Skin, Anorexia, Body, Garment, Aesthetic
By Veronica Black
Figure 1. Veronica Black, 2004-2010
My master’s thesis explores the skin as metaphor by designing a series of materials that are an interpretation of distorted body image and eating disorders to hack the body as method to recovery. I developed these materials, which cover the body as a second skin, through a combination of research on wearable technology, sustainable material, and distorted body image.
Anorexia, to me, is not really about food and weight; it is more about other issues like depression, loneliness, insecurity, pressure to be perfect, or feeling out of control. Food and weight is more of a comfort, something I can control that, for me, escalated to a depletion of body image and self worth.
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by emaciation, a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, a distortion of body image and intense fear of gaining weight, a lack of menstruation among girls and women, and extremely disturbed eating behavior. Some people with anorexia lose weight by dieting and exercising excessively; others lose weight by self-induced vomiting, or misusing laxatives, diuretics or enemas. (Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).
I have been dealing with my disorder for almost 15 years. I’m much better, meaning I eat at least once a day and maintain a weight between 115-120 lbs. At my worst, I weighed 108 lbs and would go three days between meals. I do not remember being hungry during those days. I do not remember ever being skinny. In my eyes, I have always looked like I could afford to lose a few pounds. I still have very bad days–I can’t stand being in my own skin, food making me physically sick. On these days, it takes every ounce of willpower I have to walk out the door. My clothes do not cover up the fat that is showing. I have avoided subway cars or crowded stores so I will not be touched by a stranger because it is not a shoulder that bumps into my arm, it is a shoulder touching my revolting, under-arm fat.
I do not know how or why I developed this issue. I do not know why it continues, but I am at a point where I feel I can do something about it. I believe that something is this project. I am not setting out to find a cure for the disorder or shove it in others’ faces that they need to pity me and others. I want my project to be a positive solution to the issue, an exploratory art therapy project that discusses the body and skin as a metaphor.
Figure 2. Leftover food: Tofu and stir-fry vegetables.
Figure 3. Leftover food: Broccoli and garlic.
The concept of skin as metaphor for my project Perishable Bodies is meant to look at what we, as a society, put into our bodies, how we treat it, nurture it or not by: taking what goes in and pulling it back out; experimenting with textiles, recycled fibers, and food waste to create new material that can then be sewn into new clothing that covers the skin; fabricating a new garment with distorted aesthetic functions, something beautiful on the outside that may be really ugly on the inside for the wearer; exploring the distorted image of the body through the food we put in and the skin that encases it. Based on personal experience with distorted body image, these wearable pieces provide a commentary into how people and the media deal with the body by making others aware of how serious these distorted images can be.
My research has been looking at the outer level of the body, the skin. Not only is the skin the largest organ of the body, it also defines who we are–our race, our signature features, our culture, our future. The skin protects, grows, stretches, burns, and wrinkles. It’s massive in ratio to the rest of our bodies. The skin is the ultimate wearable technology, sensing touch and temperature and sending data to our hard drive–our brain. Further, skin is conductive; it can conduct power. It changes color by sending currents of energy to it, hot or cold; it’s sensitivity can grow new forms of life, bacteria. Through research into computational clothing, skin can be the next wave of new technology, an extension of the body it already inhabits. Skin’s purpose is to protect the body, and clothing protects the skin.
The aesthetic research for Perishable Bodies looked for artists who used the body as a focal point in their work and how they interpret the skin. One such artist, Ariana Page Russell (2005) a Brooklyn based designer with hypersensitive flesh. She purposely irritates her skin, drawing patterns, and photographs the skin. Russell takes “sacrificing yourself for your art” very seriously. She believes that the skin is a documentary of the human experience, exposing the scares, distortion, and beauty marks is literally a body of art. Her taking ownership of her body, its condition, and purposely touching it and manipulating it into something artistic, were as I cannot even stand to put lotion on my hands because that means I have to make contact with this wrinkled biological structure.
A distorted body image is typically an onset of an eating disorders, and depression is a side effect of these two factors. 17% of people with an eating disorder die (Hall & Ostroff 1999). Images of what you should look like are everywhere. Even obesity affects as many children as adults, and there are probably as many fitblrs–eat clean, organic food, and have a six pack, or you will not be cool–on Tumblr as porn. So it’s no wonder people have issues with their image and food.
Ellie Krupnick and Rebecca Adams wrote about a project hosted by Pro Infirmis, an organization for the disabled in December of 2013, sharing a video documenting the process of creating unique mannequins based off of the bodies of real people with physical disabilities. Some of the real models deal with spine malformations, paralysis, and amputation of more than one limb. Embracing one’s body born with societal imperfections or being blown apart must be a hard and emotionally draining. My body has no such deformity, yet when I see my reflection it does, I am convinced that this body riddled with misshapen parts, putrid fat, and jiggly parts.
Fashion designer turned biologist, Suzanne Lee (2011) says, “Spin me a thread. Align it in this direction. Make it hydrophobic. And while you’re at it, just form it around this 3D shape.” She uses bacterial-cellulose to create material that address ecological and sustainability issues Creating and growing your own clothing begins around notions of one’s own skin, how the skin can regrow itself and how bodies are naturally covered in bacteria. Lee’s research is leading the cause for sustainable fashion and repurposing clothing into something other than a cover for the skin.
Throughout the two years of my graduate studies, I was exposed to fashionable technology that showcased wearable art that were more feminine than masculine, and an encompassing introduction into feminism like Donna Haraway’s (2012) “A Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” which explores women as interfaces, then sets a “challenge to feminists to engage in a politics beyond naturalism and essentialism. She used the concept of the cyborg to offer a political strategy for the seemingly disparate interests of socialism and feminism” (Dvorsky 2010). It is Haraway’s use of the phrase “Cyborg Feminism” that strikes a chord in engaging new technology: to not stay boxed up in standards that are set by corporations but embracing and pushing forward through the use of new media that define creative work not gender. It is this phase in the category of exceptional feminism, used in a new found cyborg status as a way to defend what I hope would be my work in the world, implementing and hacking new technology and new ideas in media art applications to arm conceptual ideas for projects to be stronger and stand on their own.
The Project Concept
Sabine Seymour, the Assistant Professor of Fashionable Technology at Parsons School for Design, uses the phrase “Skin as Metaphor” as a way of expressing the “body as the centerpiece to discuss the psychology of interactivity on the body, the historical background, the intertwining of technology, science, and fashion, and precedents in art and fashion” (from the course description of her class).
In Spring 2013, I took Seymour’s Fashionable Technology class and worked on a project called “Leftover” where I made/grew my own material out of recycled paper and leftover food. I created material that was very much skin-like, sewed it together (Frankenstein-like), and used nitinol wire (memory shape wire) to simulate breathing. I could have used anything to make the material, but I chose food. I could have dyed the material any color, but I left it a skin shade. However, I did not realize until the following summer break that this project was a metaphor for my distorted body images, by taking what goes on inside the body and putting it outside, literally hacking the body. When family, friends, and peers began asking me, “What are you doing in grad school?” I would talk about this project. I would not tell them about the social recycling project I built that gamified community recycling; I did not explain the digital graffiti glove I designed that would allow you to wave your hand around and draw on a projected surface without touching it. My peers were designing for mobile devices, websites, and physical environments, but the interface I had chosen to design for was the body. The realization of this projects meaning for me was hard to swallow. I had unwittingly created a piece of art that was interesting and metaphorical out of the stuff I hated the most, food. And I wanted to wear it! Why had I done this? Was it because of my obsession with the body and food? This project was transcending my master’s thesis project to a personal issue that I was ready to take care of.
The research for “Leftover” helped me generate questions that would lead to the first prototype for Perishable Bodies. My thesis is meant for the wearer or the person interacting with the garment to cause the change. Flooded with ideas and comments from my peers inspired new ideas for change that would create new perspective of the body. I began to think how others would view the garments: How do you represent the wearer? Can the material and domain be like a mask, when a mask is meant to hide something? Can the garment hide the body or transform the wearer into someone else? You are what you eat, physically. The garment would represent how the wearer treats his or her body. The material would symbolize the skin color, the culture, the diet, and feel of the persons interacting with it. Does the material have a story and character? Is the garment a reactive membrane of the body? A new skin over the old, plastic, cosmetic, and prosthetic?
Figure 4. Leftover food: Cantaloupe, spinach and bread.
In Prototype one, I presented the material I made from my Fashionable Technology class to my thesis advisor in the Fall of 2013. The concept for prototype one came from the original material about growing your own clothing, material was made from leftover moldy food and recycled paper.
The sample of the material I had made the previous semester, along with my newest research statement, explained how the material was made, and why I wanted to continue working with it. The act of explaining the material recipe, allowing my classmates to touch and smell the material, was helpful to me to understanding how people would react to my material. At first they gently stroked the material, picking it up, shifting it back and forth, smelling and asking questions about how it was made. Why food? Why paper? Can you eat it?
Prototype one was sewn together and stretched around a wire base torso form (Figure 5). The group I presented my prototype (Figure 6.) gave me some food for thought. Had I looked into other materials that come from life-like leather? And could leather be interpreted by the meat of the animal and not the skin? Are there projects that are using edible paper used for cakes, pastries, and candies? Their questions made me start thinking about pulling the insides out and replacing the outside metaphor that had been lingering in my head. Their feedback stoked the fire of my curiosity, and I began researching these fields’ new domain questions.
Prototype one showed the process of making the material (Figure 7), starting with a liquid base of yeast, sugar, and vinegar, then ripping up recycled paper, mixing it with the leftover food, and liquid to make the first material.
Figure 5. Prototype one of the finished material.
Figure 6. Prototype one of the finished material.
Figure 7. Prototype one: Process steps.
Figure 8. Prototype two: Cleaning off the worms.
Prototype two (Figure 8) was a series of small experiments with material that was not moldy. I also wanted to try a new method for making my material. I tried to weave corn silk with blue jean fibers, hair, and newsprint paper. Through these experiments I unknowingly grew worms, freed them, and was accosted by the police because I looked suspicious.
Food is meant to satisfy hunger and nurture our bodies to make us strong and healthy. In some cases food can be a person’s undoing; too much of the wrong food can be unhealthy and no food at all can have the same harmful results. Taking food out of the body and layering it over the skin, much in the style taking something that had one purpose and giving it another objective, designing, and creating a distorted garment that functions as skin, is how I imagined my pieces.
I began with a drawing, to better understand the aesthetic of my thesis project. How would this wearable piece look on the body? What are the textiles interpreting, and how do I incorporate food? I chose to start from the top of the body, simulating hair in a distorted way. When people with eating disorders do not take care of their hair, it can fall out and become brittle and harsh to the touch. I began collecting corn silk from the farmers market around my neighborhood. This silk would be my hair, weaving it together with other recycled fibers, experimenting with new methods to create material I can use. Corn is a food staple; it is in almost everything we eat. It has a place of honor on our holiday table; it is featured in our history and fuels our cars.
I began piecing together my garment from an old shirt and blue jeans, not purposely meaning to mimic the daily attire of the farmers that grow the corn. But it worked to show the layered style I was envisioning. I presented this iteration to my peers, receiving positive feedback (Figures 9-13) but was encouraged to continue to experiment: dig deeper into my research, break down the steps of my process to turn food into clothing, and explain how I do that. Then I’d be able to address the skin as interface and the need to start working on research that looks deeper into the mental aesthetic of body image and eating disorders.
Figure 9. Prototype two. Corn husk and silk.
Figure 10. Prototype two. Recycle pattern.
Figure 11. Sample material.
Figure 12. Sample material of recycle paper, hair and corn silk.
Figure 13. Prototype two and user testing.
Prototype three had me going back to the original recipe from my Fashionable Technology material, but this time I made the material while I made dinner (Figure 14-17). While making dinner for my family (a ground turkey, vegetable, tomato soup), I took the skin from the vegetables (tomato, potato, and onion) along with recycled fibers and paper to create new material. That, I found, had a lot more symbolism than I had intended for how it made the material stronger for the metaphor of skin. Because I hate eating but have a strong desire to feed my family, the food I should have been eating was now what I was wearing. It was a moment of empowerment. I’m saying that I can use this “food” as a control material that can be morphed into something else that I put on the outside of the body as opposed to the inside (Figure 18-19).
Figure 14. Prototype three. Vegetable skins.
Figure 15. Prototype three. Sample material
Figure 16. Prototype three. Sample material and mannequins.
Figure 17. Prototype three of the finished material. Model: Veronica Black.
Figure 18. Prototype four was experimenting with colors. Up until this point all the material had a flesh like hue, pale tan or light brown.
Figure 19. Prototype four consisted of colored food and tea base: beets, beans, tomatoes.
Figure 20. Prototype one sewing.
Figure 21. Prototype three sewing.
Throughout the process of making the material, it became apparent that in order for this project to have the effect I wanted, the food garment needed to be dressed on unique bodies. Devising a do-it-myself method, I asked my peers if they would allow me to use their forms as my mannequins (Figure 22-30). Nine brave and wonderful classmates stepped forward to become my forms, allowing me to wrap them in tape and to dress their forms in my food clothing. We made the mannequin by wrapping tape around their bodies in the open studio space for graduate students in my program. The models allowed me to becoming familiar with their body, their imperfect parts, the fine details, curves and their insecurities in front of everyone else studying and working on their projects. The reaction to each new form made was different. The model would be surprised that their waist was that small or large, that their back bowed, or their breasts where that round. Most had no idea what to expect when seeing their form separated from them–whether to hug themselves or push it away.
Figure 22. Making Mannequins, Jorge Proaño.
Figure 23. Making Mannequins, Kamilla Kielbowska
Figure 24. Making Mannequins, Marta Molina Gómez.
Figure 25. Making Mannequins, Or Leviteh.
Figure 26. Making Mannequins, Clarisa Diaz
Figure 27. Making Mannequins: Veronica Black & Namreta Kumar.
Figure 28. The collection of forms.
Figure 29. Making Mannequins, Jeannette Subero
Figure 30. Making Mannequins, Jeannette Subero
This exploration in understanding the body texture and shape was, for me, a triumph over my body disorder. If my friends could stand in the middle of a public workspace, in front of other classmates and strangers, let me wrap tape around their body, exposing all their flaws and curves, then why could not I do the same. Why could I not accept who I was, curves and fatty parts included (Figure 31)?
Figure 31. Making Mannequins, Veronica Black.
Unlike my brave friends who made their form in public, I chose to go through the process in the private, non-judgemental sanctuary of my apartment. With nothing more than a roll of tape, a tripod and camera, I setup up my station and began taping myself. Periodically I would ask my husband to snap a shot or two when the taping got too hard for me to maneuver. The challenge of taping myself was symbolic to me–wrapping something around me tight, cutting my breath short, is similar to the tightness in my chest when running five miles without having eaten that day; struggling to add that one piece to the right spot on my back, stepping on the scale and wishing that number would get smaller. My mind reeled with, “Am I being true to my form? Am I cheating my curves? Is this really what I look like?” The bizarre pulling away of the tape from my body, separating me from this wacky delusion of myself, and observing the strange copy of my body was odd but not stressful. It was as if someone had taken weight off my body, I felt a little bit lighter, cheerful that I had done this part of my project on my own but with a safety net of supporters.
The mirror is not my friend, but I find myself seeking out the looking glass wherever I go (Figure 32). It is an obsession, a nervous twitch I must satisfy. It might be vanity that causes this mirror fixation, but it does not feel pleasurable. The reflexion is cruel, judging, and lying. My husband might say he can see my ribs taut under my skin, but my mirror doesn’t show me that. It shows me ribs that are disproportionate and covered with fat. It is not until someone physically points to my ribs or spine do I see them protrude. I have a distorted body image, and the mirror reminds me everyday.
Attending graduate school I found myself being drawn to the body as an interface and wanting to design for it. But how could a person who hates her body design for the body? I realized I had to accept my body before I could design for others, choosing food as my media in order to create a healthier relationship with it and journeying through this process to discover new meaning and purpose for my second skin. Seeking therapy and nutrition has helped me to better understand myself and how I want to design for wearable technology, constructing purpose and data through my materials and not sensors or wires. In the end, I now have a healthier relationship myself, an enlightened understanding of how we design for the body, and how wearable technology is evolving with smart textiles and sustainable materials.
Figure 33. Final Garment with model, Marta Molina Gómez.
Figure 34. Final Garment with model, Namreta Kumar.
Lastly, this essay is dedicated to that little voice in the back of my head telling me I am worthless, ugly, and unsuccessful. You, little voice, are not welcome here anymore.
About the Author
Veronica Black is a Digital Media Educator and Filmmaker that works at the American Museum of Natural History and EdLab at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a graduate of New Mexico Highlands University (2011) and Parsons School of Design (2014). Her research focuses on the body, education and wearable technology, and how they are extensions of ourselves. Her time is spent telling stories, her own or collaborating and sharing with others.
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