Body Image

The unflinching feminism of Petra Collins

A woman in front of a wall, with her arms on top of her head
Photograph by Jody Rogac

Petra Collins, a twenty-one-year-old artist from Toronto, captures young women coming of age in moments where they are studying themselves in mirrors, loitering in public washrooms, lounging in untidy bedrooms, sinking into bathtubs. They are ensconced in the privacy of a teenage world, hidden from the male gaze. They are examined from a teenage perspective. The photographs are subtle and beautiful and messy and transcendent. They look like a cross between pics taken on an iPhone and the drawings of the Virgin Mary on bent-up cards stuck in Latin American bus windows.

Vice, Vogue Italia, Rolling Stone, Oyster, and Purple Fashion magazine have all taken notice, commissioning editorials from Collins. In January 2013, tastemaking website Blouin Artinfo named her one of the most promising Canadian artists under thirty. The following September, after dropping out of OCAD University in Toronto and moving to New York, she curated a show of all-female contributors, including herself, which was sponsored by American Apparel. She has been lauded by Time and congratulated on Wendy Williams’s syndicated daytime talk show. You could chalk it all up to the explicit nature of her images, if the market weren’t saturated with naked girls already. It is that Collins’s nudes are different. They are not airbrushed, they are not pouting seductively, they are not groomed—they are unabashedly natural. Out of the workshops, and selectively borrowing the tools of the exploitative fashion industry, she has managed to create something empowering.

It began, perhaps, way back in 2010, when she helped the legendary Richard Kern set up his retrospective at Toronto’s Studio Gallery, founded by Collins’s boyfriend at the time. Kern is mainly known for photographing nude women: imagine a very pretty topless brunette wearing a white fur hat, sucking on a Popsicle, while a very pretty blonde wraps her arms around her, grasping her boobs. He is part of a popular movement in fashion photography that could be described as almost porn. He’s not as sleazy as Terry Richardson, nor as explicit as Larry Clark, but his work is certainly striking and readily identifiable.

Anyway, while in Toronto, Kern had put out a casting call for girls with the “Kern look.” Collins, then seventeen, lithe, with an aquiline nose and blue eyes, an untamed mop of blonde curly hair, and a ’70s-inspired wardrobe (imagine something between an early Ms. Magazine editor and a member of The Muppet Show’s Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band) caught his eye. She began modelling for him, and worked as his casting director. Collins was herself a budding photographer, though she had studied only art theory. Kern became her first mentor.

Not long after, Collins was on the dance floor of the Beaver in Toronto’s west end when she was introduced to Ryan McGinley. The self-described New Jersey thug had self-published a book almost a decade earlier called The Kids Are Alright, filled with pictures of graffiti artists, skateboarders, and punk rockers. They were untamed and authentic, capturing the ecstasy and self-destructiveness of youth. One of his most memorable photographs is a self-portrait captured right after having head-butted someone in a street fight. He had been pronounced a wunderkind, too, having landed a solo show at the age of twenty-five at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Collins has said, somewhat girlishly, that they are both very good dancers. They exchanged phone numbers at the end of the night. (If you don’t know, McGinley’s gay, so it wasn’t about that.) The very next day, he stopped by OCAD U to see a show she had curated, and they’ve remained close ever since.

Last year, Collins travelled with McGinley and a group of fresh-faced models to the desert for a photo shoot. They didn’t have the Internet. They weren’t watching the clock. They woke up at dawn and went to bed after the sun set. They ran around au naturel. They were capturing themselves in the wild. “The trip really changed my life,” Collins told me. “Every time I look back on it, I get this really amazing feeling. He was one of the first photographers I looked at, and that I got a chance to work with him was really amazing.” One can forgive the juvenile jabber; her youth is an important part of why her aesthetic works.

There is a photo McGinley took in the desert, now part of his Body Loud exhibit, of Collins lying naked in the mud. Because parts of her are submerged, it looks like her body is in pieces, floating up to the top of the water. It reminds me of something else she said about that trip: “It made me one and whole with my body.” The image is as though, with McGinley and his bright-eyed cast to bear witness, she is piecing herself together as a mature woman and artist.

In turn, she brings that perspective to her own subjects, some of whom she gets to know over years, sometimes so well that they bathe together—at which point, with their defences lowered, Collins is able to immortalize intimate, vulnerable moments on camera. One of her preferred muses is India Salvor Menuez, an artist who has long straight red hair and otherworldly eyes, a hipster Anne of Green Gables often pictured daydreaming. What feels new about Collins’s work is a kind of trans-camera recognition of the sensibility of a teenage girl: inquisitive, engaged, self-conscious, expressive.

The significance of this mutual understanding between the artist and her subject is eminently clear in the success of Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie. As a fifteen-year-old from Illinois, Gevinson was reconceiving her popular fashion blog as a subversive magazine by and for teenage girls when she met Collins online in 2011. By the time it launched that September, Collins had become a staff photographer. Rookie received a million hits in its first week; clearly, their peers needed a new forum, one that would allow them to explore more aspects of their personality and psyche. Part of the credo inherent in Collins’s artwork is the desire for girls to be more than mere objects in media and society.

Something else you should know: Collins worked at an American Apparel store in Toronto when she was fifteen. She says she found one of the images from an early campaign empowering because it featured a model with unshaven armpits. This is an unusual statement. American Apparel hires staff from its retail stores to dress in scanty outfits and pose suggestively in what looks like a back storeroom. There is something unsettling about the portraits, as if the models are being forced to do something they don’t quite get. Many people find these ads appealing for their subtle perversity, but they are rarely thought of as empowering.

Collins is taking the trajectory of empowerment in a different direction. Instead of clothing the pervasive, ubiquitous image of the young nude woman, she is redeeming it. There are precedents for this reclamation of sexuality, of course. Think of Kathleen Hanna, a photography student deeply immersed in feminist discourse who turned to another male-saturated, aggressive art form to express her ideas. As frontwoman for the American punk band Bikini Kill in the ’90s, Hanna would present herself on stage with “Slut” written across her belly, yelling about a girl-style revolution and demanding that all girls come to the front of the club. She sang songs entitled “I Like Fucking,” and “Suck My Left One.” Like Collins, she didn’t hide or tame her sexuality, but rather used it to convey a message. And that message—informed by other female musicians and writers—gave rise to the riot grrrl movement.

Collins, similarly, catalyzes her community of young female artists. She curates an online art collective called the Ardorous, which held a group show in New York they called Gynolandscape. One of the pieces was Collins’s neon sign of a vagina being masturbated. She then had illustrator Alice Lancaster recast the image for a shirt; this time the vagina was not only in the middle of masturbation, it also had lots of pubic hair and was menstruating. She pitched it to American Apparel, the show’s sponsor, and the company said yes right away. The Period T-shirt retailed for $32 (US) and made news across the media spectrum, from the feminist Jezebel to Time, which asked, more or less, Who knew we’d become so accustomed to seeing traumatized, shaved, pornographic vaginas that the sight of one in a natural state would be the only one that could arrest our very jaded gazes?

Well, Collins, for one. She wrote a paper on female body hair back at OCAD U and has been puzzling out the shame surrounding it ever since. “It’s unacceptable that the way we view what is feminine doesn’t include your menstrual cycle or pubic hair,” she told me emphatically. “I feel like those things signify growing up and gaining sexual power. I guess it’s shocking because we’re meant to stay prepubescent.” The taboo theory was certainly reinforced when she posted a picture of the area between her waist and thighs on her popular Instagram account. In the self-portrait, she is wearing a bikini bottom rimmed with pubic hair. This image was reported, and Collins’s account was deleted. One could hardly conceive of a worse injury to inflict on a social media–savvy young woman. Not only did she feel attacked—like “the public coming at me with a razor,” she told the Huffington Post—she also lost all of her followers. She further argued in a widely circulated essay for Oyster that she did not actually violate any guidelines of Instagram, which features hundreds of thousands other photographs of bikini bottoms, just with waxed bikini lines. A petition was created to reinstate the account; in the meantime, she opened a new one.

But Collins’s mission is less about second wave–type activism than it is about simply being an inquisitive, engaged, expressive, self-conscious girl publicly. She co-hosts an Internet radio show on Know-Wave with Karley Sciortino, author of the Slutever blog. On one episode, Collins ate Kettle Chips for most of the hour, while engaging in typical, usually private, girl talk. She and Sciortino read letters from listeners asking for relationship advice, riffing on every question. They discussed what it means to date someone who supports your art and identity. They considered the differences between straight and gay relationships. They pondered how to be honest with others and yourself. They were scatterbrained and brilliant.

At one point, Gevinson called in and critiqued Miley Cyrus, whose raunchy displays of sexuality seem to have offended across the prudery spectrum. From Gevinson’s perspective, the problem with the pop star’s explicit provocation is that it has no message behind it; or, if there is a message, it is a “fuck you” to anyone older than her, which fails to acknowledge all those who, like Kathleen Hanna, laid the groundwork for today’s feminist conversation about sexuality. Collins and her contemporaries seem to be taking into account that they won’t be young forever, that they are in a process of discovering themselves. The dialogue they are engaging in—in their own uncensored, educated way—is important and radical, and is building the language of sexuality for their generation. And the idea of what a girl is in the future will come from the girls themselves.

This appeared in the September 2014 issue.

Heather O'Neill
Heather O’Neill published her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, in April 2014.
Jody Rogac
Jody Rogac has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, Toronto Life, and The Walrus.