You have no idea how many times I have tried to draw myself naked.
I'm one of those feminists who came to the word late in the game and is now trying to make up for lost time. I have dabbled in not shaving my legs, buying lots of vibrators, and accusing people of "mansplaining" at parties. (I know I'm boxing myself in by only trying stereotypical feminist activities so far, but cut me some slack. At least I'm trying.)
Drawing myself naked, exactly as I actually look, and (hypothetically) writing something underneath the drawing like "My body is a sanctuary" or "This woman is beautiful outside and in" felt like a pretty important feminist activity, since I describe myself as a "working artist." Really that's just a euphemism for "I can't go out to eat because I don't make enough money," but it also means that I like to draw.
So here's how the drawing-myself-naked experiment would typically go.
First I would wait until my roommates left the house, and then I'd go into the bathroom and lock the door. I'd take all my clothes off and stare at myself in the mirror for about 20 minutes.
My inner monologue went something like this:
And so on and so forth. I'd try a bunch of different poses. I wasn't sure if I wanted to stand in a way that "flattered my figure" (as they say in Redbook) or in a posture that was intentionally grotesque (like Lynda Barry sometimes draws). I didn't know if I wanted to try to cover myself up and be kind of demure, or if I wanted to get it all out there. Did I need my vagina in the picture? Like, my open-legged, all-out Georgia O'Keefe-style VAGINA? Was it not feminist to not include my vagina? Was it too lewd TO include it?
Once the photos were on my computer, I stared at them for long periods of time. I wondered how objective a photograph could really be. Did I really look like that? What in this picture depicted the person people actually saw when I was out in the world?
After a while, I started to feel vain. "Better get to drawing," I'd think. I'd pick one out, sketch it on a sheet of watercolor paper, and feel like I was doing it all wrong. I kept imagining what would happen if people saw my paintings of myself. Would they think I'd been too generous? Too harsh? Would they feel taken advantage of, since they never ASKED to see me naked?
Eventually, I would just give up.
Why was this so difficult—this act of drawing myself honestly? It was harder than posting photographs of myself in almost no clothing on the Internet, or performing standup comedy, or even writing about being a rape survivor, which were all things I had done without much difficulty in the past. Those activities felt like the Monday crossword compared to drawing myself naked—a pretentious analogy, but just give it to me, OK? I'm vulnerable.
My interest in drawing myself naked grew from a BuzzFeed piece that came out in the summer. Kristen Radtke (a graphic artist herself) compiled a list of 23 female cartoonists, and had them talk about what it was like to draw the female form "in a genre so dominated by men." (Radtke was talking specifically about the modern graphic novel, which, as she notes in her introduction, is a genre rife with unrealistic representations of the female form ranging from Lara Croft to R. Crumb's wife.) The compilation is inspiring: women all over the country have given some serious thought to what it means to draw themselves naked.
When I hit a dead end in my own drawing, Kristen seemed like the right person to call.
Kristen is a thoughtful, unapologetically intelligent graphic writer. I stalked her a little online before I got in touch with her and was immediately obsessed with everything she touched. Besides the BuzzFeed compilation (which doesn't even scratch the surface of her genius) she's written extensive graphic essays and graphic criticism, as well as made stop-motion animation. She has a background in both nonfiction writing and art, which makes her uniquely suited for the narrow Venn Diagram world of the graphic essay. It's a minute genre, but when done well—done like Kristen does it—the effect is compelling, refreshing and unique.
I had meant to ask her questions about her experience working with many female cartoonists—Kristen had gotten 23 women to face this naked drawing business head-on—but she was so friendly and open that we quickly fell into informal friend-zone conversation. I started griping about how difficult it was to draw myself naked. I told her I'd tried and tried and failed and failed, and she laughed.
We talked about the expectations attached to women's drawings of women's bodies. The bodies in the drawings should not be too thin. The bodies should not have boobs that are too big. The bodies should not be too fat, and if the bodies are fat, no one should say that the bodies are fat. The bodies should be beautiful. The bodies should not be overly sexualized. The bodies should not be too chaste. Women's bodies, after all, have been historically treated as objects. So if women are going to draw women's bodies, they had better understand all the implications that come with such a history. (Never mind that most of them inhabit a woman's body every day.)
Kristen said that a lot of female comics artists experience this very frustration around the conversation of what it's like to draw a woman's body. She told me that there were a lot of successful, brilliant female comics artists, who, when asked to participate in this BuzzFeed thing, said:
"And they're right," Kristen said. "It's true. I understand being exhausted by it."
Still, I can't believe that there are any women cartoonists who don't think about this subject every time they sit down to draw themselves. Just as all women grow up being told that they must spend hours putting on makeup and doing their hair so that it can look like they have spent no time at all putting on makeup and doing their hair, all women cartoonists must, at some point, give thought to what they are saying about their own self-confidence and/or self-perception when they render themselves on a page.
One of my favorite cartoonists of all time, Erin Wilson, recently published a graphic autobiography called Snow Bird. It's the kind of project that would terrify me: Erin drew herself on almost every page, doing things girls should never be seen doing (such as waking up late, feeling bad about sex, and eating food). But despite the challenge, Snow Bird is singularly breathtaking. The emotional resonance is unique—Erin deals with depression and transience with the mastery of an artist twice her age.
There's a scene in Snow Bird where Erin wrestles with herself on the floor of her bedroom, grappling with the idea of suicide. She's in her underwear, crying, face to face with a stronger version of herself, and the pictures just sing. The scene, though, must have been incredibly hard to draw. Not only does Erin publicize the deepest, saddest moment of her life; she also lets the reader watch her whole body as she writhes around in the pain, uncensored.
"That scene took me the longest to draw," Erin told me when I asked her about it. "I guess I wasn't drawing myself naked, but that's the most honest I've ever been in my art. And that's scary. It feels unsafe."
When I asked to interview Erin, she said yes, if I wouldn't mind helping her silk-screen book covers for a project she was finishing at the Community Print Shop. (The Print Shop is a collective open screen-printing studio in New Orleans, powered by mostly female volunteer artists.) Erin was making comics to raise awareness for a local feminist activism effort, and I wondered—between helping to organize the New Orleans Comics and Zines Festival, engaging in local activism, and waitressing to pay rent—how Erin has time to do anything she does.
Erin said that she ran into the same problems I did when I tried to draw myself. She said she draws her own image in a very particular way: with dot eyes, glasses, and a round belly.
"The way I draw myself is so clearly just as much a mask as anything else. The truth is, I am very self-effacing with my images; I'm very critical and very harsh, maybe more than I deserve. I don't even look at a picture of myself because I know what I look like and the opinion I have of myself." She added, "I know that I'm doing this, and I know that maybe I should change it, but I don't."
In other words, the two of us had felt the same avalanche of hesitation, but the difference between us was that Erin went ahead and finished her book anyway.
Erin's brand of fearlessness is particularly important because it's so rare. Women aren't making mainstream comics. Tim Hanley, a comic book historian, tirelessly tracks how many female comics creators there are each month at Marvel and DC (the two biggest comic book publishers in the world). That statistic has consistently fallen between 9 and 15 percent since he began tracking it in 2011.
There are, of course, more female comics creators in the independent comics market. Veteran comic book writer Trina Robbins even chronicled the underground feminist comics revolution of the '70s and beyond in her 1999 book, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics. Still, though, lists of the greats are overwhelmingly male-dominated. On a list of the 100 greatest independently published graphic novels of all time curated by Goodreads, women made up less than 10 percent of the creators.
That's too bad, because women are READING comics—more and more every year. According to statistics gathered by Comics Beat last year, 46.67 percent of self-identified comics fans worldwide are women. Of the more than 133,000 people who visited last year's New York Comic Con, a whopping 60 percent were women. That means that just as many women as men are taking in these images of women every day—and the vast majority of these images are produced by men, which is made obvious by the fact that highly sexualized, Barbie-thin female bodies have been standard since superhero comics premiered in the early '60s.
After all my research on women and comics and bodies and the importance all of that plays on society, I felt the weight more than ever. My drawing would be a representation of how I saw myself and chose to present myself—and it would also be a step in favor of equality for all of womankind. I continued to be stuck.
So I took a shot in the dark and tried to talk to Vanessa Davis, one of the greatest comics artists of all time. Her latest book, "Make Me A Woman," is my personal feminist holy text; I have read it upwards of 50 times. The book is a collection of Vanessa's short comics, diary entries, and anecdotes, held together by their sense of humor and their commitment to personal narrative. It's an autobiography that often reads like a personal journal. Vanessa doesn't try to force her opinion on anyone; she just tells a story and lets her reader do the work. Although I look to Vanessa as my body-drawing guru (and so do plenty of other ladies who draw), she feels a little frustrated that she's become known as "a body artist," as she put it. She doesn't actually think about bodies all that much when she's drawing—she just draws them.
When Vanessa said she'd talk to me, I was thrilled and nervous. I rambled on at her for a good four minutes on the subject of my own body-drawing project and my on-again-off-again feminist artwork. She was exceptionally patient. Finally, after a nervous pause, I asked her what I should do about drawing myself naked. And Vanessa Davis, like Yoda, said the best thing ever.
She mentioned the same stuff everyone I talked to had said—about how in drawing yourself, there is always a fear that you will project yourself in a way that will make people judge you; how you don't want to be self-aggrandizing or self-defeating. But ultimately, Vanessa said, it doesn't really matter.
"Drawing is a humbling experience. No matter what you draw, your skills are going to fall short. That's an experience I like in drawing. I like that you are going to fall short of what things actually look like, and what you put together is some kind of magical composite of your failings, your ability, the truth, and the lie," she said.
Then she added, "The drawing becomes its own thing. And that is really what your image is anyway, because nobody can REALLY see you as you are."
I hung up the phone and sat down and drew a picture of myself naked. I didn't look at a photograph. I didn't toil over it for hours. I just drew it. I like it—I think it's kind of funny and sort of strong-looking. Here it is: my tiny feminist act.
Turns out it was just about letting myself off the hook.
Sophie Lucido Johnson is a writer, illustrator, and comedian in New Orleans. She is the editor-in-chief of Neutrons Protons, and she blogs and makes comics at her website. Illustrations by the author.