THE GOOD NEWS:
Empowering images can provide support and make mental health awareness into a meme.
Amid the onslaught of Instagram photos of not-yet-touched brunch plates and perfectly staged glamour shots, you may notice colorful, pastel illustrations of women with phrases like “support trans women” and “don’t put up with sexism in the workplace.” These are the works of Alison Rachel Stewart, an illustrator who uses her distinct aesthetic to address societal issues in an accessible and frank way.
Stewart has channeled her creativity through drawing, painting, printmaking, and textile art, as well as zines. Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Amsterdam, where she works as a content strategist and freelance illustrator.
Yet her series “Recipes for Self Love” started from a personal need. While social media has been linked to mental health issues, Stewart cultivated an online community through her own personal need for self-help advice.
“‘Recipes for Self Love’ came about when I was struggling with my mental health toward the end of 2016 and wanted to find a resource of methods that other women practice in order to feel good — something like a recipe book,” Stewart says. “No such thing existed to my knowledge so I decided to create one.”
In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. found that “social media use is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.” On the other hand, the report also found that social media “can improve young people’s access to other people’s experiences of health.”
That dichotomy means that while social media can cause detrimental effects, it can also serve as a space to discuss experiences that are often stigmatized. For Stewart, Instagram serves as a platform to offer encouraging messages to women dealing with sexism, racism, mental health struggles, and unrealistic beauty expectations.
Her work touches on issues that are personal yet political. Her messages like “support women with mental illness” call out the stigma against talking about mental health. And mental health awareness is crucial for women. According to the World Health Organization, “proneness to emotional problems” is a prevalent gender stereotype that can become a “barrier to the accurate identification and treatment” of mental illness for women. In addition, women must deal with “risk factors for common mental disorders,” such as “gender-based violence” and “low income and income inequality.”
The illustrations also address body and sex positivity. One work reads “better late than never — my period” with a simple illustration of underwear with blood stains. The image feels especially powerful considering the current administration’s efforts to allow employers to use religious beliefs as a reason to no longer pay for birth control coverage.
The zine version of “Recipes for Self Love,” which Stewart sells on her Etsy shop as an instant download, includes visual and text contributions submitted by “different talented women,” not just Stewart.
Starting her Instagram account helped her expand her platform. With time, she started posting her illustrations with text in many different languages. In her multi-image posts, the messages are made even more inclusive by being able to reach followers from a variety of backgrounds.
“Someone asked me to translate into their language so I started sourcing translators from my followers to offer a variety of translations,” writes Stewart. “It’s quite simple, I send the English phrases to the translator and she responds with the translation.”
The range of themes seems to strike a chord with many people. “Recipes for Self Love” has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, so Stewart’s messages have the potential to reach those who might need them in communities around the world. Her illustrations have been reposted by brands with large platforms, like Refinery29, as well as individual accounts, often accompanied with messages of gratitude.
The messages in her illustrations ring loud and clear in light of recent conversations of sexual harassment. Phrases like “assault is never the victim’s fault” relate to the #MeToo movement, which has roots in the work of Tarana Burke and turned into a widespread hashtag on social media. As celebrity women have come forward with their own stories, conversations around sexual harassment and sexual assault continue. One “Recipes for Self Love” follower shared Stewart’s illustration with the caption: “ For those somehow confused on the topic.” For Stewart, each illustration can have “multiple meanings” because so many of her followers come from different walks of life.
“I’m so glad they are able to ‘grow legs’ and move through the world being a mouthpiece for different people to articulate how they think or feel,” she says.
Her illustrations depict a variety of women, some with hijabs, others with bright braids. Some figures wear dresses, others sport a suit and tie. One illustration quotes writer Keah Brown: “We can’t continue to move forward in society unless the disability community feels properly seen and heard.” For Stewart, hearing feedback from her followers is one of the most important parts of creating the pieces. “I am always so touched when people tell me that they enjoy my work. I recently got told by someone who bought the RFSL Calendar that it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever owned.”
Stewart is currently working on a self-love recipes book that she hopes to release in 2019.
Share image by Alison Rachel Stewart.