I was 9 years old when I was christened with my first “celebrity” look-a-like comment. I was in art class–which was my favorite extracurricular class throughout elementary school—and I’m pretty sure I was using pastel crayons to finish a picture of a dragon we were required to do for the day. Where you sat whenever the opportunity to sit wherever you wanted arose, was a big deal in grade school and I always made sure I was able to be surrounded by best girlfriends at the time. We were coloring, giggling, gossiping, and I know that I specifically made sure to peep over at the table in front of us—full of the class’ best boys—and bat my eyelashes every few minutes to get at least one of their attention. For being so incredibly insecure growing up, I could be quite the flirt.
During a moment of intense coloring was when I heard it, or really, them. It started with them laughing…
It always started with them laughing.
“Hey…..hey Bianca!” one of them said.
I eagerly looked up with a smile, ready for any sort of interaction I could get with any of them. But I knew something was wrong as soon as I saw the looks on the rest of the table members’ faces—smiles being covered by sweaty palms, taunting gazes in the eyes, laughter leaking from their attempts at muffling what was about to be said.
“Nice picture up there. Who took it?” the same one asked me. My eyes tracked the pathway his index finger was pointing towards—and unknown to me, it led to an image of a woman that would follow me throughout my entire adolescence.
The poster was a reprint of Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace, Hummingbird, Cat and Monkey, but all my child eyes could see was a woman who was ugly. Dirty. A woman who was undesirable—and that lack of attractiveness was the only common trait I believed we could ever share in that very moment. Just like that any sort of self-esteem I had within myself that day was shattered— “Get off your high horse, Bianca” I thought to myself. “You’ll never be worth anyone’s admiration. Not as long as you look the way you do.”
The art classroom, a space I considered a safe haven for creative flourishing, had reprints of famous art pieces adorned around the entire room—Monets, Picassos, Renoirs and Van Goghs. But I never did look back in that corner where the self portrait of Frida was placed, for it was a constant reminder of that day and the endless taunting I would endure up until high school.
I resented Frida, because when I looked at her, I saw myself. I was too naïve at nine years old however, to realize that there was a connection other than the similarity of dark facial hair, and I wouldn’t realize that until years later.
I didn’t see or think of Frida again until almost a decade later. I was just shy of my 18th birthday and was visiting the Phoenix Art Museum with my boyfriend. Very few art works made me stop and stare for more than thirty seconds—I have flat fleet that make any amounts of excessive walking unbearable and an attention span usually only dedicated to over the top antics. At this point in my life, I had forgotten all about Frida, though the tauntings of elementary school were always in the back of my mind. The one piece that did make me stop was “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”– a project that no reprint can bring any sort of justice to the original. In that sole framed piece—I saw heaven, I saw hell, I saw regret, pain, anger, frustration, love, and obviously death. I was completely mesmerized, and stunned when I saw the signature at the bottom.
“Damn Frida was good” my boyfriend commented, equally as taken aback with the work as I was.
“Frida” I said quietly, almost to myself, "the one with the unibrow?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
He said yes, and went on like the encyclopedia that he is, telling me different facts on her, Diego Rivera, her work and other tidbits I’m sure I blocked out at the time. Within minutes of seeing Frida’s name I became nervous, anxious and most of all—sad—and told my boyfriend something along the lines of “I don’t like Mexican art” or something blatantly politically and emotionally incorrect solely so we could leave the section that was filled with Frida’s.
From that moment on, her image never left me, and I couldn’t deny my curiosity into knowing who exactly this woman was, either.
Fast forward to when I took a Latin American Art, Literature and Music class my first year of college–when I wasn’t banging my head against my textbook trying to memorize names of the Mayan and Aztec gods, I was researching Kahlo for my semester final project.
What I quickly learned in the midst of all my researching (a simultaneous studying of the movie starring Salma Hayek and the autobiography it was based off of by Hayden Herrera), was that as much as I wanted to find similarities between Kahlo and I for the sake of pity, we were completely different characters. She was proud, confident, vivacious and full of life and passion. She never fretted over the opinion of others—even of her husband, Rivera, who could be many times toxic to her emotional wellbeing and whom she adored with her entire heart—could shake her firm opinions and beliefs. Frida transformed rapidly from someone I detested to someone who I then decided to dedicate my life to be more like. If Frida was anything during her time on this earth, she was free, and free is what I felt when I transformed myself into her for yet another college project that year.
Since my branches of individual creativity don’t stretch farther then the articulation of the written word, for a search for the self type semester project I had in another class I transformed myself (with the power of mostly my roommate’s wardrobe) as a handful of my life inspirations—worrying about the paper I had to write and the speech I had to present clarifying why I was dressed up as Nigella Lawson and “Slave 4 U” era Britney Spears later. Frida was a part of that selective handful, and the process of “becoming” her–sitting in front of the makeup mirror in a peasant blouse, woven skirt and fire engine red grandma chic shawl—was a moment I’ll never forget.
It was the moment I forgave, accepted and moved on—from everything that had been holding me back throughout life.
As I used charcoal colored powder to thicken and extend my eyebrows—I laughed at the memory of the boys and at myself for how seriously I took their dim witted comments.
Whilst applying a Kahlo trademark—a red pout—along my lips I smiled back into my reflection that the mirror held, and thought of how many days I wasted going without one on my face growing up.
Wearing what probably mimicked most Mexican grandmothers, I felt confident and sexy within my own skin—throwing away any need of grabbing something more form fitting for the sake of who? No one.
It felt like everything I had experienced throughout my past, as frivolous as it may seem now, was all meant to bring me to that very moment; to the night where I was transforming myself to look like someone normally depicted as ugly but never more than then, feeling more beautiful.
–story by BIANCA BETANCOURT