What Frida Kahlo taught me about myself
Here’s how I know that the word “feminism” is stigmatized. Until recently, I’ve said the words “I’m a feminist” self-consciously. I’ve gotten some uncomfortable laughter, quick looks downward and blank stares. Encouraging smiles have been few and far between, especially when talking to people of the opposite sex. So, why the stigma?
As a 20-year old female of color, I’ve come to realize that a lot of the problem stems from feminists being labeled as “aggressive.” This isn’t unique to those courageous enough to openly fight for feminism; numerous studies have shown that women who are seen as forceful are also seen as less competent. People take women less seriously if they seem angry or frustrated about an issue, and many label them as the infamous “sensitive.” There’s nothing worse than letting your passion for something show only to be told to “calm down.”
Not surprisingly, no one knew this better than Frida Kahlo. And no one defied the notion that women should fit a carefully-constructed mold more than she did.
I remember seeing one of Kahlo’s self-portraits as a child and thinking: How did she have the courage to look like that? Her eyebrows seemed to inch closer to each other with every passing second and her moustache was accentuated by the bright light shining from the museum display. Her eyes stared back at me defiantly, daring me to ask the question on my lips. “Yes, this is me,” she seemed to say. “Deal with it.”
Kahlo was unapologetically herself; this is easy to see in any of her self-portraits. At the time, she was in stark contrast to myself — a sophomore in high-school growing into accepting myself, but still largely self-conscious of my body and appearance. Kahlo had reached this level of understanding already, and left her public image up for scrutiny in the late 1930s, a time when women were treated much differently then they are today. You have to admire her level of consistently not giving a damn.
Take, for example, Kahlo’s “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale.” Originally commissioned to commemorate the life of a young minor actress, Kahlo instead painted the scene depicting Hale’s actual suicide. Hale’s body lies beautifully on the ground, immaculately dressed in a black evening dress but surrounded by blood. The white towering building looms over her, but it’s clear where the focus of the painting lies. Kahlo chose to bring her audiences face-to-face with suicide instead of celebrating a life. Why? Because she could. And she did.
Most of Kahlo’s works are filled with intimate symbolism, and nothing sings symbolism than “My Birth,” in which Kahlo imagines the birth of herself. The graphic painting hints at Kahlo’s struggles with infertility after a near-fatal bus crash at 18 year old. Infertility is stigmatized even today, but Kahlo had no issues letting the public know about her problems. Nothing was too gruesome to be painted in Kahlo’s mind.
Kahlo was revolutionary beyond her times, but she taught me very little about myself five years ago. Now, I’ve come to realize how extraordinary a feminist she was. Today, she teaches me that it’s OK to be weird and different if it’s you. Kahlo’s bold spirit may have been seen as “forward,” her appearance may have been seen as untidy, but she was utterly content with being herself. That’s a lesson I believe all of us can learn from.