Friday, 9 December 2016

Lady Lilith and Me: How a Painting Gave Me Body Confidence

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-1873

Lilith - the woman who, according to Jewish mythology, was Adam's first wife who refusing to be subservient to him and lie beneath him during sex before running off to the Red Sea and becoming a she-demon - holds a special place in my heart. Not because she is considered a feminist icon, though that is awesome. Not because she murdered men, mothers, new born babies, which I try to ignore. No, I love Lilith, specifically Lady Lilith above, because she's a redhead.

Or so she has always been depicted. I first came across Lilith when reading (the embarrassingly titled) The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair by Marion Roach. I had been sick of the stereotypes that people applied to me because of my hair colour, and wanted to know what was behind people asking me if I had a fiery temper or what I was like in bed. The Roots of Desire gave me those answers; it was an absolutely fascinating read full of history, that delved into the superstitious beliefs of the past, mythology, theatre, art, and even science (our colouring is down to a mutated MC1R gene - we're mutants, who'dathunk it?!). I wrote about the belief that All Redheads are Witches for The Coven, which covers some of the reasons for the stereotypes surrounding redheads, part of the blame being down to the beliefs about Lilith.

Lilith has a reputation as being the first succubus, attacking men in their sleep and murdering them after raping them. She's also a femme-fatale; a stunningly beautiful seductress luring men to their doom - or simply toying with them; "Lilith never lets her lovers go but never supplies any real satisfaction, either; eternally dangling the prospect of desire but forever withholding the money shot." (p22-24)

She's also pretty arrogant; she is beautiful, so of course men want her - she may not be all that bothered with them, cold-hearted as she is, but they definitely want her. But when they want other women? Well, that's not really ok with Lilith; in a jealous rage she causes those women to miscarry or become infertile. Yeah, she's not the nicest of ladies, but she is a she-demon.

With her particular brand of demonism being tied in with sex and desire (because any woman who wants and enjoys sex is demonic, obviously), it's not that difficult to see why she has always been portrayed in art as a redhead, given that red is the symbolic colour of sin, temptation, lust, and danger.

In talking about Lilith and how she is depicted in art, Roach discusses Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith, the glorious painting above. Lady Lilith led me on to the other paintings by those in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and I quickly fell in love with their work. But it was always Lady Lilith I was drawn back to. It is probably my most favourite painting, and I cannot fully explain the connection I have to this painting, or how it changed how I see myself.

Look at that painting. She is sitting there in her chemise - an almost identical colour to her skin tone - which is casually slipping off revealing an expanse of skin; her hair, symbolic of her sexuality, is unbound, down and loose, and the main focal point of the painting. Lady Lilith was completed in 1873, during the Victorian era, and Lilith is in a state of undress - for the time, this painting is overtly sexual. Despite the sexual nature that practically invites you (read: men) to look at her, her gaze, completely focused on her reflection, does not. This is a woman who is revelling in her own beauty and how hot she is. The fact that you can see her, that you are looking, doesn't matter. Your opinion of her body doesn't matter. The only opinion that matters to Lilith is her own - and it's pretty obvious she likes what she sees with how intently she observes her reflection as she luxuriantly combs her abundance of red hair.

I spent most of my teenage years and my early 20s despising how I look. I've always been skinny, and I constantly struggled to put on weight. Feeling boyish and not being at all curvy like a woman "should" be, I hated how ugly I thought I was. It took a really long time to get to the point where I just accepted that this was how I look, it wasn't going to change, and that actively hating myself was doing nothing but exhausting and upsetting me. Once I decided to stop myself from thinking negatively about how I look, I slowly came to discover there were parts of me that I did like, but it still took a while before I could look in the mirror and say I liked what I saw. And discovering Lady Lilith was a big turning point that led me to body confidence.

At first, it was just about colour; how gorgeously does the red of her hair contrast with the white of her skin/chemise? The rich, vibrant colour against the cool, pale shade. These aren't just colours on a canvas, these are my colours; my hair, my skin. I wore this contrast, that struck me so in a painting, on my body every day. It made me think of myself as beautiful in a way that had nothing to do with what makes a person physically beautiful, but in regards to what is aesthetically pleasing - it was about colour, not form.

And then there was how Lilith sees herself. Do you think she would care about what magazines say about how she should look? About the make-up she should be wearing, the fake tan she should be using, the diet she should be on, the clothes she should wear for her shape? About the circles of shame that focus on the flaws of celebrity women, and worry about the flaws she shares with them? Would she hell! Lilith would be enraged that anyone dare imply she was anything less than perfect. "Look at me!" she would yell. "I'm a goddamn work of art! I'm already bloody stunning! You can take your impossible beauty standards and shove them where the sun doesn't shine!" she would say, a lot less politely, before murdering you in your sleep.

It's just a painting, but the painting shows that this mythological woman has so much self-confidence, but also that said self-confidence isn't, itself, something out of a myth. How Lady Lilith inspired me isn't something I am able to put into words; I just look at that painting and I am filled with awe, not at just what I physically see on the canvas - a beautiful painting of a woman in her boudoir gazing at her reflection while she combs her hair - but by what I am shown; a woman who is intimately acquainted with self-love, brimming over with self-confidence. And if Lilith, a fellow redhead, can be so happy with her body and how she looks, why can't I?

A few years ago, a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition was held at the Tate Gallery, and I so eagerly bought my tickets and surrounded myself with the paintings I so dearly loved. I saw Sir John Everett Millais' Ophelia, William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience, John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott, Rossetti's Proserpine and Beata Beatrix, and so many others. But then came the moment I was face-to-face (face-to-painting?) with Lady Lilith, and I can't explain how emotional I was. Here I was standing in front of the actual Lady Lilith rather than an image on a screen; a painting that meant so much to me; a painting that embodied everything I hoped, and wanted, and would come to be. It was a strange feeling; I felt honoured to be standing in front of this incredibly beautiful painting, but I also felt proud - proud of Lilith, and proud of myself, of how kinder I was treating myself, and of how much better I was starting to see myself - and also an emotional rush of gratitude for how she had helped me.

I bought a print of Lady Lilith that day, a beautiful piece of artwork to grace my wall. But I also bought her as a reminder, as a promise to myself, and for me to look at for encouragement on the days I find my self-confidence slipping. My body is flawed, but maybe I'm perfect anyway. Maybe I, too, am a work of art.

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