Artist Alex Rudin Talks Female Empowerment, Body Positivity and The Importance of Self Expression Through Art
Recently, American musician Lizzo posted a revealing selfie on her Instagram with no filters, no edits, no-frills, and laces. The image stirred a bit of controversy as the musician is naked in the picture but women around the world rejoiced at the sight of a well-known artist being comfortable in their skin but not being afraid to show the eye bags, the stretch marks, the natural hair and more. Our world has always had an obsession with appearance, whether it’s the way that we dress or how much we weigh. This is by no means is confined to women. In fact, with the growth in social media, it would seem that men have become even more likely to succumb to what the Internet considers “handsome” and “acceptable.” Much like with women, there is huge pressure on men also when it comes to how you look and how you are seen by society. That being said, women have always been the primary targets of this superficial stereotyping and there is no doubt that this is still happening today. Even with the body-positive image that women like Lizzo portray, we are still dealing with the backlash of a narrow-minded, prejudiced and judgemental world.
I myself have struggled greatly with this throughout my life. When I was little I was always chubby and when I started at the older school when I was around 7, I was considered the “fat” one in my group of friends. I had an illness when I was a teenager that meant I couldn’t eat anything for two weeks and this made me lose a huge amount of weight very quickly. I immediately noticed the difference in how I was treated by my peers. As the years went on, I was able to maintain a healthy weight but after university, I would find myself comfort-eating more often. Combine that with new medications and leg problems that meant I could no longer do the sort of exercise that I used to without pain, then you get a significant weight gain! I felt ashamed of myself for letting myself return to that chubby child I was before and I dreaded ever meeting old friends for fear that they would judge me for how much bigger I am now. Even now, I shudder at the thought of those who knew me when I was skinny ever seeing me now. Which is ridiculous- absolutely ridiculous in every way- but that is what poor body image does to you. It wraps itself around you and squeezes so tightly that you feel you can’t breathe. Whether you are like me or you have the opposite issue- struggling to put on weight and feel you are being judged for being too thin- it holds on tight and it doesn’t let go. Women like Lizzo- who feel empowered enough to share their true selves and proudly be confident of their bodies- can lessen that grip. I know I certainly felt more normal after seeing her photograph.
The idea of women being empowered to be themselves- to break free of the societal constructs placed upon them- is certainly a topic that is prevalent and recently, I got the chance to chat with artist Alex Rudin who created a series called “Every Woman” which delves into the struggles such as this that women face in our world. Rudin’s work is powerful and evocative, prompting discussion on the treatment of women in contemporary society, so I was looking forward to asking her some questions about her art and her views. Let’s take a look at what Alex had to say about her work and her plans for the future of her art when she sat down with Tilt Magazine.
Tilt: What was your first reaction to Lizzos’s image?
A post shared by Lizzo (@lizzobeeating)
Alex: Wow! So empowering and real. Lizzo is a powerhouse in every sense of the word. She is consistently challenging accepted western beauty standards and opens up a world of body positivity that we all so desperately need and deserve. Lizzo continuously presents herself in a genuine and transparent way. In doing so, she commands power, respect, and attention. Lizzo lives unapologetically in her frame, something we are not used to seeing. She derives confidence from her individuality, which inspires women of all ages to accept and relish their unique beauty. This image is yet another example of Lizzo being an intentioned leader in the fight against femme societal pressures.
Tilt: Is there anything about the image that inspires your work?
Alex: Absolutely! A lot of my work focuses on uncovering and expressing the truths of what it is like to be a woman in modern America. I am consistently creating work surrounding feminist issues including eating disorders, dysmorphia, and sexual abuse. Drawing on my personal experience with the uncomfortable complexities of what it means to inhabit a body, my work addresses questions of feminism and patriarchal social constructs. Lizzo’s image is a shining example of the powerful nature of combatting the patriarchy through imagery. Lizzo is using her body to literally take up space, both physically and conceptually. She represents herself truthfully and unapologetically, which is a feminist act in itself. Lizzo stands strong in the face of intolerance and remains a role model for marginalized bodies everywhere. This image in itself is what art is about. She is challenging accepted norms while begging the viewer to confront their preconceptions about the body. Lizzo inspires me on a daily basis.
Tilt: Is female body positivity something you have always been passionate about?
Alex: My relationship with my body has been complex. For much of my life, I have struggled with dysmorphia and disordered eating. Having an ED is excruciatingly lonely and isolating. Recovering from a severe eating disorder has been the longest and most difficult process of my life to date. Those who have walked down this road know that recovery is not linear. Eating disorders have no size, no shape, no color, no religion, and no gender. They do not discriminate. This is a battle I fight constantly. The voice inside my head tells me that I will never be good enough in this body of mine. It tells me that no matter what I achieve if I am still this weight, it won’t matter. It makes me paranoid. It makes me fearful of socializing. It makes me feel ashamed. Yet, my work says something different. Art has taught me more than any book or article. It has taught me the most valuable lesson of all — My value has nothing to do with my body.
It often feels as though my outward appearance and internal dialogue are two separate people. I feel that the shame I carry with me on a daily basis infiltrates every aspect of my life, except my artwork. The studio is essentially the only place I feel the shackles of my eating disorder fall by the wayside. In college, as my ED raged, I was faced with a choice: Was my eating disorder going to “consume” my creative spirit, or would my artwork heal the cutting and critical voices in my head? I knew all too well that these two aspects of myself were either going to destroy each other or come together to heal one another. I am still on that journey.
Personally, I am more dedicated to the concept of body neutrality, which essentially encourages one to accept the body they are in and focus on its achievements, rather than its appearance. I feel that too often we fall into the societal pull of black and white thinking. Within the lens of body positivity, that translates into either hating or loving your body. Body neutrality provides an opportunity for middle ground and for acceptance. I have struggled tremendously with the body positive movement and unfortunately have never reached a place of love when it comes to how I view my appearance. Within the body positive movement, the pressure to love your body is intense, especially if you struggle with an ED. It often makes me feel upset or not good enough based simply on the fact that I am unable to look at myself with such compassion and acceptance. It seems like a world where only positivity is acceptable, and that is not the reality of eating disorder recovery. It is not all positive, and it is not easy. That being said, the goal of body neutrality is to dial down the enormous significance given to physical attractiveness in our society. The concept of body neutrality pushes back on all aspects of culture that continues to promote beauty as essential, consequential, and the ultimate accomplishment. The idea is to dissociate one’s worth from their appearance and refocus it on other accomplishments. Focusing my worth on aspects of myself other than my body has helped me to see myself as a whole person, not just a shape.
Tilt: How did you become an artist?
Alex: I graduated from Parsons New School for Design in 2017 with a major in Illustration and a minor in Fine Arts. I am originally from Wilmington, Delaware, and attended Wilmington Friends School, a Quaker school, for 14 years. I am from a typical New York Jewish family, which in turn influences almost everything I set out to do. As a child, I always felt a pull to New York, as if my ancestors were calling me home. I moved to the city in 2013 and have never left.
The arts have always been a serious part of my life. My family is extremely creative and values the uniqueness of artistic talents, which are peppered throughout us all. I grew up going to art museums, ingesting copious amounts of music and theater. My grandfather was an incredible illustrator, which was an extremely powerful bridge of connection between the two of us. Having such a strong creative bond only deepened my love for the arts as well as my love for him, which is one of the biggest factors in why I am an artist. In some way, I feel as if I am living out a dream he never got to fully realize. That is not only the biggest gift but also one of my biggest motivators.
Tilt: What were your inspirations when you first became an artist?
Alex: I am most inspired by history, symbology, and introspection. These are the conceptual pillars of my work. In every piece, I strive to combine visual allegory with historical reference to elicit an artwork that begs the viewer to contemplate their own lived experience. I am inspired by that momentary flash of irrefutable honesty and emotional impact.
Additionally, my inspiration comes from experience and observation. While the vast majority of my work deals with activism and social issues, I also like to think of myself as a documentarian. The job of an artist is to reflect and interpret the times we live in. I believe it to be critical that artists deal with concepts that are truthful and genuine to their lived experience.
Tilt: What was your favourite part of working on your Every Woman series?
Alex: My Every Woman series is designed to illustrate the harsh realities women face in modern America. The work attempts to highlight the struggles of living in a patriarchal society rife with social pressures, rape culture, and shame. The series begins by examining the pervasive and destructive nature of sexual assault among the femme community.
In an effort to paint a diverse and broad picture, The Every Woman series is a crowd-sourced narrative. The concept is designed around collecting first-hand accounts of female experience in 2021. Being able to use my social media platform and other methods of crowd-sourcing, I have begun assembling a snapshot of the current patriarchy. Women are invited to discuss their experiences in regard to societal pressures, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, gender inequality, discrimination, body issues, and societal expectations. Thus, I have been able to start to create a communal narrative that reflects the feminine issues of our time through stylized portraiture and anecdotal commentary. One of the best things about this project is that I have been able to build a community where such issues are discussed safely and productively. Having a safe space for women to express their thoughts and experiences sans judgement is imperative. I feel honored to have created a space where people feel safe and understood through my work.
Tilt: Your work brilliantly covers other topical issues such as US shootings and the pandemic. Why do you feel it is important to express these situations through art?
Alex: The goal of my artwork is to further conversation and spread awareness. My purpose is to create dialogue, promote actionable change, and spark personal introspection and growth. Art is the great communicator and it is my firm belief that artists are the gateway to a deeper truth about the human condition. Art allows viewers to connect, empathize, and feel on a deeper level through powerful images. Effective art begs the viewer to contemplate, to sit in discomfort, and to confront. I hope to contribute to this dialogue by bringing a modern visual narrative to the unprecedented times we find ourselves in.
Additionally, almost every project or piece that I make is aimed at incorporating community civic engagement or actionable generosity. While it is important to consume and share artwork, it is also critical to engage with the issues such work addresses. Galvanizing excitement and educating around humanitarian issues in conjunction with partnering with non-for-profits and human rights organizations enables me to be involved and also speak about the issues they face. It is important that my work does not simply take up space, but contributes to a society and/or community in a tangible and effective way.
Tilt: What other topical situations would you like to create art on in the future?
Alex: I feel as if one’s artwork should be dictated by one’s lived experiences. There is no telling exactly what will happen that will inspire my work. However, I will undoubtedly continue to work with human rights organizations, progressive political candidates, and non-profits. I will also continue to make work that addresses social justice issues across the board. Additionally, making work about body dysmorphia and societal pressures will continue to weave throughout my life. This is a topic I am passionate about and continue to be inspired by.
Tilt: As a fellow woman, I want to say how much I appreciate your work! What would you like to see in the future in art and the media in terms of female empowerment and representation?
Alex: Thank you so much! Quite simply, I am looking for balance. I look forward to the day when female artists and artists of color get the same opportunities as white men. The art world has historically been dominated by men, with exceptions here and there. However, women and people of color should not be exceptions, we must be the rule. It must be equal. I look forward to seeing women continue to repossess their own narratives; where female representation in art is not about sexualization, but about conceptual substance. The male gaze must fade into the annals of art history and remain there.
Tilt: Do you have a message to any aspiring artists who find inspiration in your work?
Make the work that YOU want to make. The point of being an artist is to engage in a life of self-expression. If you aren’t doing the work that fulfills your heart, then what’s the purpose? Of course, I have jobs that I do to pay the bills, but the majority of my work is self-motivated. The ultimate goal is to only make work that satisfies my creative spirit. To me, that is success.