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Meet The People: Model + Artist Jay Krakower on Reclaiming Her Self-Image

By Alyssa Shapiro, she/her

When Montreal-based model and multifaceted artist Jay Krakower spent a year painting and repainting her self-portraits, it sparked a shift in the way she saw herself—allowing her to reclaim her self-image and redefine beauty on her own terms. Now, Krakower paints herself all the time, harnessing that energy to better understand herself.

“Taking every good, bad, and ugly part of myself and seeing that over and over and over again is something that I think desensitized myself to the way that I look. Everything became very normal,” Krakower explains over Zoom from Toronto. She continues, “I think that was a big part of why I started to paint myself was because I wanted to, one, better understand myself, two, understand how other people processed me, and three, give a concrete image of what people have to view me as in that moment—not giving a space for questioning or argument or any of that. It was, this is what it is.”

Here, Krakower, who recently collaborated with Youth To The People on our 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum campaign, talks about the link between art, beauty, and energy.

Alyssa Shapiro: I’d love if  you could start by just telling me a little bit about you.

Jay Krakower: I’m 20 years old. I’m based in Canada, between Montreal and Toronto—usually in Montreal. I’m an artist and a model. I’m kind of all over the place.

AS: You were cast by one of our casting partners, Nouri, right? Have you worked with her before?

JK: No, I haven’t worked with them before, but I’ve loved her for so long. I followed her on Instagram for a long time.

AS: I’m a big fan of hers. I’m glad that we got to work with her. How was your experience of the shoot? Was this your first COVID shoot?

JK: Yeah, I hadn’t been working during COVID at all. And it was actually really nice. Everyone was really well-prepared and it was kind of fun. It was fun being around that many people—I haven’t been in a while.

AS: It’s kind of scary now to be around other people, isn’t it?

JK: It’s strange. I forget how to communicate sometimes.

AS: It’s like, is this appropriate conversation? I don’t remember.

JK: *laughs*

AS: Okay, you’re an artist and you grew up around art. Your mom was an art consultant. How has that background and that exposure influenced your idea of beauty?

JK: I think the art side of everything and beauty kind of came into each other a little bit. I also grew up looking at magazines with my mom and all that kind of stuff. We went on vacation, we were on the beach a lot, and stuff like that. So being around people, it was just… I don’t know. The idea of beauty was very one-dimensional, I think, because a lot of the artists that I grew up around were men. You can't see anything behind me; I'm not in a great spot for that. But a lot of them were beautiful portraits of like women, like photographs of them and like fashion and everything. It was just, I don't know. I think it really came down to how I felt more about myself than the work I was around. Yeah. I dunno. The art world is really interesting.

AS: Do you think that as your exposure to different art expanded, it helped you expand your own idea of beauty? How did you get out of seeing just the one dimensional, the one idea of beauty? For a really long time, it was like the only thing in magazines and TV, et cetera. What expanded your horizon beyond that? 

JK: I used to be really thin. I gained weight when I was like 16 years old. I started gaining weight and getting fatter and stuff. So I think seeing the way that people started treating me, which was really, really different than the way that I had experienced people changed a lot of the way that I thought about beauty and the way that I thought about the way that we treat people in general. I became very aware of the fact that things were very shallow and it was very, very, um, dependent on what I looked like, the amount of respect I got, the time I got from people and stuff like that. So I kind of started really trying to explore that with my artworks specifically and explore how I view myself and the ways that other people see me. I usually don't see myself from above or below and obviously dead-on, ‘cause I don't really hang mirrors underneath myself. Um, so I started focusing a lot on how I saw myself versus the way other people see me and the way that I view my body and the way that other people view me and the instant reaction other people get versus the way that I've seen myself for years. And I think that was really the way that I started thinking more about beauty was like the way that I started being treated when I changed or when I visually changed other people. 

AS: Have you noticed at all a difference in how people treat you since you were 16 to now?

JK: Oh, for sure. I lost a lot of friends. People really stopped giving me the time to speak, like I never really got the chance to voice my opinion. If I was, it was shut down much quicker. I think especially with the men I was around, I think mostly the idea of sex appeal in the way that it is was kind of shut down if you didn't fit into that ideal. So my voice stopped being heard as much, which made me shout a little louder.

AS: Social media gives everyone a platform, right, so do you think that that helped you be able to get people to hear you?

JK: I think social media really played a part into the fact that I never really got to see other people who were fat or plus size or curvy in any sort of way because the people I was around all were around the same kind of mentality I was growing up. Everyone was scared to look any different, right, so I think being on Instagram and seeing all that kind of stuff was really helpful for me at least to see other people and other people's bodies—just living, too. 

AS: Have you had a lightbulb moment where you’re like, I’m beautiful?

JK: Every once in a while when I visualize myself, I either think of myself as my eight year old self—it depends on the day, but sometimes my brain thinks I'm like eight years old—or I'm 15 years old or I'm what I am now. But I think... I don't know. I spent a lot of time alone during quarantine, and I think that changed a lot of how I viewed myself, too. I think that it kind of helped me see that, like, I was really capable of doing things on my own and being capable of doing things kind of showed how strong my body was in itself. So I think that changed my view of my body a lot too.

AS: That's really beautiful to find that capability, that capacity in yourself as being like an aspect of your beauty. That beauty is beyond just like one facet.

JK: Beauty seemed very one-dimensionally what's visually appealing. I think it takes a lot of more forms than that. Like the way people move is super interesting or the way people talk, too—you notice with some people, they use different parts of their faces and stuff. It's kind of fun, so I think that there's a lot of beauty in the way that people move and work in their own life. 

AS: Does that come into your work at all? 

JK: Yeah, for sure, because I do a lot of strange things. Like I sit with my feet a certain way that everyone points out, like my knees are really turned out. So I sit with them turned in when I sit. People make fun of me a lot for the way that I function, so I think about that a lot—how I look visually to other people versus how I feel physically when I'm sitting and doing different things.

AS: You know what’s really interesting about that? I keep thinking of this idea that I always hear about that attention is love and if you’re paying attention to the interesting way you turn your knees in, or whatever it is, that’s like giving love to that aspect of yourself.

JK: Yeah. I'm also very hyper-aware, like if I'm wearing something that doesn't smell right, I can't really function. Like my laundry has to smell like my laundry. If it doesn't smell like my laundry, I'm not going to function properly. Same with my hair and stuff like that. So I'm very hyper-aware of myself. When I think about the way that other people are seeing it, I have to fully separate the way that I see myself, so that's what I like to think about a lot is that I might view myself doing one thing and that's very normal for me, but for other people, it might look really strange.

AS: I totally get the hair thing. In first grade, my mom used to have to walk me to school early so my teacher could braid my hair, because I couldn't concentrate if my hair wasn't braided and done every single day. 

JK: Yeah. I usually have my hair pulled back just in a half up, half down, ‘cause I can't stand when my hair goes in my face, so that's why I fidget with it a lot.

AS: Your site states that you flirt with the idea of beauty and questioning societal views when conversing with yours about your own body. We talked about that, but is there anything else you want to expand on with that?

JK: The thing is that my body is normal to me, but there's things that I noticed that people notice about me. For instance, I am in Toronto visiting my family right now, and my bags were really full of clothing, but I didn't bring that much clothing. It's just that my clothes take up a lot more room ‘cause they are a lot bigger. And that was something that I didn't really pay attention to, the fact that that was seen as I brought a lot of stuff, but it was just bigger and took up a lot more room. So those are kind of things that I became really aware of and also the things that I wear and clothing and stuff like that, because clothing is not the same accessibility, right. Finding clothing that fits properly and doesn't fall apart after two wears is something that I also pay a lot of attention to, and that's why I've been thinking about sewing and the way that clothing does fit on my body specifically and other fat bodies.

I think that's another thing that I think a lot about is the way that clothing plays a role in things. That's why I'm nude in a lot of my work is because I think that clothing says a lot more about a fat body than it does with that person being nude. And I want to take that aspect away from it. Like, I don't want to think about the way that my clothing is fitting me and the way that someone is seeing the way their clothing fits, because I think that brings a whole other conversation into the work that I'm not ready [for].

AS: Right. It puts a whole layer of what is available in society, mostly what’s coming from the individual.

JK: Yeah, and what you're adding to yourself. Because if you wear something that's baggier, that adds a visual sense of weight versus wearing something that's tight, what is that saying? Is that fitting properly? Is that pulling? Is that in a place that's not usually where tight clothes would fit? So those are the kinds of things that I think about a lot. I think that clothing adds a whole other aspect to a conversation.

AS: Did you say you were exploring sewing? 

JK: Yeah. I kind of do a little bit of everything. Like when I work, I get this idea in my head and I can't really not do it. Like my brain won't calm down until I do it. Last year, I worked a lot with embroidery and I'm hoping to do more of that. I'm in art school currently. We had a project that actually was about clothing, and so I made myself a pair of pants. 

Don't try and size up a pattern on your first try of making pants. *laughs* It took me like a full day. I didn't stop. It took me 15 hours straight. I didn't eat or anything. But yeah, I've been working on sewing and making clothes. I used to sew when I was little too. I used to take sewing classes. 

AS: Do you think it’s something you want to explore as another dimension of your work? Or is it more practical, like you actually want to make clothing?

JK: Both. I think there's a few conversations that I want to be having, but they're all things that have to happen separately for me. I don't think I can talk about my childhood and my life and everything that has to do with myself and my body with bringing clothing into it and then bring that in separately. Like I think it has to all happen in different parts. And that's what I'm kind of working on now is working on all of those different parts in different projects all at the same time.

AS: Love that. Okay, you have talked again in an interview before about this response to you in the body that you're in, like people might say like, “Oh, you're so inspirational.” I think not everyone understands why that's problematic. What do you think?

JK: I think there's a time and place for seeing fat bodies as inspirational. I think that having a conversation about the way that you feel about yourself and the way that a situation happened and expressing that—I get that that's inspirational to hear people talk about things. And I understand that part, but if someone's just living, right, and functioning and taking pictures and looking hot, like...it's not necessarily inspirational. It's just kind of projecting the fact that you don't think those bodies should exist in that light, right. Those bodies do exist in that light. Those bodies do have the same sort of sex appeal. And it just... I don't know, I think that it's problematic to believe that it's confident and, um, abnormal to see bodies like that.

AS: Thank you for explaining that. What are you exploring thematically in your art right now? 

JK: Oh, so much. I've been paying a lot of attention to going back. My mum recently moved out of my childhood home that I grew up in and I moved out of that a few years ago. And I moved out of it and didn't really think twice about it too much, but then once I realized that there was no kind of going back into that house and going back into that space and the way that things always were—everything was always so neat and well put together and going back in and then all of that getting taken out of it—it kind of brought up a lot of memories and thoughts that I kind of wanted to work through. I spent a lot of time placing myself in that house, in the body and like the person I am now and placing myself in those rooms and placing myself in those experiences and thinking about that a lot and kind of working through... I don't think you can move forward without working through the past in most things. And so I think that even positive, negative, every experience has to be worked through. So that was what I was kind of working on. And I'm also working on like... um, quarantine was hard, like this has been really tough and I think that is taking a big part in my work now is my mental health, for sure.

AS: You're kind of doing shadow work, exploring these things. Do you think that this work is helping you achieve better mental health through quarantine? 

JK: I'm not very good at being quiet. I don't do a very good job at hiding my feelings or not talking about things. I talk a lot and, um, I think that's a whole other way for me to be able to work through things without having to necessarily project it on others or have a conversation about it with somebody else, but kind of work through things personally, without adding somebody else to the picture, if that makes any sense. I think being alone, I learned a lot more about myself this time than I have in the past. I think I spent a lot of time reflecting. Yeah, I think this has been a very different point in my life and in many people's. 

AS: Yeah, I think that's true. You spent a year painting yourself over and over and over again, and it was like a process of reclaiming your self image and shifting the way that you looked at yourself. Can you talk to you about that process mentally and what that was like? 

JK: Yeah. I still kind of do that now. I do that all the time. A lot, almost all of my work is self portraits because the thing is, I know myself best. Like I spent a lot of time over analyzing myself and kind of very much understanding myself and the things that I don't understand, I want to work through very specifically, but I always find that it feels really impersonal for me to work with other people, even people that I'm very close with. It feels really impersonal, because I think that I spend a lot of time alone and a lot of time like reflecting. And I think that I kind of lost your question cause I got distracted by myself.

AS: I’ll ask again! You talked about that time you spent painting yourself over and over again, and how that spark shifted the way you look at yourself. And I wonder about the process of reclaiming your self-image and how you find beauty through painting yourself over and over again.

JK: Yeah. I think part of it was also paying attention to things that I don't usually see, like painting myself from behind or painting myself from angles that I would never see myself at. I think taking all of those—every good, bad and ugly part of myself—and seeing that over and over and over again is something that I think desensitized myself to the way that I look like. I think that was a big part of it, is that everything became very normal and everything becomes very normal. As I continue to work through all of that, everything becomes very normal for me. And I think that was a big part of why I started to paint myself was because I wanted to, one, better understand myself, two, understand how other people processed me, and three, give a concrete image of what people have to view me as in that moment, like not giving a space for questioning or argument or any of that. It was, this is what it is. And you don't really have a choice, but to look at it, or you don't have a choice but to understand me that way. And I think that was part of it a lot. 

AS: That's really interesting, it's almost like taking your body parts out of context of you, you can look at it objectively and like, like you said, normalize it. I think we all project our own insecurities onto our bodies, and then when you disassociate that from you, all of the insecurity and all of the like weird—

JK: It just becomes very normal. Yeah. There's like no question about it, that that's my arm, whether or not that arm looks too big to somebody else. That's my arm like that is a bone underneath there. There's muscle underneath. It's all just normal. That's how we function. Right? So that's what it kind of deconstructed everything while still having myself very present and very much in thought about other things. It just made everything very normal. I don't have much storage in my place anymore, so I have all of my work all around myself all the time. It's a constant feed of my naked body everywhere. So everything's just so normal to me in that sense.

AS: What role does energy play in your life? 

JK: Oh, it's all over the place. I suffer with depression a lot and that plays a big aspect of how I function and the work that I do and the work that I physically am able to do in that moment. But I also have ADHD. So my energy levels are...you never know what you're going to get with me. I'm either extremely hyper or really, really calm. And I think that you can tell depending on what you're looking at and what moment you're getting of me. Um, but energy plays a big part. It plays a big part in how I am socially. It plays a big part of how I am when I'm working or what I'm able to do or what I overdo.

AS: What are your greatest dreams for yourself and for the world? 

JK: I just want to be able to take things slow. I want to be able to take things in as they are and take things in as understanding other people's realities, because everyone's reality is different. And understanding every individual [person], like people I'm really close with, or people that I've become close with or friends with, understanding that their reality and their experiences are very important to them. And even if they don't work with how I think or with how I function or the way that I would see a situation, to take it slow and be able to take that time with people to understand them and to not project my experiences into other people's lives. I think that's something that I really want to work towards. Yeah. And to keep creating, even when I'm too tired.