Posing with pulla – can self-portraits shed a light on our relationship with food?

Pulla is a traditional Finnish pastry similar to the world-famous cinnamon roll. In her self-portrait Symbioosi (2009) Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja (1975–) poses with pulla in a way reminiscent of the icons of Virgin Mary. In my previous post I wrote about art and its ability to offer perspective. Now I’d like to see what Susiraja’s self-portrait can show us about our relationship with our bodies and food.

First, let me introduce you to Susiraja. She’s a photographer known for her painfully honest and humorous self-portraits in which she often poses with food items. [1] What makes her self-portraits especially poignant is that she is overweight. In an interview with Kodin Kuvalehti-magazine (2014), she describes herself as “thick and happy” while recalling past shame about her weight and later overcoming it by becoming “openly fat” through her art.

Humor can be a way to tackle uncomfortable and painful issues. You can probably think a bit by your favourite stand-up comedian that made you chuckle– and cringe. Similarly, Susiraja’s self-portraits are often first met with a laugh. As often though, laughter turns into sadness or even disgust. Why is a fat person posing with food both funny and sad? And what does it mean when she portrays herself this way (in a gross self-portrait)?

Food as symbol

Food can be a symbol: it can represent an idea. Some believe it can be a symbol of the sacred – think Holy Wafer – or even the traumatic separation from the mother a child faces during the mirror stage (that’s when psychoanalysts think children become aware of themselves as separate beings). [3] Iiu Susiraja’s Symbioosi references holy imagery: she portrays herself holding a piece of pulla in a pose similar to Mary holding the baby Jesus.

Producing food is not easy in a land where the ground is frozen over for six months. This has instilled Finns with a deep respect for food. In the olden days, it was frowned upon to be loud at the table. It was seen as disrespectful toward the hard-earned meal. Still today, visitors marvel at Finns eating their family dinners in silence.  Even though Susiraja says she doesn’t like playing with food, her self-portraits read that way. Susiraja looks like she’s playing with food, and in Finland you’re taught from a young age not to do that. And it’s not just Finns who are serious about food. The relationship with food is regulated in various cultures with rules or taboos. But why?

Food crosses a limit. By eating, something from the outside world enters our insides. This could be dangerous. The rules that govern this threshold from outside to inside are upheld often by rites. Purification rites are a kind of border inspection for food – they set the rules about what to eat and, more importantly, what not to. For example, in the Bible, the difference between man and God is made clear through food: eating a forbidden apple caused God to drive Adam and Eve from his garden. Later, rules are set as to what mankind should and shouldn’t eat. [4] Susiraja’s self-portraits are funny, because she’s breaking the rules.

Do I look fat?

We love to look at other people. In fact, it’s in our nature: we recognize faces better than other visual stimuli. [5] From this standpoint, it’s easy to see why we consume and share endless selfies in social-media. Even though they’re not completely like the self-portraits of the olden days, they do share key ingredients. Self-portraits and selfies are both ways to build and express a self-image. [6] As communities become more digital and less physical, real-life interaction is diminishing. The faces we see are increasingly digital. This has consequences on how our selves are built – what we think is natural, ideal or acceptable. [7]

Our relationship with food has also become more technical and health-oriented, emphasizing efficient and reasonable eating. Self-discipline and willpower are seen as ideal qualities, where as things like seeking pleasure or comfort from food are seen as weakness. [8] Overweight people are seen as passive and stupid, incapable of controlling their bodies and lives. [9] At the same time, diet and fitness trends spread across social media channels at an increasing rate. Excessive selfies and comparing them to others’ have also been linked to issues with body image, and even given rise to ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ where people seek plastic surgery to look more like their selfies. [10]

It’s complicated

Symbioosi translates to symbiosis, which is “a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms”. Pulla is beloved by most Finns, and most have fond childhood memories of eating fresh with milk – a nostalgic image of home and safety, of belonging. She portrays herself like a mother with an infant, with a title that points to biology – isn’t the relationship of a mother and child a kind of symbiosis? It’s an intimate relationship, that can be nurturing but also taxing. Loving, and possibly troublesome. It’s also essential for life. Much like our relationship with food.

Susiraja always poses alone with her food stuffs, though often looking at the viewer – you. Here, that’s not the case. Susiraja is looking at the pulla she’s holding, and the look she gives the piece of pastry is very close the motherly devotion familiar from iconography. But unlike the baby Jesus, the pulla is inanimate and won’t respond to this doting mother. The title of the self-portrait points to a two-way relationship, but the loving look goes unreturned. Pulla is a famous comfort food, and a quick glance at women’s magazines makes it clear that comfort eating is something many struggle with. When another source of comfort is missing – like the shoulder of a trusted friend – we turn to food. Setälä-Pynnönen even claims, that the political unwillingness to see the value in the presence of another person is visible in the amount of public health issues we face today. [11]

In her gross self-portraits, Susiraja injects humor into a relationship that is intimate, complex and, at times, very public and painful. Food is a basic need for all of us, as is being recognized as human beings by being seen. Susiraja’s self-portraits stand as radical acts against perfected selfies. They are both funny and sad because in them, you can kind of see yourself – belly rolls and all.

[1] Artists homepage
[2] Interview in Kodin Kuvalehti, 2014 – referenced 28.07.2018
[3] Powers of Horror (Kristeva, Julia) 1982, 100
[4] ibid. 95–96
[5] “How We Save Face–Researchers Crack the Brain’s Facial-Recognition Code” (Sheikh, Knvul) 2017, in Scientific American – referenced 19.8.2018
[6] “Self-Portraits Are Proof That We Have Always Loved Taking Selfies” (Rideal, Liz) 2018, in TIME – referenced 19.8.2018
[7] Tiedejournalismi inhimillisen epävarmuuden palveluksessa: tutkimus suomalaisen joukkoviestinnän tiedepuheesta, terveyskäsityksestä ja ihmiskuvasta (Setälä-Pynnönen, Vienna) 2015, 19
[8] ibid. 47–62
[9] ibid. 46, 64
[10] “Excessive Selfies Linked To Body Dysmorphia After Rise Of Filter-Inspired Surgeries” (Bharanidharan, Sadhana) in Medical Daily,  2018 – referenced 19.8.2018
[11] Tiedejournalismi inhimillisen epävarmuuden palveluksessa: tutkimus suomalaisen joukkoviestinnän tiedepuheesta, terveyskäsityksestä ja ihmiskuvasta (Setälä-Pynnönen, Vienna) 2015, 72

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