When I first saw the photographer's work, I thought about it as a visual definition of femininity.
It’s not pretty to talk about femininity. Nobody wants to be associated with the beauty ideals of our grandmothers and all the pink crinoline that came with it. Yet I wonder, is that what femininity is all about? Perhaps we’re still going back to the same things rather than thinking about where these concepts come from. In an interview with Bitch Magazine, writer, biologist, and transactivist Julia Serano shared the following definition of femininity:
“I define femininity as a collection of heterogeneous traits that are independent of each other but are commonly associated with women. The only thing that feminine traits have in common is that they tend to be associated with people who are women or female. Some of those traits might be entirely social in origin.”
Serano then goes on to say that what we believe to be inherently female o male is really a construct where a biological trait, such as sex, is then translated into a series of actions and characteristics. But even when these are social creations, does that make them negative by default? It seems that as we move towards a more inclusive society, we’re still relegating people who have preferences we sometimes wish would disappear, such as femininity. In her article, “What’s the Problem with Pink, Anyway?,” Yael Kohen talks about the pitfalls of looking down at the color pink and princess culture in young girls.
“Rolling our eyes at pink feels like another way of treating female culture on the whole as a niche interest, somehow secondary to male culture — a.k.a. the mainstream.”
When I first saw Martina Matencio’s work, I thought about it as a visual definition of femininity. It’s not because her color palette seems to be very soft and pastel. I think it’s because it combines the sensuous with the vulnerable, which to me is part of what femininity is all about. It’s not that only women can be feminine, it’s that historically, we’ve been the ones who’ve been portrayed and captured this way. It’s only recently, that men have been lauded for showing their vulnerability, but even so, it’s not something that young boys are taught in the same way as women.
In an interview with the photographer, we were able to talk about these concepts, as well as to how she views her own work and visual storytelling.
“I guess there is a part of me in each photograph. They are a reflection of myself, even though each of them tells a story with an open ending… I always say that my pictures are the map to finding myself.”
In this conversation with Matencio, we asked her whether she’d started creating these images as a response to what the construct of femininity implies.
“Initially, it was unintentional, in fact, I actually started taking pictures of a guy. But after a while, I started taking pictures of women and it is what makes me feel better. I feel there is a distinct connection, a strength and an energy that I’ve yet to find photographing men.”
Like Matencio, there are several photographers who share their work through social media in order to reach audience and viewers around the world. However, the way that many of these platforms are set up comes with the possibility of censorship. Algorithms can now tell how much skin might be too much or if there are female nipples in the image. Activists have been making a point about how random it is for these systems to censor a woman’s breast as well as to consider and decide whether an image is inappropriate based on a percentage of skin.
“I find it absurd and saddening. Personally, it is something that ‘annoys’ me since many of my pictures show breasts. Yet I have to come up with a way (almost unconsciously now) so that female nipples are not visible.”
Returning to the topic of women and social perception, we asked Matencio about her feelings on the idea that women’s bodies are often seen as public objects. If we’re still seen as dolls that can be dressed, placed, and used to provide an aesthetic improvement, then we’ll also continue to live under the conditions of those who “set” us.
“There is a growing number of women creating art and that helps, in part, diminish the idea of women as “public objects”. However, I think it’s something that comes from way back and thus it is difficult to change it. Though, perhaps with the growing number of female artists we can finally change it.”
Perhaps it’s through observing that femininity is a type of aesthetic, rather than assuming that it’s a default choice, that we can start to make our piece with whether we can allow ourselves to like pastels, lace, and flowers, and not look down on others who love them. Having choices is a good thing. Let’s try to move towards an environment where we’re all free to make our decisions regarding what we want and aspire.
You can check out more about Martina Matencio and her work through her Instagram.