, through His example, that a big fat body doesn’t lack power or will, which is what fat people are told from the time they are born. With my past experiences with disordered eating and other body shaming experiences, it can be hard for me to see the beauty of my body as He sees it. For me, it’s been a slow dance in my mind of body acceptance overcoming body hatred.

Another way that deity imagery has come up was when my wife and I created the following short film:

I distinctly remember bringing up the question about whether people would accept a fat Hecate, to which my wife replied with something to the extent of: “Who says Hecate can’t be fat?” I really didn’t think about it again until recently when I put together my website and re-watched the video. There’s still a part of my mind that tries to reconcile what I’ve been indoctrinated with in regards to body image and with what Hecate, Herself, has even told me about how She is portrayed. Usually what I see in my head is what you get when you Google “Hecate,” and while some of the images are intriguing, the vast majority just don’t look like me.

There’s so much intersectionality in this, too. For example, when most people think of “God” in the general sense, especially in the west, the majority of folks will think of an old white man in the sky. When people think about Jesus, he’s the white-washed bearded dude, not someone of middle eastern descent. Many of the Saints in the Catholic tradition are depicted as thin, androgynous, and somewhat non-human and otherworldly. While much of this art is, indeed, beautiful, I think it’s time we added more to the collection of sacred images than more of the same, making me really glad to see the results of projects like Ember’s.

Because, I think, when we don’t see deities like ourselves, it can sometimes be harder to find deity within.