why making frida kahlo ‘pretty’ is petty
When I was doing my HSC, I had a major art crush on Frida Kahlo. I loved her artwork and the story of her life so dearly that I dressed up as her for a class presentation on her creative process. Yes, yes, I was sporting a moustache and mono brow drawn on with kohl.
So naturally, when I discovered the new (and supposedly improved) ‘pretty Frida Kahlo’, my blood boiled.
Tumblr user, alisonofagun* has come under fire for reposting a doctored image of Kahlo’s well-known 1940 painting, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. The image has been doing the rounds and garnering criticism, for good reason. In the rationale for the edited portrait, the original creator stated that the Mexican master was ‘a bit of a wreck’.
‘What would have happened if her girlfriends had done the right thing and taken her to a beautician (which clearly needed to happen)?’ The post said, deeming that Kahlo needed to lose her moustache and heavy brows and had no idea about makeup.
‘I did a subtle re-paint over the top of her original self-portrait to “conceptualize” what it would have looked like if she had been whisked off to Beauty Works…’
Pretty Frida hits so many raw nerves. From the body hair, to the false eyelashes, to the skin lightening, the altered portrait reeks of ignorance, despite its creator acknowledging the taboo the altered image would cause. But where the appropriator’s rationale is most offensive is it does not take into consideration Frida Kahlo as a character. Frida Kahlo was a badass when it came to her appearance and mannerisms, not some Hispanic housewife who spent too much time painting beautiful images instead of beautifying herself as the original tumblr user who created this image would have us believe.
Pretty Frida reiterates the increasingly ridiculous standards of feminine beauty. Perhaps the most significant of these demonstrated in the image is of course Frida’s facial hair. The concept of a hirsute body as masculine is profoundly common in discourse on aesthetics. Despite her long flowing skirts, intricate hairstyles and extravagant jewellery later in life, Frida’s idea of gender wasn’t traditional. Frida wasn’t a slave to conventional gender roles full stop. The young painter would dress in men’s clothing, which can be seen in a 1926 Kahlo family portrait where she dons her father’s suit.
As multiple tumblr users pointed out, the idea of feminine beauty depicted in the Pretty Frida image intersects with racist ideologies of Caucasian beauty, as Kahlo becomes lighter in skin tone and her nose shape is altered. The perpetuated idea of European looks as the epitome of beauty routinely sees people undergoing de-racialisation surgeries. For example, the eyelid and jaw surgeries which are currently popular in South Korea. De-racialising Frida Kahlo, however, is separating her from an identity she chose.
Observing photographs of Kahlo, it’s clear that she emphasised her facial hair. Kahlo’s heritage was diverse: her father was German and her mother came from both Amerindian and Spanish stock. Her features in her portrait are darkened considerably in comparison to the way she presented in real life. Much like the rich Indigenous Mexican symbolism in her work, Frida’s facial hair is a big ‘fuck you’ to the cultural imperialism that was present in her colonised society.
Like so many women, especially those thrust into the limelight, Kahlo’s appearance has overshadowed her work. Focusing on Kahlo’s facial hair (particularly, handing out stick-on mono brows when marketing her work) is less of an acknowledgement of her middle finger to the world and more treating her as what society might see as a circus freak for profit. It’s reductive to the memory of Kahlo to focus on her appearance instead of the conceptually rich paintings she produced in her short life.
*Alisonofagun maintains they did not create the image, but that framing of certain news stories featuring their repost caused backlash. The original poster was a user called toonsketchbook, but the account has been deactivated. Read more here.