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Social Illustration: Helpless Aesthetic

During January I set myself a short project of a series of illustrations relating to each other, they are inspired by a concept design I did in late 2016 in relation to a Triptych titled ‘Lost in My Own Mind’. The original concept was in relation to my own life experiences at the time being anxious with university and moving out of my family home.
I’m the type of person that covers their inner demons with jokes and aesthetics as to distract from the pain I go through in my own head.

2016 sketch book concepts

At the time of designing these initial sketches I was coming to grips with my drawing style, what I like to draw and show in my art. The kind of 80’s space aesthetic, sailor moon inspired, sparkles and cute girls. With the actual concepts I was using this inspiration for the accents and atmosphere but the meaning behind the designs were obviously heavy and hard to see for some.

2016 Triptych

I redesigned the situation the body parts were in to better show a narrative, as well as taking away the obvious signs of self harm as to make the final design more commercial. The narrative shown is a girl overdosing, followed by the feet which symbolise the fact she is trying to end her life but shows the transition from her overdose to her reaching out for help in the final design. The middle piece alone suggests someone drowning in their feelings as they attempt to end their life by hanging, but along with the next piece is supposed to suggest the person jumping from a stool to reach the surface of their emotions and finally reach out for help.

Recently I decided to go back to the original concept art and remake the designs with a new take on the narrative. The designs themselves reflect a very tumblr aesthetic to me and remind me a lot of the damaging content from the “sad” side of tumblr that makes an effort to romanticise and normalise poor mental health, generally depression and suicidal thoughts. This is something I was influenced by from the age of 14, the self harm and depressive visuals and text that were displayed in a photographic way made the idea of depression seem attractive to myself and many others. Making you want to feel that way or continue feeling that way as it made you more interesting and deep. Obviously now that I’m older I’m well aware this is extremely toxic and not the best thing, I still appreciate depressive photography and that dark grungy aesthetic to a blog but I don’t take it so literally anymore.
With the first range of illustrations I was trying to use that literal display of emotions and sugar coat it with pastel colours and sparkles to distract from the heavy narrative as a commentary on that tumblr aesthetic. The concepts were used as part of a project for University so I had to really tone down the obvious message and try to commercialise the whole thing, this was my first experience with a type of editorial idea. I know these aren’t necessarily editorial designs however as I was working on them I wanted to imagine them alongside a body of text in a magazine or website that would talk about feelings of helplessness and depression.

Scrapped concept 2020

As I look back on these designs I originally wanted to work with that gritty, unfiltered trauma like the original concepts but again just sugar coat it with slime instead of blood and such. When I started working on it again as I did before it really took me back to who I used to be, how I used to feel. It was hard to work on them but I wanted to push through and as I did I realised I wouldn’t be the only one triggered. I might affect people the same way Tumblr did to me and I might upset people through these images which isn’t my intention. I wanted the images to feel uncomfortable to see but not in a painful way but in more of an inversion way as if you’re seeing someone’s diary. Curly, cute handwriting in a pink journal covered in glitter, explaining the difficulties of day to day life and the harsh way they view themselves and the world around them.

(Don’t) Look @me 2020

The previous version was hard hitting like I say, so I remade it in a much more subliminal fashion. Firstly, that can was supposed to say Pink Gin Soda but I forgot to write that… The idea of the can of gin is another commentary on how casual addictions are now, how self destruction is so easy to do openly and comfortably. One can on gin doesn’t make you an alcoholic, of course, but the idea of one can that adds to many becomes a symbol of the problem I’m trying to show. (This doesn’t make much sense, I’m struggling to justify the what I’m trying to show here. I hope you can break down what I’m saying and just understand 🤷🏻‍♀️)
As for the subjects arms being the only thing visible, this is something I do when I take selfies and I see other people do. My reason for covering my chest and face with my arm and having my other arm awkwardly hand to cover my stomach is simple. I think I look nice, I want to capture a happy moment, but I still hate my body. You can like how you look in one moment, with your hair or outfit a certain way, but overall still hate yourself. Something people in my life struggle to understand. I appreciate that I look nice when I just try a bit, curl my hair, bother to do my make up, wear a nice dress and suck in my gut a bit. However when I go home and I breathe out and resume my regular posture I see the real me. She’s not as confident as the other me, she’s not as together, she’s not as happy. Because she doesn’t exist. She is an alternate version of myself that I bring out to make others think I’m okay. I take pictures of her, I put on her face and wear her smile.
Seems a bit over the top explanation for a drawing of magical floating hands in space? I’ll get into that later.

Do you fit? 2020

I’m jumping ahead a bit because I worked on 2 new ideas to add to the original 3 concepts. Those 3 concepts are the hardest hitting so I think it would best suit the flow of this blog post to talk about them last. The first of course was one of the hardest as it was the most triggering, but I wanted to get it out of the way because it was the worst for me to work on and was the only one I changed the design of entirely. The others just evolved a bit to suit my style.

This design is the 4th I worked on, it again is a personal experience. That is my old mirror, with necklaces and beauty products I still have. Constant reminders of the torment I put myself through. That mirror was something I used instead of a scale because I read in a book once (I heart New York by Lindsey Kelk) something along the lines of “a woman’s worth should not be determined by the number on a scale”. So I used other means of weighing myself, because even though I took away that want to weigh myself I still had to figure out how to measure my self worth. A bra I fit in when I was 14 didn’t fit me when I was 16 (obviously) so I concluded I was fat. My favourite pair of shorts were too tight, fat. We grow as we age, we change shape entirely, our bodies grow and shrink within a month thanks to the magic of periods. I never struggled with an eating disorder, I never over exercised to be skinny. I just hated myself and put up with it.
This mirror was something I used for more than 3 years to measure if I was attractive or not. I had it on my desk and would stand at a certain distance away, if my stomach fit into the frame I was in the green, if it hit the sides I was amber and if I didn’t fit I was red. I was depressed. When I was depressed I either over ate or under ate, not to the extent of an eating disorder and not intentionally. I had toast with butter and honey on and coffee, that was a meal. That was what I ate about 4 times a day. I only ate because I am diabetic and if I don’t eat something my levels will drop and I would panic eat a packet of biscuits. None of this was to lose weight but because how I looked in that mirror added to the way I felt already and would sometimes push me over the edge.

A main aspect of this design is the body within the frame. It’s distorted. When I was 15 I had a realisation that I didn’t look… right. I used to spend hours looking at myself in the mirror, I would hold my wardrobe doors together as they had mirrors on and trap myself in an infinite collection of my face. I would see myself from every angle and just get lost. I knew I was being weird as I did it and I wouldn’t let anyone catch me doing it. When I was alone I would stare myself down, make faces sometimes, move my face, make sure my reflection wasn’t trying to trick me and move at a different time to myself. When I was 15 I realised that I did that because I didn’t look right. Since then I have always known I am in the wrong body. A few years ago I was told about body dysmorphia and I’m not sure if it is the best way to describe how I feel but it’s the best I have.
I don’t think I am ugly, I like my hair, I have good bone structure, I appreciate my appearance, I just don’t… know? Is that how I look to everyone else, am I seeing someone different? When I think my flesh suit looks nice, does anyone else agree. Do they agree to make me feel better?

A lasting reminder\broken hearted 2020

As you can tell, these illustrations bring up a lot of emotion. I have vented a lot into these cute illustrations, these aesthetic dreams of pain and miserly. I don’t think it’s healthy to talk about all of this publicly but I can’t stop. The flood gates have opened and I don’t know where to shut them, I don’t know what I need to remove without removing it all.
I’m a ball of sadness covered by a thick layer of empathy and understanding. I want to help others because it’s the only way I can feel like I am helping myself.

This illustration is another personal experience. I once cried into a pillow with my makeup on in a fit of exhaustion. There wasn’t anything I was actually crying about other than the pain of existence. That pillow still has the stain from my mascara and the opaque, grey tears that surrounded my black lashes. A cute doily pillow that has a constant reminder of depression whenever it falls over.

Head in the clouds 2020

The main point to all these illustrations is the dissociation that comes with depression (for me at least). Her head is in the clouds, something used to explain me a lot when I was growing up. I’m never fully here, in the moment. I’m always thinking about something, or nothing, but not entirely involved in reality. I drift off often, at work it’s very hard to appear present. I work in retail for my day job and I find myself waking up mid task, somewhat knowing what I am or was doing but having to pretend I’m all there while I think for a moment.
You know when you’re reading a book, you’ve gone through a page or two and you suddenly realise you took nothing in, you can’t remember what you just read for an entire page or more. That.
Sure the girl is also crying but who isn’t? She’s depressed, that’s the main theme in these illustrations. You hate yourself and you’re depressed, you’re overthinking and depressed, under eating and depressed. It’s an issue I throw into all my art work because it defines my life. Depression is something I hide and ignore everyday but when I think about myself its the first word that comes to mind. It’s a word I wouldn’t even say until about 2 years ago and it was a big word for me to say. A big label for me to put on myself. Anxiety came first, that one is easier because most people experience anxiety at some point in their life, it’s relatable. Depression is more than that, it’s not a feeling that comes and goes in a few hours. It’s something that affects your body and mind. Drags you down and bleeds you dry.

Giving up 2020

Is she dipping her toes in the ocean to relax a bit, feel the breeze and forget her troubles? Or dangling them into the water for the last time and the air leaves her lungs and her head hangs in shame and the life she’s taken from the world?

This one means the most to me. From the original concept this design depicts hanging feet, symbolising suicide, but being depicted as something more relaxing and less heavy. Someone can look at this piece and just see some feet dipped into the sea, cute accessories and a sense of peace. The peace is something different.

The reason to having these 2 meanings to the design is that the person is uncertain, they don’t know if they need a break or to die. I can’t say much else about this illustration other than that, it’s straight forward and the symbolism is obvious.

If you struggle with anything I have spoken about in this blog post I urge you to seek help with your feelings. Even if you have a mansion and friends and can feel okay that doesn’t mean your pain is not valid. Anyone can experience depression or anxiety and more. Your life does not need to be in shambles for you to feel this way. No one can tell you how you feel and your experiences are your own.

Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hour)
Elefriends: elefriends.org.uk
SHOUT sms: 85258

For more places to find help please google for call lines in your area. I promise there is someone to talk to for you if you want the help.