this feminist photo gallery is reclaiming 'cute'
Ashley Armitage, the photographer behind the Instagram account @ladyist (current follower count: 30.6k), discusses her next project, an intersectional online space showcasing the work of her friends.
photography ashley armitage
Seattle-based photographer Ashley Armitage knows a thing or two about being a girl, perhaps most formatively that pink is the "best color ever," "cellulite is cute," and "female friendship is the coolest." On the eve of our interview, she hung out with her BFFs Jess and Lenaig, just laying in bed and knocking back fried chicken. "It was the best," she confirms.
You may recognize Ashley as the lady behind @ladyist, a pastel-perfect Instagram account reveling in the colorful spectrum of femininity, in all its stretch-marked, menstruating, panty-lined glory. It's populated by pictures of unretouched boobs, butts, and bush, often in iridescent swimming pools or girls' hormone-fueled bedrooms.
Now, Ashley has launched Girlfriends Gallery, a diverse online platform celebrating intersectionality, inclusivity, and body positivity through girl-centric art. Contributors include Moscow-born gif artist Sasha Katz, film/photo duo (and real life couple) WIISSA, and trippy digital roomscape artist Abby, aka Neon Saltwater. We chatted with the photographer-turned-digital-gallerist about how the male gaze shaped her work, discovering sex positivity, and, of course, her girlfriends.
When do you first remember feeling aware of the male gaze?
Honestly, since as long as I can remember. When I was seven, I would stare in the mirror and think that I was the ugliest person ever, and really it was all because I was comparing myself to celebrities, models, or other girls around me. That's what girls are taught to do — compare themselves to, and compete with, one another.
What effect did that have on you?
I would try to be something I was not. Like, in elementary school, a boy called me "flat," so I asked my mom to take me bra shopping. In middle school, a boy saw my armpit hair and yelled "ew," so I went home that night and shaved. Today, I feel mostly confident in my own body because I've accepted that every single body is different and beautiful. My photography has also been a sort of therapy for me. By hanging out and shooting girls who are comfortable in their own skin, I too have become more comfortable.
Do you remember when you discovered feminism?
I went to this alternative arts high school and our senior humanities class, taught by Jon Greenberg, featured units on racism, classism, and feminism. We were exposed to things most high-schoolers unfortunately are not. After that class, I took feminism into my own hands. Tumblr was such a great classroom for me — I learned about so many things from a group of people close to my age. Tumblr feminists shed light on issues that I never would have thought of. I also started reading about sex-positive feminism. One book that totally changed my life was The Feminist Porn Book. Sex-positive feminism has really influenced my work today.
I consider my work sex-positive. So, though I've never shot something that is totally "pornographic," my work often represents female sexuality. Some of my photos might be viewed as "sexy," but that's an empowering thing because my models are the ones in control of the image they're creating. In those photos, my models are being sexual, they are not being sexualized. The difference is where agency lies. They are subjects not objects. I also have no problem with porn, I believe that feminist porn can and does exist.
I'm more into sex-positive figures than I am actual films. But Ilona Staller rules. I love the films she was in in the 70s and 80s. The soft and dreamy aesthetic of her films has inspired my work. I also look up to sex-positive writers like Zoe Ligon and Karley Sciortino.
When did you get the idea to combine your feminism with your photography?
My freshman year of college I was going to UCSB for film. I wanted to be a director, but there basically weren't any female directors in this film program. It was so male-dominated. I think that's when I realized that the work I make is political. As a response to that, the first film I directed was a short Quentin Tarantino-esque film, where there's a lady serial killer who, in the end, kills the town's male serial killer. After that film, I combined feminism with photography in other ways. I believe that girls and women simply creating work is a feminist act.
Do you struggle with being a white cisgender woman trying to make inclusive, diverse, and intersectional feminist art? How do you resolve that?
Yes. Absolutely. Because I'm white and cisgendered, I need to be careful not to tokenize my models of color, or my nonbinary and trans models. I think it's okay for me to photograph a PoC or a nonbinary person when they reach out to me. During a shoot, I need to be mindful about erasing or whitewashing their stories. I try to avoid this while I shoot by asking them "How would you like to be portrayed? What pose do you want to do?" The boundary between being inclusive and being tokenizing is definitely something I am learning, and always will be, because I am white and cis.
You just launched a new girls-only gallery called Girlfriends. Tell me everything!
Girlfriends Gallery came out of that struggle I just talked about. Showcasing the art by girls, PoC, nonbinary people, transfolk, disabled people, etc., would be the best way to let them tell their own stories. Girlfriends Gallery is an online gallery space aiming to examine subjects like body positivity, intersectionality, and inclusivity through art. In it, anyone is welcome, although there will always be a focus on girls, minorities, and emerging artists. Ultimately, Girlfriends is a cute gallery showcasing cute art.
You describe many things as "cute," including your gallery and cellulite. Can you talk about how "cute" has become an empowering term in your mind and in your art.
"Cute" can mean different things in different contexts. It can be used against us to belittle us, and keep us as eternal girls, minors forever in need of guidance. Or, we can reclaim cute and use it to build one another up. When I was young, I was a tomboy. I rejected "cuteness" and femininity because I wanted to be like one of the boys. I wish I knew then what I know now, that a girl can be strong, intelligent, sporty, rational, and cute.
If you're in Seattle, don't miss Ashley's one day show with Grace Miceli on February 25.
Text Jane Helpern