Arvida Byström as Stupid Cupid: Online Heartbreaker
(TW: nudity, femme sexualization, masc/femme online discrimination exemplified, cultural appropriation)
Step aside, Bunny Holiday. There’s a new girl in town, and she’s destroying the patriarchy online, one dose of her personalized femininity at a time.
I discovered Arvida Byström on Instagram in the height of trying to understand what it meant to be “femme” in the queer community. It is interesting to discover what femininity is allowed in the LGBTQ2SNIA+ community, and what is not. To put this into a more relatable context, walking into a gay bar as a cis, femme woman, it was immediately assumed I was the straight friend who came with a queer cohort. Yet, drag queens were everywhere, flaunting their femininity lavishly and even humorously. It was only when I began attending these bars with my slightly more masc female partner that my sexuality was taken seriously, as though my femininity needed to be balanced out with an oppositional gender-presentation counterpart, in what was supposed to be “my own community”. Additionally, femme-presenting male and non-binary friends of mine disclosed similar experiences to me, although more online; apps such as Grindr and Tinder allow for bios that included narrow requirements, saying “masc for masc”. Or, when they reached the point of heading to the bedroom, sexual preferences and sub/dom cultures were often assumed based on their presentation of femininity, or lack thereof.
Additionally, outside of the queer community, I was beginning to discover that what was often fed to me as “feminine” in mainstream media was often not the “feminine” feel I saw in myself. I began to seek out artists who challenged these norms, and along the way I found Chloe Wise, Quinn Rockliff, and of course, Arvida Byström.
This model, photographer, director, and “everything else under the sun” artist wears her pubic hair with pride as it pokes through frilly pink lacies, and posts photos of her favourite new vibrators online. Her aesthetic could be described as a 90’s-chic cupid; romantic and pink, yet aggressively feminist. Her posts on her Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook have a consistent aesthetic that challenges beauty norms and societal ideals of femininity. Keeping with bubblegum pink and lilac gradients, she posts more of her more serious photography and modelling work on her website, “Pretty Online”, which is run through popular social media channel Tumblr.
So what is this queer cutie pie trying to accomplish?
My thought is she is challenging the line drawn between the mainstream and the alternative. This unapologetic model has bared-all in her own photography as well as other indie works, but she’s also appeared in the marketing of large firms of international scale, such as H&M and Urban Outfitters.
She’s been challenging this barrier for years now. Her tactic? She’s reading our diary. She’s sharing everything we’ve been told to be embarrassed about. That outfit from middle school you had to untag yourself on Facebook from because it was horrifically humiliating? She’s in it. Admitting your “narcissism” by owning more than one selfie-stick? She’s all over that, posting the many different colours she’s collected of the coveted yet socially-sinful piece of technology, and even making a video called “Selfie Stick Aerobics”, starring friend Moly Soda and herself. The body hair you’ve spent countless hours, dollars, and tears removing, so ashamed by the idea that your body might produce hair anywhere other than the “lady-like” top of your head? She’s wearing it with pride, in selfies, in television ads, in your phone screen as you scroll through her Instagram and think “wow, this girl is bold”.
But is there a darker side to this bubblegum angel?
When we talk about appropriation, we often forget how easy it is to slip out of intersectionality when approaching the world with a feminist agenda, as Byström identifies as embodying. Intersectional feminism is about recognizing that often, the sexism and rape culture feminism seeks to counter is experienced alongside racism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, and more. While feminism and Byström’s social media images often are meant to hold a certain “shock factor” that may be displeasing to the tastes of certain people in order to challenge societal norms, the quickness allowed by social media can sometimes bring individuals to share things before they have a chance to think twice about them. Social media’s capabilities of instantaneous sharing and re-sharing goes hand in hand with feminism’s (and other social justice movements’) urgency to get the message out.
Take, for example, the cultural appropriation of Latinx culture in the fashion industry. This mural, posted on a “free speech” student wall at a college in California, was emblazoned with the following message by three Latinx students: “White girl, take off your hoops!!!” While the post of this photo was met with a lot of mixed verdicts by the online world, the women who wrote it stood by their work, stating this in Latino Rebels: “The mural, a free speech piece of art, was not about banning white people from wearing hoop earrings but rather highlighting how women of colour feel about cultural appropriation and the invisibility of institutional issues they face. […] The true meaning of the mural was to reflect the discrimination that women and non-binary femmes of colour face on college campuses when they are rendered invisible. The mural was not meant to police white women but serve as a form of education.” The article goes on to say, more specifically to the issue of hoops being worn by white women, that hoops when worn by Latinx women and femme-identifying folks are seen as representing an unintelligence and lack of education amongst themselves individually and as a minority group. However, when worn by white women, a “ghetto aesthetic”, as the article puts it, is celebrated in an ironic, almost humorous sort of way.
Does the fact that Byström is not only white, but also of Scandinavian upbringing, able-bodied, and of “model-size standard” (ie. US sizes 0–4), play into the fact that she can “get away” with this type of artistic political protest? Some might think so. The fact that she may have been given certain privileges, such as to be hired by large fashion firms to promote “diversity” and “inclusivity” in their advertisements could have been partially in part because she does fit into certain societal beauty standards, despite her general challenging of them.
Byström herself has yet to be called out in any sort of giant public frenzy, but the H&M ad she was featured in in late 2016 did receive quite a lot of online backlash. According to an article on Bust.com, “ Most H&M stores do not have plus sizes in stock, which makes it a lot more difficult for many customers to access the clothing line. Despite creating a video advertisement and photo campaign that displays female diversity, it seems as if H&M is still missing the mark because they haven’t made their trendy styles accessible to all body types.” Allegedly, the week immediately following the launch of this ad campaign, H&M pulled plus sizes from many of their stores, and already xmany simply never carried them. Obviously, many were outraged, and took to the Internet stating that the ad campaign was simply a bogus cover-up for the company so they could get away with the shameful move they made. While this callout was not directed exactly at Byström, but rather at H&M, her affiliation with the ad in this controversy is likely not what she would want herself, and her brand, associated with.
One thing we can applaud her for, however, is her inclusivity of folks of many different genders and races in her own work as a photographer. In scrolling through all of her social media, especially her Tumblr which acts as her sort of “portfolio online”, it can be seen that the subjects of her works are incredibly diverse, while all embodying femme-presentation different manners.
Regardless of if you agree or not, Arvida Byström is still making waves. She’s just published her own coffee table photo book with friend Molly Soda, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” (which I have subsequently and very excitedly pre-ordered on Amazon). This book includes works of their own, as well as of many others, that were removed from social media pages because they violated their “Community Guidelines”. In an interview with Dazed magazine online, Soda proclaims, “There is a great fear that surrounds the female body — a nude photograph immediately becomes pornographic even if that is not the intent.” Ironically, many of the photos themselves are pornographic in no way, and many don’t even include nudity. One photo, featuring a woman talking on the phone with her cellphone tucked into her hijab, is featured in the book. The reason for it being removed from Instagram is unknown.
She’s got a hefty following of over 165k on Instagram and 10k on her Facebook page, and has encouraged women and femme-presenting folks (such as myself) to embody femininity however they see fit to themselves. Laced with dreamy pastel aesthetic and a million and one selfies, Arvida Byström is the Spice Girl reject, the femme fighter of feminism, the often controversially-charged, the dream girl of queer femmes like me.