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Her Body Is Not Your Playground: Why the Photoshopped Frida Nudes Are Not Okay


by Mia McKenzie

October 25, 2012

A couple of months ago, I started seeing these images going around on Facebook, of Frida Kahlo in various stages of nudity. They were being posted and re-posted by several people I like, awesome POCs whose admiration of Frida Kahlo I definitely share. But something about the images seemed off to me. I mean, where had all these new images come from, all of a sudden? I decided to click on the link, to actually follow it to a web page. And there I discovered the awful truth: that these were all photoshopped images of Frida Kahlo’s face on someone else’s body.

Why would anyone do this? I mean, okay, there are all kinds of photoshopped pics of celebrity heads attached to naked bodies that don’t belong to them. Apparently, the desire to see a woman with her clothes off is so powerful to some people that seeing her with someone else’s clothes off will suffice. I won’t lie. I don’t get it. But I guess some people are into that. Okay. But, right or wrong, I guess I don’t personally associate this phenomenon with the kind of folks who actually know who Frida Kahlo is. Further, I guess I expect that people who do know who she is, and who care enough to click and share a link about her, would respect her enough to not want to see her objectified, and in such extreme ways. But then I realized that the person behind all of this was a white man. And I was like, “Oh. Yeah. Figures.” When did the idea of respecting the image, body, or identity of women of color ever trump the need for white men (or any men, really) to do whatever they please? Brown and black women have been treated as beasts of the sexual burden of white men for hundreds of years. White men have regarded the bodies of dark women as plantation playgrounds, where they can rape and abuse and use as they please, for centuries. This is yet another way to do that. Without any rightful claim to it, this person has taken the idea of Frida Kahlo’s body, staked a claim to it, used it for what he desires, and called it art.

Is this art? Really? Is this “genius” the way it is described here? Or is it just the same old racist, misogynist bullshit?

Don’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question.

There is more at play here, too, than just racism and misogyny (as if those aren’t enough). The fact of the matter is that Frida Kahlo did not likely have a body that looked like any of the bodies being used for these photoshopped images. The real, authentic nude photographs of Frida that exist only show her naked from the front, and from the waist up. What we know about her life is that she was a victim in a terrible bus crash in her youth, and that the results of that crash included years of surgeries, full-body casts, and the inability to have children.

From Bio.com:

Kahlo was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side. She suffered several serious injuries as a result, including fractures in her spine and pelvis.

Following the accident, Frida would go on to have more than thirty surgeries.

We’d have to be in some serious denial to think that these things did not affect the way Frida’s body looked. There were surely scars, surely much evidence of decades of pain and surgery and brokenness. To replace that broken, scarred body with smooth, un-flawed flesh, as in these photoshopped pics, is plainly able-ist. Further, it dishonors the life Frida Kahlo lived and the experiences she survived. Here was a woman, an artist, whose artistic expression had everything to do with her physical pain, everything to do with existing inside a body that was twisted and gnarled, a body that hurt every day. To erase that is to attempt to erase Frida herself.

At the rate these pics are being shared, if this keeps up, these images of Frida Kahlo, which are not images of Frida Kahlo at all, will replace the authentic images that we have of her in our hearts and minds. People who don’t know her story, who don’t realize how fake these images are, will take them as the truth when there is no truth in them, when they are blatant lies. Lies created by someone who shares neither her color, nor her gender, nor her pain.

Whenever I see one of these photos posted in my Facebook news feed, I write a comment to let the person who posted it know that it’s fake and why that’s fucked-up. Maybe if others join me in this practice, we can help save the real image of Frida from erasure.

Mia McKenzie is a writer and a smart, scrappy Philadelphian with a deep love of vegan pomegranate ice cream and fake fur collars. She is a black feminist and a freaking queer, facts that are often reflected in her writings, which have won her some awards and grants, such as the Astraea Foundation’s Writers Fund Award and the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award. She has a novel debuting in the fall and has a short story forthcoming in The Kenyon Review. Her work has been published at Jezebel.com, and recommended by The Root, Colorlines, Feministing, Angry Asian Man, and Crunk Feminist Collective. She is a nerd, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous, a revolutionary blog.

See Mia in Beloved: A Requiem for Our Dead

Follow @BlackGirlDanger

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violence and mental illness

a lot of these articles are from an incredibly USA-centric perspective, but most of them point out important dynamics about how the media reports on breaking stories of shooting violence. not surprising that things are repeating themselves here in a lot of canadian coverage of last night’s shooting.


any good articles about how when a shooter is a white male it is always “the crazy individual” theory, but when it is anyone who isn’t white it must be because of their religion or race or larger systemic issues…

i had read a few recently about the shooting in norway and the wisconsin sikh shooting, and a while back some great ones calling out ableist discourse in mainstream media…

ring any bells for anyone?

The Industry of Frida


A few days ago, I posted two of Nickolas Muray’s portraits of Frida Kahlo. They are modestly blowing up. My dashboard is flooded with snippets like “she’s so beautiful” and “how was she so pretty?” and “#tears in my eye over how flawless you are” and “frida, you dirty girl.” Dirty girl.

I am reminded of something Garçonnière wrote, part of her continuing commentary on tumblr, credit, and context but specifically in relation to the circulation of decontextualized images of (often by, but always of) Kahlo on tumblr. The Frida industry, as we know, runs on Frida’s body herselfher face/hair/person has become a commodity partially because her face/hair/person was her medium and her most frequent subject. The thing is, though, that commodifying that face/hair/person removes that image from the reasons why it was her medium and subject: her politicization of her indigenous woman body vs. others’ politicization of her indigenous woman body; her sexuality/not sexuality; her work to materialize memory and place and pain, in order to do which she worked through the body as much as with it; and most notably her work as a response to the condition of her own body.

As my followers and friends know, I’ve been working through feminist representations of hair—the political, embodied, tenuous, tactile, poetic, ironic, painful ways women relate to the hairs that grow and fall out of us. Oddly enough, my mind didn’t initially turn to Frida.

This month my work project has been shifting LOC numbers TR—the photography subheading. During winter break, with the library mostly empty and Fine Arts that much emptier, I’ve spent most of my shifts in that back aisle, shifting and sorting photography books. In those long, lulling afternoons I’ve got plenty of browsing time (especially since our librarians remind us not to shelf-read for more than twenty-five minutes at a time or we’ll lose our minds). So I’ve been pulling books and flipping through them, looking for images and thoughts about hair. The other day I pulled TR680.F735 2010: Frida Kahlo: her photos.

The two photos I posted were spread with one more, a photograph of her head in traction, placed between them. I was so blown away by the succession of the three photos, of the way both photographer and subject were grappling with her physicality, of the way the sequence disrupted what we take for granted about her body and, mostly, about her hair. I should have included that third picture between the two that I posted, and removing it from that context feels now, to me, so exploitative. 

In order to consider the context of the photos, one should consider the book I took them from. “Her photos” are actually the photos that she was given or collected as much as the those she created. It’s a book of photographs from the files uncovered and filed in back rooms in her old house, the Kahlo museum. They were all photographs she owned. It’s a really, really brilliant book which frames the collection as Frida’s own responses to the art world at large as both an insider and an outsider (considering her family portraits, self-portraits, as well as works gifted and acquired by Brassai/Weston/Bravo/Man Ray). It also places her own photography as a conversation with her other work and her position as a collector, and it paints a really compelling image of her collection/creation as an obsessive act, a search for grounding. In the chapter which documents her days in bed (most photos in which were taken by Muray), snippets she collected (anatomical drawings of pelvises, diagrams of gestation) are paired with portraits of her pain, her posing in pain, or her working through and about pain. The book draws a genealogy of making which includes not just artmaking but collecting, modeling, bodymaking.

Muray’s photos of Frida in bed are noted for their stillness, their sense of classicism, a jilting image in contrast to how we’ve all come to think about Frida. They stuck with me because of the ways that her body was so politically unmade. A condescending Kahlo commenter might say that her image was always categorically unmade; that Frida’s body and images thereof were political because they were outside of contemporary beauty processes. (“Radical ugliness,” maybe.) But really, we know that making her body, making her image was one of Frida’s most dedicated labors. She was not unplucked and unfashionable because she was Mexican; she opted out of Euro/white fashion as a way to dramatically construct not only an indiginisma but to make her body into the other/outside/off that she was trying to materialize. Frida was an artist whose artistic identity was so defined through self-portraiture, but for her, self-portraiture and construction of body was also a seamless process of making.

Thus the unmade photographs: the unmade white sheets, the undressed, the undone hair, the Odalisque so classic[al] as if effortless. But there, in between them, that ultra-constructed traction brace. I am left unknowing what is body and what is material, what is made and what is unmade. And in the middle of all of this was her hair.

Fridas hair is fundamental—the radically unplucked feminine indigineity, her relationship with her mother, her making. But I have only recently begun to think of Frida’s construction of her hair as an extension of her making of herself, as a process embodying her own tenuous relationship to her body. To me, and people like me, hair is an analog for so much more; making with hair is both a compulsion and a language. Seeing Frida with her hair down and not just down but wrapping her up calls me to a more thorough reflection on hair as meaning/medium in Frida Kahlo’s work, her collections, her paintings, her photographs, and her self-making.

I’m looking at those photos again and at the hump of her hip and her peeking glare. That hump is one which, I guess, people tend to sexualize—or anyway, that’s what tumblr has done. That arching, jagged, fleshy hump. I guess it’s just as useless to reflect on that patch of body, the subject/object of these photos, without talking about Nickolas Muray. There’s this tension, between her own sexuality (and her relationship with Muray) and her absolute desexual objectification of her own body. And here was this photographer, in love with this woman, broken and holed up in her bed, photographing that flesh. Still, I’m grossly uncomfortable that all a viewer takes from these works is that she’s beautiful, that she’s sexy.

Even to the extent that Nickolas Muray was thinking about sex, even to the extent that she was thinking of sex, even to the extent that it was sex, I don’t think these photos are about sex.

But that returns us to that Industry of Frida, right? There was a reason that she was such a powerful self-image-maker, but those reasons have evaporated not just because of enterprise or uncrediting tumblr, but also because of art history itself. We are taught, when we are taught of Frida, compartmentally: there was indigineity, there was Diego (and therefore politics), there was pain (therefore psychoanalysis). We are not taught to examine her and her work for itself, for herself, and holistically. We are not taught to discuss her sexuality in the context of her artmaking and her politics. Frida, whose labor was making image, has been reduced to an image.

Maybe I should have mentioned all of this the first time I posted those photos.


“…there’s a culture of lefties that calls people “lazy” for not attending protests, not even considering the fact that taking action is dangerous and not an option for many people. If you’re disabled, a person of colour, queer, trans*, an immigrant without a proper visa … you’re apparently a bad activist for not providing your body to the throng. Fuck this brogressive fakery.”

- Definatalie ”Occupy my pie in the sky”

IMPORTANT REMINDER. it wasn’t until 5 or 6 years of organizing and protesting that a close friend of mine called me out on shouting a slogan like “stand up fight back” as being ableist. i had really considered other discriminatory factors around protests and privilege in the past, but noticing how entrenched oppressive discourses were in the chants shouted at nearly every protest was kind of the final nail in the coffin, or should i say the brightest lightbulb? 

it helped me figure out a lot of my own problems with protests (as empowering as i have found many of the ones i have chosen to participate in). but that’s the important thing: it felt like my choice to participate or not.

going to protests shouldn’t be like a merit badge in order to be considered a “good” activist, a “good” progressive leftie. it shouldn’t be prescriptive… but that’s slightly another topic.

here are two good articles on that note if you’re interested in more:

An experiment in asking politely for accessibility. »



The argument that if (marginalized group of people) would just (!) ASK (nicely, in just the right way using exactly the perfect tone and obeying all the unwritten secret rules) for (their human rights), they would be given immediately them by the innocent benevolent rulers who just didn’t know what they needed is so common that it should be in Derailing for Dummies

Here’s what happened when one lawyer with low vision and superhuman patience decided to test that theory.


This little mini-experiment is fabulous and details exactly how little awareness there is of accessibility in day-to-day life. This is the social model of disability, y’all. And I can’t stop thinking about how massively fucked up it is that society demands for people with disabilities to either 1) just be so good at not having access to things or 2) use time and energy and resources they don’t have demanding things that should be basic. This is indecent.


“Notice how “organized terrorist attack” becomes “lone crazy individual” and “isolated incident” when perpetrator(s) are discovered to be white.”

Eric Ward (via queerdesi)

Every single time.

(And that “crazy” isn’t just an offhand word, it’s always crucial to the rhetoric to make sure the violent white person(s) can be at least vaguely described as such, to establish mental instability as the source of their actions.)

Ugh always. Fuck. This.

(via akitron)


[Description:  Two circles, both blue with white text.  
The first circle reads, “WHAT ABLEISM IS: A set of taught practices  and subconscious or conscious behaviors against people with disabilities  and illnesses which assumes that being able is the norm, and people  with disabilities must either strive to fit that norm or keep their  distance from people who are able. Ableism often sees  disability as an error of life, a wrong way to live, and therefore often  negates any life experiences of the disabled.“ 
The second circle reads, “WHAT PEOPLE THINK ABLEISM IS: My feelings are hurt because you used the r-word.]


[Description:  Two circles, both blue with white text.  

The first circle reads, “WHAT ABLEISM IS: A set of taught practices and subconscious or conscious behaviors against people with disabilities and illnesses which assumes that being able is the norm, and people with disabilities must either strive to fit that norm or keep their distance from people who are able. Ableism often sees disability as an error of life, a wrong way to live, and therefore often negates any life experiences of the disabled.“ 

The second circle reads, “WHAT PEOPLE THINK ABLEISM IS: My feelings are hurt because you used the r-word.]