A neatly manicured hand rests behind a woman’s back. She’s got long, lovely hair and her bright, tight underwear lends the photo an air of intimacy -- but as far as fulfilling an idealized fantasy of prettily displayed womanhood, the scene stops there. Between her filed fingernails, she grips an unwrapped tampon.
The girl who took the picture, Ashley Armitage, hopes it's a step toward changing our unrealistic expectations for how women should look, on camera and otherwise.
A scroll through her Instagram feed reveals more of the same: stylized, ethereal shots of girls that would look at home in an Urban Outfitters catalogue, if it weren’t for her refreshing choice to turn the lens towards, rather than away from, things like body hair, stretch marks, shaving bumps and goopy beauty products.
“At first it might be shocking, but then through exposure it becomes normal,” Armitage said in an email describing her work, which currently lives only on social media, although she plans to put together an “IRL” show in the future. Last year, she took her project a step further by kicking off a collaboration with another young woman photographer, Ophelie Rondeau. The two met on Instagram, and decided to start a collective where only photos of girls, taken by girls, could live.
“We were speaking the same language in terms of aesthetics and wanted to join forces,” Rondeau said. “That’s what’s amazing about the Internet, there are no borders, everybody is one email away from you.”
The resulting collective, Girls by Girls, is a mashup of the pair’s own photos displayed alongside submissions, which they aim to keep as diverse as possible in terms of expertise, orientation and race.
“As an upcoming artist myself, I know for a fact that many publications won’t be interested in you unless you are already ‘somebody,'” Rondeau said. “Despite wanting to include women of all shapes and origins in my work, I’ve only mostly attracted the ‘classic white girl’ and that’s something I definitely want to change this year.”
Armitage echoed, “I’m trying to show that being ‘beautiful’ does not mean being white, thin and cis-gendered.”
With grainy, diffused images, both artists’ work is overlaid with a delicate, otherworldly sheen, granting less conventional representations of femininity a distinctly feminine look. A girl poses boldly while sitting on a messy kitchen counter in a setting that juxtaposes her obvious beauty; two swimmers lean over a sink, examining their faces in a mirror, unconcerned with their un-Photoshopped butts.
Armitage remembers an Instagram commenter who told her that she thought the realness of the shots was “gross” at first, but after constant exposure to images of real women's bodies, her perception shifted to seeing them as “normal,” and “beautiful.”
“My photos embrace imperfections,” Armitage said, crediting the “democracy of the Internet” for her ability to subvert beauty standards on Girls by Girls.
Rondeau agreed that social media provides a space for women and other oppressed groups to present uncensored representations of themselves, but added that censorship can still be a problem online.
“Censorship rules are becoming seriously ridiculous and are damaging our society more than we think,” she said.
The censored work of expressive women artists Rupi Kaur and Petra Collins springs to mind, serving as a reminder that there’s still work to be done in terms of how we expect and allow women to be represented in photos.
In the meantime, Girls by Girls is a safe, open and grittily lovely shelter where glitter, short skirts and stretch marks are all welcome.
More photos from Girls by Girls below, and on the collective's site.
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