Justyna Neryng and her latest project, Hairy Women requires one to question: just when did it become the ‘norm’ that women should be hairless? Glossy ads, fashion, social media, film and tv propagate (by and large) the hairless body beautiful woman. While in porn the popular hypersexual ladies sport only a bald or well-trimmed vaginas. Yet in the 70’s the ‘bushy minge’ was all the range. Nowadays porn aficionados must look under the tag ‘fetish’ for woman with their natural body hair.
But the hair issues are much deeper than superficial sexual titillation. The negative connotations surrounding a hairy woman are boundless. The fanatical feminist intent on supplanting the male power base a popular trope: hairy woman are in many respects dangerous, and probably lesbians.
In her work Justyna Neryng (who also participates in her project) celebrates women who have chosen to remain hairy. Visually it is a stark rebuttal to the social norms and pressure placed on women to fit unobtainable and unrealistic (for many) ideas of beauty and perfection perpetuated by a fickle mass media.
Can you tell us briefly about you life in Poland.
I was born in Chelmsko Slaskie 1981, a small, beautiful village of Sudetan weavers somewhere at the end of the world in South-Western Poland. I first arrived in the UK twenty-two years ago, hoping for a new chapter in my life. Then I lived and worked in London for many years before making my home in Brighton & Hove, East of England.
Tell us about your life in Poland and how it might have had an impact on your chosen creative journey-we note you described it as ‘unhappy’ in your work Childhood Lost?
Growing up in rural and still communist Poland was tough. Apart from memories of queuing for everything and everywhere, I do not really remember much from the Communist years because I was a small child. In general, my childhood was happy to some extent. But what has had the biggest impact on my early life was my mother’s illness that lasted for many years. I had to grow up very quickly. The Childhood Lost series is a reflection on those days. The images are self-portraits in my daughter’s body, exploring the nature of photography and memory. As a mother I have found myself analysing notions and representations of childhood. I saw my daughter’s experiences of growing up in urban England conflicting with my own experiences of growing up in rural Poland.
Life is made up of pivotal moments-was there a pivotal moment that crystallised a wish to be involved in creative pursuits?
It must be the day I was given my first camera by my father; around the same time my mother became unwell. I guess it was his way of trying to preoccupy my mind with something else. He introduced me to drawing, painting and taught me how to use a camera. I have such fond memories of creating prints in our darkroom at home. My relocation to the UK, falling in love, and then experiencing the pain of widowhood and motherhood at roughly the same time, filled my life with a lot but none of it particularly creative. It took many years to find room for creativity, mostly in those early days through the joy of my daughter. Being creative has been a way for me to process a lot of what I have been through while not necessarily talking about it directly.
So those memories in a way have helped create this love of photography.
Indeed- I bought myself a digital camera to see how things had changed. I still miss the darkroom but digital seems to be a more immediate way of making images. However, I also shoot film but maybe not as often as I used to. I am self-taught and although I do not necessarily always know what I am doing, I feel that consistent experimentation without knowing the “rules” leads to some interesting results. It keeps me playing, without becoming too rigid in approach. I can set up a small studio in my home and the darkroom is now in a laptop, so it is a way of being creative and making imagery that suits my circumstances very well.
We were interested in your project Hairy Women, which explores the female form. As you stated a woman with hair seems socially unacceptable and indeed it has become fetishized to an extent.
The Last Taboo Women & Body Hair, my latest and ongoing project does explore the female form in its natural state, showing how it feels to be a woman. Women with body hair are not represented enough in visual arts and culture, they are not even seen as beautiful or acceptable. So, I have produced a series of reclining nudes in odalisque– style but not for their erotic effect, instead I am interested in conveying something exposed and raw.
I have worked with a lot of models, and I had noticed how the trend was for total body hair removal until I was lucky enough to start working with life models. They seem to be more natural and comfortable with their bodies, rather than conforming to a media/culture body.
Watching my daughter grow up with the pressures of conforming to what social media promoted as “normal” filled me with worry and sadness for her generation. So, the hair project was about balancing the scales a little. Working with women who felt comfortable as they are. Women who wore their body hair as a protest to body shaming (another tool used to oppress us into spending money, thus forfeiting their power), and women who made it a feminist statement.
I came across all sorts of reasons for keeping my own body hair and by participating in the project myself. I just wanted to help the dialogue and work with these self-empowered women who were a lot of fun. I did some reading around the subject, Marina Warner, From The Beast to the Blonde (1994) and Karin Lesnik-Oberstien’s The Last Taboo Women and Body Hair (2006) were deeply informative but, as with the way I make images, the whole thing is more intuitive than grounded in academia.
Lastly what do you think has driven this idea that a beautiful woman equals a by and large hairless body?
I think it may be an obsession with the youthification of the body. Body hair is a sign of maturity which seems problematic, especially for women. I would also love to work with older models and I have made some work in this vein but not enough to get a project off the ground yet. The constant availability of pornography does seem to be a very disturbing way in which youth now encounter the body. I assume it is also consumed alone, so there is no voice of reason questioning it just the dangerous assumption that it is normal.