Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

31 Aug Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29.8.22


There is a century old artwork newly treasured at my house. It is Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” painted in 1907, and it arrived as a birthday card inside a package from Vancouver last week.

The women are naked, unselfconscious, strident, ethnically diverse and all Picasso-angles suggesting curves. They look like the kind of women who would not suck in their tummies as they passed by a mirror. This kind of confidence is, for many of us, aspirational.

I am setting aside for a moment the problematic relationships Picasso had with women and that infamous quote about us all being either “goddesses or doormats”. In this painting, I choose not to see the artist. I see women in a brothel looking much like ladies gathered for book club who have stopped bothering with the books. There are snacks in the foreground and an intimation of cocktails.

The demoiselles were waiting for me after I’d flown home from a work trip, picking up doughnuts at the airport as I sometimes do. Not often. Doughnuts are a treat, pure carbs and sugar. In fact, moments before I saw the postcard I was pondering the wisdom of this ritual – as you get older, your pants get tighter for very little reason, and the number on the scales climbs, and you get anxious about the shape you are becoming and who this means you are now and OH MY LORD WHERE IS ALL THIS JUDGEMENT COMING FROM? Certainly not from the demoiselles of Avignon who look very open to the idea of not only doughnuts but of relaxing into themselves.

How I feel about my body, I’ve discovered, has less to do with what I put in my mouth, and more to do with what I put in my eyes. In a world where we are constantly shown what “conventionally beautiful” looks like in magazines and films, on TV and our phones, you can look up from all that to see yourself and feel – what? Disappointed, inadequate, unacceptable, in need of improvement?

There is a thing our brains do – have always done – which is to regularly create an idea of what “normal” and “usual” and “average” looks like. As we go about our day we subconsciously make a note of the faces we see so, by dinner time, our brain has compiled a composite image of what people generally look like.

In evolutionary terms this has been handy – we could immediately spot a stranger in the village by their unusual features, alerting us to inquire if they were friend or foe. But now, when we can spend all day seeing photo-shopped, filtered and otherwise enhanced faces and bodies, that’s what our brain uses to produce its composite image of “average”. In this impossible context, our very own face is the one of out of place.

A really useful question to ask ourselves is, who benefits from this? Because those images of “what you don’t look like, but might if you tried harder or bought this” are a big business, directly or indirectly advertising something – the perfect thing you need now you’re aware of your imperfections.

It is powerful, then, to remind ourselves that these thoughts we have about not being beautiful have been put there by someone who is trying to sell us something.

I’m spending part of each day staring at the unapologetic women of Avignon and admiring their spirit. A positive body image is a daily battle, and they’re one of the weapons that help me win it.