let us welcome new myths so they can welcome us // Pre-Raphaelite art, body acceptance, and adventure

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti, poet and sister of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

How often have we missed the feeling of the wind on our skin because our skin felt wrong, foreign, ill-fitting, misshapen, too big, too small?

Devon Schindler has written eloquently about how quantum mechanics expands the very notion of imagination. Our imaginations–that endlessly unique and individual function of mind and will with roots in literal brain waves–rests on the balance of play and focus, flow and direction.

How does this relate to the Pre-Raphaelites, and what can this tell us about the drive to achieve great heights–in adventure, in life, in intellectual pursuits? What can this teach us about myths of beauty and appearance?

I argue that the Pre-Raphaelites teach us that we have power over myth just as much as myth has power over us. Myth is a wave we ride, a wake we create, a lee in which we rest, and the water in which we swim. Would famed structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss agree? Perhaps, but he did say this:

‘I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.’

Claude Levi-Strauss

Myths can be expansive; myths can be constrictive. Tell a good story and it becomes a sea of wonder. An ill-timed tale can build an impenetrable wall.

I was exposed to the Pre-Raphaelites back in high school. At the time, I was recovering from a bad concussion at that point and hopelessly insecure about how my body looked–so embarrassed that I would cover my stomach with a pillow or blanket or cross my arms in front of myself like a wall, even when alone. I was terrified of how I looked and afraid of what I thought it meant about me.

The myths and tropes our culture tells about beauty, worth, and belonging had me caught in an invisible web.

I realise I’m playing with the definition of the word ‘myth’ here, but I think my play on words is valid: our most popular cultural visual narratives permeate our society in much the same way that more traditional religious myths or origin stories saturate the human experience. They structure how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others, as well as how we conceptualise our place in the world.

It took me years to challenge the narrow narratives of beauty the media fed my generation, but the plunge into the world of the Pre-Raphaelites was my first step.

The more I read about this niche, sprawling, rebellious, difficult-to-define art movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries–the more I soaked up their poetry, studied their countercultural choice of models, and encountered their love for mythology–the more I realised that we create our own myths of beauty.

As storytelling hominids, we have more power over beauty than we think.

The evocative, expressive, and often haunting work of the Pre-Raphaelites taught me beauty isn’t the angle of your chin or jaw in a picture–it’s the spirit behind it. It’s not a quantity or shape of flesh. It’s the willingness to portray something, to make an honest statement, or just to explore the mood of a moment.

How our bodies look is far, far less interesting than the friendships, theories, poetry, equations and art we create.

Each moment, we have a choice. We can revel in the many faces and forms and stories and trees and songs and hills we see and hear and feel around us–without comparison and with armfuls of hope–or we can measure, weigh, punish, pine, compare, compete.

me, dressing up as a pre-raphaelite and taking backyard selfies on a $70 phone

When we measure, weigh, punish, pine, compare, or compete, we have another choice: to blame ourselves or to redefine the wave of our imagination and confront this negative, culturally-planted myth of worth with boldness and honesty.

We might need to confront this myth again and again, but we always have the choice to redefine and remake this myth.

Line by line. Chapter by chapter.

And so, to tie this discussion of the Pre-Raphaelites and imagination back to yesterday’s post about adventure and body confidence, I want to remind the high-achievers and the athletes who struggle with body image that you are so much more than a body.

If you feel your worth is tied to what your body can achieve, I encourage you to re-write this myth. Adventure isn’t adventure without uncertainty. Athleticism isn’t athleticism without some element of the unknown. Therefore, I would argue that–as a climber, cyclist, runner, kayaker, or whatever you happen to be–tying your worth to this activity is counterproductive to the heart and soul of that activity.

Rather than encouraging you to feel the moment and hold the adventure lightly and with curiosity, tying your worth to the adventure constricts your sense of self and, arguably, your creativity and your imagination.

Your adventure–your pursuit–isn’t about your worth. It’s about your art. It’s about redefining what you can create.

And so, if you struggle with body acceptance, I encourage you to look to art across cultures and timelines. Don’t just diversify your Instagram feed; diversify your ideas of art and beauty. Plunge into science or math. Explore the social or political landscape that surrounds the art you love most. Turn to literature. Turn to history.

Because, my friend, to quote Florence Welch, you make a fool of death with your beauty.

Don’t miss it.

Don’t you fucking dare miss it.

‘Stand up tall, and let it be light.’

Sierra Nicole Landry

Sources and additional reading:

More (wonderfully well-written) info on the Pre-Raphaelites: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-pre-raphaelites
Quantum Waves and Your Imaginative Potential, an article by Devon Schindler:

Miranda, The Tempest by John William Waterhouse:
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

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