“What any woman does with her body is really no one’s business but her own.” So says 17 year old Brooklyn based artist Mikhaila Nödel.
A member of her school’s feminist club, Nödel is the creator of the series ‘Cosmic Cuties’. The zine, with its monthly editions, was conceived as a small blog on Tumblr. The media-sharing website, (which Nödel cites as her biggest influence apart from her art teachers) is often recognized for its users’ high level of engagement with cross-cutting and overlapping social-justice issues. It’s also an excellent platform for makers of visual content to question normative social patterns, and depict the possibility of a more representative and egalitarian lived reality.
Part of this spontaneous collective effort, Nödel’s work is a delightful foil to the saturation of shaming and disciplining notions around us, encouraging us to inculcate self-love into our daily routine. Many people are unhappy with what they see in the mirror, reeling under the insidious and diffused effects of negative body image. And that’s exactly why we need the Cuties.
Nödel describes Comic Cuties as beings “born from space dust [that] slow down the universe and fight sexist crime. They’re these feminist goddesses that watch over all women and are there to protect them.” Complete with stretch marks, body hair and other oft stigmatized markers of a natural body, they float through space in their star-spangled two-pieces, introducing readers to complex issues of bodily-autonomy, female desire, gender politics and much more. It’s a fantastic entry point to the larger conversation of which she is well aware and consciously a part of.
“Cosmic Cuties are all about accepting yourself and others,” she explains, and feeling empowered and confident. “If she doesn’t want to shave, that’s her choice! It really doesn’t affect anyone but herself. Body policing is ridiculous because what a woman does with her OWN body has nothing to do with anyone but herself! Stigma against menstruation, breastfeeding, and other natural bodily functions or features of bodies with vaginas are incredibly sexist, because they imply that the female body is something to be hidden or inherently ‘wrong’.“
This negative view of the female body is inscribed into us through cultural practices, language and mass media’s preference for fair, slim female bodies. As a result, some form or the other of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) appears to be prevalent among both men and women, but particularly among adolescents. Scholars Jaiyant Cavale and Dweep Chand Singh’s paper ‘Current Status of Body Image Research in India‘ describes BDD as “[compulsive] behaviours that seek to fix [the individual’s] imagined or exaggerated flaws“. It can get to a point where it inhibits normal functioning, and while many of us can still go about our daily lives, negative body image can take a serious hit on our self-esteem and confidence. Nödel’s creations became a counter to her own negative experiences. “I used to be extremely insecure and feminism really helped me get over that. I was bullied in middle school and had really bad self-esteem problems, like most teenage girls, so I’ve been there. I don’t think anyone should go through that.” Learning to accept not only your own body for all its perceived imperfections but accepting all bodies as they are could be key to lifting this spell of Body Dysmorphia. And who better to do it than Cosmic Cuties?
The desire to fit neatly into some arbitrary and often impossible beauty standards may be due to the imposition of Western beauty ideals onto various cultures. However, indigenous attempts to force the human body into non-naturally occurring forms for the sake of ‘beauty’ have also been recorded. For example, Kayan tribeswomen of Thailand retained the old custom of wearing brass coils to elongate their necks. There’s also the elongated ear-lobes among Kenyan Masai women and the stretched lips of the Mursi in Southern Ethiopia. Infamous among these is Chinese foot-binding, which persisted even after it was outlawed in 1912.
And yet these customs have not had the kind of impacts that attractively packaged and sold standards from the West have had. One of the outcomes of such standards is the constant scrutiny of a woman’s weight. Which is why it’s interesting that the Cosmic Cuties are these kickass plus size women whacking away at body shaming. “I don’t believe that one should have to justify their weight–or anything else about their body for that matter–to anyone,” says Nödel. When we become targets of body shaming, we tend to laugh it off, or assure people we’re working on our weight. The result of responding negatively to your own body is a psychological burden no one should have to bear. Nödel says: “A better way to deter body shaming would be to explain that to them. It’s really none of their business!”
What’s great is that Nödel encourages conversation, with frequent inputs from Tumblr users. Several requests have been made for Cosmic Cuties to tackle issues like being trans, or being gay, or destroying internalized misogyny among female peers. It’s a really full-bodied project. Pun intended. The illustrations have even addressed the cissexist construction of gender. “I have a zine about gender, in which the cosmic cuties explain that you shouldn’t assume a person’s gender just by their appearance, and they explain that there are genders besides male and female. Also, my most recent zine states that all women are real women, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes women who don’t look traditionally feminine (i.e. trans women who never had top surgery or just women who have small breasts in general).”
With her well-rounded understanding of feminist politics, she has been very successful with Tumblr users, who regularly engage with her. One fan raised the question of racial diversity, asking why Cosmic Cuties are white. Nödel responds by saying “I just chose not to colour them in for artistic purposes, but there is racial diversity among them. Just because the paper I use is white doesn’t mean they are all white.” Speaking about body-fat distribution, she says “there are definitely different expectations for what a woman’s body should look like, according to their race,” and Cosmic Cuties have been drawn to recognize the intersection of race and body image.
While acknowledging these complexities, Nödel’s definition of feminism is fairly simple: “There is so much stigma against the word, and I think we really need to eradicate that. There are definitely a few people at my school who are ‘anti-feminist’, one of them being a girl. I personally don’t understand how a woman can believe that sexism doesn’t exist.” Not many people readily identify with that ‘f-word’, and even fewer young people do. There’s even a Women Against Feminism website. But Nödel’s stance is clear. “There are people who keep asking me to make male cosmic cuties. They don’t seem to understand that not everything is about men. Just because I’m a feminist, doesn’t mean I hate men. I just don’t think that men have to be at the centre of attention all the time. To me, feminism is just the belief that all women should have equal rights. That’s it. You don’t have to be anything but someone who believes in equality to be a feminist.”
It is clear that Cosmic Cuties is feminist to the core. The artist has shown great understanding and maturity through her project, as well as will to make feminist discourse all the more accessible. We hope Nödel, going through the motions of any student going into 12th grade, continues publishing monthly zines featuring these Cuties, reminding us about choice, respect and above all, self-love. As Caroline Caldwell said, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act,” and Nödel’s work makes her the biggest rebel ever.