Justice

These Instagram Drawings Describe What It's Like to Be a Woman in 2016

From rape culture to eating disorders, artist Joanna Thangiah is expressing her experience of contemporary womanhood on Instagram, and it’s resonating with thousands of followers — more than 44,000 to be exact.

Taking a look at the work of the 27-year-old Sri Lankan-Australian artist, it’s easy to see the appeal — her perspective is relatable, scathing, and funny, matching well with her brightly-hued and boldly-printed cartoons.

In an email interview with ATTN:, Thangiah discusses where she gets ideas for her drawings, how much art imitates life, and her own struggles with everything from sexual assault to mental illness.

ATTN:: How would you describe your work?

JT: Multiple versions of myself! Messy, sassy, and slightly passive aggressive.

ATTN:: Why did you choose Instagram to display your work? As an artist, what does social media offer you?

JT: Like most people, I initially used Instagram to document my life, and drawing has always been a big part of my life. So it really wasn’t a conscious decision. What made me continue was the instant gratification. For years I had posted my art on other websites, and no one really cared, so having one person that wasn’t related [to me] or a friend tell me that they liked what I was doing was really cool.

ATTN:: You have a huge Instagram following. Why do you think your work resonates with your audience? Who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach?

JT: I’m still trying to figure that out. My art is my inner monologue, a way for me to process my feelings. It’s nice having people that understand what’s going on in my head – it makes me feel normal.

ATTN:: Where do you draw inspiration? For example, was your drawing about “rape insurance” informed by current events, i.e., the Brock Turner rape case? Or the drawing about trans bathroom laws?


JT: I actually drew the “rape insurance” piece like a year before I knew anything about the Brock Turner rape case. At the time, I was coming to terms with my experiences with sexual assault. Every day I read an article about someone being sexually assaulted; it’s a huge part of my life. But yes, I do draw inspiration from current events.

ATTN:: Your drawings portray a variety of body types, from skin tone to body hair — how intentional is that and what is behind that intention?

JT: I started drawing these characters as a way to feel good about myself. I had gained so much weight from being in recovery from my eating disorder, but I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I felt conflicted – I was the happiest and healthiest I had ever been in my life, but according to the world, [which] bases everything on looks, I wasn’t.

For the majority of my life, I hated myself — as a child I fantasized about being a white, thin, hairless girl, because that is all that I saw. It didn’t matter that my parents said that I was beautiful, because there was no evidence at the time to reinforce their statements.

ATTN:: Would you say your work is body-positive? Why or why not?

JT: When I started posting my art on Instagram, I didn’t know what body positivity was or that there was a movement. But they found me and embraced me, and I’m so very grateful. I guess some people may argue that my work isn’t body-positive, because I don’t really draw skinny characters. My art is based on my life — my experience with being skinny was debilitating and isn’t exactly something I want to express through my art.

ATTN:: You tackle some complex issues in your work, from consent to mental illness. Why is this subject matter important to you?

JT: My mental illnesses were pretty much ignored for 24 years of my life because my parents weren’t aware. They just assumed that I was lazy and my behavioral problems were because I had “bad friends.” I was forced to break up with so many friends from ages 4-12 because that’s what my parents thought was best for me at the time. I was incredibly moody, but so was my grandmother, so they let that go. I preferred spending time with adults or being by myself than hanging out with my siblings and cousins but they just assumed it was because I was much smarter. My violent outbursts were blamed on my poor sister. No one ever questioned why I was the way that I was; I guess they just thought I was a little eccentric and very sensitive and just let me be. My family loved me regardless. I got plenty of attention, and I was everyone’s favorite so I was fine in that regard. I grew up thinking that I was normal, that not being able to sleep or get out of bed was normal; I honestly thought that everyone struggled to move and was so bewildered by people who had the energy to play sports.

I had a bit of a breakdown when I turned 24. I had an eating disorder and had no idea what I was doing with my life, so I quit my job, moved hours away from my family, started seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist, and was diagnosed with four different mental illnesses and was put on medication. My parents initially had major issues with my diagnosis, but my mother eventually came to terms with everything and is incredibly supportive and amazing!

I’ve always been fascinated with true crime stories, especially serial killers and shocking murder stories. Two years ago, I was watching something about mothers who murdered their children and it really struck a cord. Before therapy I was numb and detached I didn’t care about anything, but watching this made me feel sick! Not just because I was horrified about a mother killing their kids, but also because I could identify with them. All these women suffered from the same mental illnesses as me but they were untreated. I kept thinking, what if that was me? It made me so sad; if these women were aware [of] their illnesses or had access to mental health facilities, then they may not have killed their children. As a society, we have no issues with blaming “crazy” people when something horrible happens but we seem to be unaware that there is a pretty simple solution: awareness.

And that applies to all the topics that I discuss.