As I donned the required garb for the evening and came to my face, I thought: What would Frida do? She wore traditional Mexican garb as a rejection of Angelo beauty standards. Sí. I would pin my hair back simply with the part down the middle, I would not wear mascara or eyeshadow or makeup to pale my face, only the matte red lipstick. I donned a headband with five flowers, a red scarf, a chunky necklace of glass beads and a black flora print dress.
As I slid into the black dress dotted with small pink flowers, I felt embarrassed leaving it unbelted. Post-grad school and thirty pounds heavier than I’ve ever been, I’ve been struggling to feel beautiful. I know self-shaming is wrong, and I can’t deride what God has created. It’s not by his criteria that I am judging my body—specifically my belly, my chin, my underarms, and my back fat—but by the standardized beauty of Gringolandia that I see online, in print, and on television daily.
Is feeling badly about my appearance actually sin? The two-step between the self-value I know I should have in God and the self-disgust that I do does feel like an echo of Romans 7:15: “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” I want to embrace the beauty of my body and face as a precious and unique portion of God’s creation. But looking at myself in the bathroom mirror I do not believe it. This doubt, this rejection of the truth of Imago Dei, it is sin. But I could not pull myself out of it.
Frida was better at feminism than I am.
The F Word
Following in her footsteps that night was not a moment of appropriating power but a shaky reach toward truth. Feminism is a loaded word, so much so that one of my mentors, herself a doctor and scholar in a male-dominant field, joked with me, “So, how long have you been using the F-word in reference to yourself?”
Whether we’re talking first wave, third wave, or millennial feminism, typically we’re exhorted to activism—to fight for the equality, de-commodifying, dignity, and human rights of women. We see this fight on picket lines, in television interviews, in church prayer meetings, in the exchange of social media comments, in the founding of non-profit organizations, in essays in The New York Times, and even in populist videos on Buzzfeed. Everywhere, feminists are advocating for women in overt ways that humanity greatly needs.
Yet there are other forms of feminism that come a bit more quietly, ones that represent this same fight that I have a harder time explaining to others. It’s the feminism that is done through experience sharing, the kind discovered in a community of women. Essentially, it’s an evening where I could just be with women, and enjoy it.
Because any woman can tell you that an evening solely in the company of women does not automatically a feminist experience make. As much as I may want to lean in, affirm others, and accept myself, my internalized sexism has made these experiences harder for me than I realized. I don’t think I’m alone in asking, “Can I be with other women and not feel compelled to compare and compete?” and “Can I accept myself in the presence of these women, and feel that I am fully female, wholly myself to the point where I no longer think to qualify or prove my femininity?” Womanhood in the presence of women is often like crossing a field of landmines.
Thinking back over my evenings in mixed company or otherwise, I have a hard time finding one where I could answer yes to all of these questions, despite my faith and feminist values. When I could really feel what I confess to believe, that we are all together Imago Dei, creations beautiful in the sight of God and each other. But that is exactly what I came to feel and to believe when I attended Frida Fest at the Dallas Museum of Art this July.
Coming to Know Frida
I had read about this event online. It was a proposed attempt to break a world record—the most people dressed up as Frida Kahlo in one place. It would be hosted at the DMA in partnership with the Latino Center for Leadership Development. Initially, I had no interest in going.
I remember encountering Kahlo’s artwork first in college, and deciding that I didn’t like it. Beautiful, but too violent. I always felt a lurking pain directly related to being a woman when I looked at any of her paintings. A smart but naïve twenty-something, I had plenty of experience of pain in the contexts of childhood and adolescence, but little as a woman, so I let their disturbing imagery serve as my excuse to side-table them. I even remember saying once that I didn’t see the point of creating art about such dark subject matter. Didn’t the world already have enough problems?
This dismissive view of Kahlo’s paintings didn’t change until I began reading my first feminist works, like The Bell Jar, A Dollhouse, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Suddenly I understood that the scissored arteries extending out like traveling vines and blood on the skirts were profound observations on the medical treatment and domestic confinement of women.
I didn’t know yet that I was staring into the eyes of a woman who lived with chronic pain and still climbed pyramids. I didn’t know the small portrait in her hand signified the loss of her marriage, or the child at the other end of the umbilical chord was her stillborn son. I found myself unable to picture ever hanging one in my home, but holding a deep respect for what they expressed so keenly. I felt their challenge.
Now, at thirty-five years old, I’ve experienced real pain. Kahlo’s self-portraits cut me and comfort me. And because of this, I wanted to dress up like this woman and honor her on her birthday with hundreds of other women.
I have seen many discussions online of Frida Fest, calling participation in it by white women such as myself appropriation of Frida’s look, even going so far as to declare that she would hate the event as a direct contradiction of her anti-bourgeois convictions. Sure, we weren’t being paid to dress up as Frida, but we would receive attention for it, and that or any other social benefits we received can be called appropriation.
I don’t know everyone’s reason for going, but what I can do is explain my own reasons for attending—and even more, how God met me there unexpectedly to strengthen my faith in a sea of pinks and reds.
Thousands of Fridas Es Muy Bonita
As I drew the darkest, thickest unibrow I could conceive of on my forehead, and deliberately did not shave my mustache and small colony of chin hairs (normally my daily liturgy) I was doing more than rejecting standardized beauty. I was aiming for ugly, like Frida’s self-portrait titled Muy Fea from 1933. I dared to be ugly and dared God to call my bluff and try to call me beautiful like this.
Like the woman at the well, who reminded Jesus that Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans, I shoved God off for a bit to see if he meant what he said about my value and my physical beauty.
Stuck twenty minutes in a tunnel downtown only two minutes away from the Dallas Museum of Art, I watched a car full of women in my rearview mirror. The driver and her passenger, a tanned Padre, in Mexican garb were clearly headed the same place as me. This Latina with a round head who could have been the woman kneeling in Diego Rivera’s The Flower Seller, laughed as she penciled in her unibrow, and passed the pencil back to her friend in the seat behind her. Glancing at my unmoving car, she turned back to the mirror to line her lips in deep scarlet.
After parking, I joined the throngs of shoulders swathed bright scarves and shawls. Flower print dresses paraded down side streets. Beauteous women were walking everywhere.
Inside the museum, I got in the line that continued to grow behind me, stretching from the north end of the grand hallway to the south, the whole length of the museum and out the door. Gray headed ladies with their heavy topaz strands and earnings pounded from twenty-seven-carat gold strode by waifish Korean sisters crowned with ornate braids, ribbons, and flowers imbedded in their hair. Mothers passed in their Puebla-style hand embroidered dresses, petals threaded on white, black, or red cotton in golds and orange-reds, glaring pinks, and cool teals. Tiny mijas barely toddling along with double crowns of roses on their heads, or carried by bearded men in muumuus that only reached their ankles, flowers pinned to the bands of their straw hats and to their buzzed heads.
Instant comradery sprung up. We were filmmakers, artists, mothers, sisters, teachers, and retirees. A ginger-haired Frida expertly braided the hair of anyone who asked into perfect circlets along the scalp in under five minutes. Some came in groups of women and some had come alone, some were local and some had driven from Austin or farther away to participate. We took pictures of each other, and lamented that we would likely not be able to get any of tonight’s free cake. Several of us confessed the conundrum of being uncertain whether we should smile or not in photos. Frida did not smile in her work, but our mood was outright jubilant. We glared fierce as we could at our cameras, but often ended up laughing at ourselves and ruining the shots after working so hard to get into character.
We talked about our reasons for coming, and one of my neighbors brought up the appropriation controversy. “I understand it. Some of my friends wouldn’t come for that reason. But I’m Mexican and I’m not offended. It’s a birthday celebration.”
I wondered if I would be able to bring this celebration of Frida up within my church circles at all if asked about the event later. After all, Frida is not a safe matriarch or saint to imitate by Judeo-Christian standards despite how iconic her image has become. A communist bisexual divorcée, twice in an open marriage, she’s not the role model that most Janet Oak– or even Dorothy Parker–reading moms would want for their daughters. So how could I look at Frida’s life, so distinctly outside the church, and still so personally receive benefits from it in ways related to my faith?
Because she was a woman, because she was a human being. Dorothy Sayers writes in her book Are Women Human? about how Christ came to women during His incarnation:
A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made jokes about them, never treated them as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously, who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.
Christ took women seriously, and for Christ’s sake so will I. Frida took women seriously, and so will I. I will not map out their spheres for them and I will take us as we are. I will invite them just to be with me, and in doing so be the body of Christ. Looking around I can’t help but wonder how we, the church, could make every woman, man, transgender person, or child that feels welcome at this museum event feel just as welcome in the house of God.
One Beautiful Frida
Beauty was overwhelming me. A family wheeled forward a young boy dressed as Frida, his head literally bolted and wired into some kind of medical suspension device. His whole family, also Fridas, walked with him, and you could tell at a glance that what he wore was no cosplay but necessary for his survival. I thought of Frida, her head suspended in cloth and pulleys, painting away at her easel. She who called herself a cripple and climbed pyramids, I don’t think she’d toss this event because of the setting. I think she’d see and enjoy the people, like this young man, seated, smiling and shy, ready as the rest of us to be counted.
At last the organizers herded us out on the lawn and at last gave us wristbands as part of the official counting process for the world record. I became Frida #244. We stood in our taped off square on the lawn, greeted our new neighbors, and proceeded to sweat it out.
The splendor of colors and shapes overwhelmed me. Everywhere I turned the unibrow. Young girls, some blonde, some Greek, some Mexican, some Pacific Islander, filed in between the swish of floral dresses. Waves of flowers bobbed on shaved heads and afros, and tight black knots of hair. A sea of bare arms, and hands reached for neighbors. We shared lotion and wiped smudges from each other’s faces, tucked hair and flowers back into place, and helped pull bolts of cloth out to sit on the cool grass. Day of the Dead skulls dangled from ears and from wrists, tattoos of wings emerged between shoulder blades where scarves fell down. We took off our sandals and chatted. We took sly pictures of color combinations we admired. We smiled, blinking into the sun as the shadow of the museum moved slowly higher and gave us some shelter.
In this moment of participation, surrounded by women of every race, height, body type, and age, at last I was able to accept what Frida already believed, that God had made me beautiful. Here in this sea of embodied beauty, as we sang Happy Birthday to Frida in English and Spanish, I could believe in a way no feminist essay or scripture had provoked me to before. I could not deny how God had made us beautiful.
I asked a little girl across from me if I could take her picture. She nodded, and held herself still with simplicity and grace. “Would you like to see?” She nodded. “You look beautiful,” I said.
But I didn’t need to tell her this. One look at her face and you can see that she knows her value. She is confident that she is loved and beautiful and she is completely unselfconscious in the same moment.
And I knew how she felt, because I felt it too.
“El arte mas poderoso de la vida, es hacer del dolor un talisman que cura una mariposa renace florecida en fiesta de colores!”