Arvida Byström's photos have been subject of criticism because she confronts us with our double standards on natural beauty.
Us millennials brag about being more open-minded and forward-thinking than previous generations. But there are some situations that make me think we’re far from being advanced at all, and that we’ve even moved backwards on certain issues. That’s what came to my mind when I heard of the many rape threats Instagram artist, Arvida Byström, received after posting a photograph of herself modeling a pair of sneakers. The reason behind the threats: she didn’t shave their legs. Yes, a simple act like showing the hair that naturally grows on her legs was enough for many people to be offended and think she deserved to be abused. This case forces us to ask ourselves, why is it about that photo that awakens such violence? How does a natural part of ourselves become reason enough to criticize and attack others? These are some of the questions that Byström explores in her work, as this isn’t the first time that she's faced criticism and verbal abuse for confronting our double standards on female beauty and embracing her body as it is.
From the beginning of her career, one of the main features that distinguishes Byström’s photography and modeling is how she mixes colors, images, and scenarios associated with being “feminine” with those taboo yet natural parts of being a woman, like having your period or growing hair in other parts of your body besides your head and eyebrows. At first glance, most of her photos are of her posing or taking a selfie. They don’t promote violence, nor do they break in any way Instagram’s guidelines on censorship. Still, many of them have been censored because of the simple fact that she doesn’t shave or because they allude to female sexuality, even though it's in an innocent, quirky way.
Instagram has been part of numerous scandals because of their unnecessary censorship, and many artists have decided to challenge it and point it out in an attempt to change those rules. In the case of Arvida’s photographs, they seem to cause such a controversy because she looks comfortable with her own body as it is. In her photos, she poses casually in front of a mirror, takes a selfie in her room, and looks at the camera with a cool gaze, just like many other Instagram users do. However, getting a peek of her body hair or cellulite –all of them completely normal in any average body– is capable of sparking criticism, censorship, and even anger from people. This last reaction is what intrigues me the most and which the artist also points out. Why are these people angry at a woman who is comfortable with herself and doesn’t care about unrealistic standards?
If we're being honest, none of us, not even the most gorgeous models out there, look like the final version of themselves we see on magazines and other media. These images are heavily edited and filtered photos that we’re sold as “real beauty.” What Arvida shows in her photographs is what many of us have seen or keep seeing in our own mirrors before undergoing any beauty routine like waxing, makeup, or exfoliating, a raw version of ourselves that we’ve been taught to reject and change at any cost without any real basis. Perhaps that’s the reason why her photos spark such violent reactions. Being shown that those ideas we’ve taken for granted for most of our lives aren't real isn’t easy, so a natural reaction to any confrontation is discomfort. Nonetheless, in an ideal scenario, that discomfort would be what’s needed to dismantle the harm that those double standards cause. But rather than turning discomfort into an opportunity of reflection, apparently the easiest reaction is just to let your anger blind you and attack the person calling attention to the problem.
As you look at these images, I’d like you to ask yourself whether they make you uncomfortable or if you believe they might have made you feel like that at some point of your life. As soon as you find that discomfort, just ask yourself, why? That's what Arvida’s work is about. As she shows, there isn’t a real reason to reject the natural beauty of your body or to hide it from others. And if other people don’t like it, that’s their problem. Her works also show that beauty shouldn’t be taken that seriously. It can be played with, distorted, and be both celebrated and made fun of at the same time. True beauty is being comfortable with yourself and who you are. Otherwise, no matter how much you change yourself, you’ll never be truly comfortable with how you look.
If you want to see more of her work, you can follow her on Instagram or take a look at her collaboration with artist Molly Soda, Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned from Instagram. Also, here are other artists who deal with similar topics: