New York-based portrait artist Lee Price is fascinated with the relationship between women and food. In a series that has taken over seven years to produce, Price features herself as the subject (with the exception of two images, one with her mother, one with a friend) gorging on bags of Cheetos, boxes of sweets, and pints of ice cream in very solitary, almost obscure locations including one’s bed or bathroom (think Lena Dunham eating a cupcake in the bathtub a la Girls season two). Unlike Dunham’s performance, however, Price’s paintings are neither derived from nor aimed at producing humor. They’re based on very real eating disorders (which Price herself has suffered from in the past), and explore the obsession—and sometimes compulsive relationship—many women have with food.
When did you start working on this series of women and food?
That series started probably about six or seven years ago. I had always—even when I was back in college at an all-women’s school—focused on women and strange environments with women with food all around; things that didn’t make a lot of sense, like somebody holding a bunch of carrots for absolutely no reason. For this particular series, I wasn’t consciously thinking, “Oh, I’m going to make some statement about women and food.” I was actually working on—I always paint from photographs—a kind-of Alice in Wonderland-type thing where there were tea, cookies, and desserts in the foreground, and I was in the background in a floral dress asleep on a big wingback chair. And I was looking at the images and it wasn’t working—so I got this antique tablecloth and threw it on the floor. I threw all the food on the floor and I had a friend of mine get up on a ladder and photograph me lying in the middle of it.
That was the first painting I did in this series. It was called “Full.” There was something about that that really struck me as something I wanted to continue to explore. I didn’t completely understand what it was about, but I continued on with that thing and then it became more conscious. I like that people interpret it in their own ways, but to me, I’m painting about compulsive activity. I’m painting about, specifically, compulsive or emotional eating. I’m painting about how people check out, how people reach for things because–I think it’s in our nature.
Why did you use yourself as the subject? Is this relationship something you relate to?
Yeah. It took so long for me to connect with what I was doing, but I did have a history of eating disorders. I mean, I’m 47 now, so it was long ago. But in my teens and in my 20s, I had—I wouldn’t say severe—but I grappled with eating disorders. And still, whatever 20-some years later, it’s still where I go—when I’m having difficulties in my life that’s still how I deal with things. Not to the severity that it was, but, you know, I grab a pint of Haagen Dazs without thinking.
“I really believe that compulsive behavior is more misguided than it is shameful—you’re doing something to try to make yourself feel better and, in the end, you’re harming yourself.”
I don’t know if it’s just how I’m interpreting the pieces, but I feel like there is a bit of shame, but also a bit of pleasure and joy.
You know, I think there are different degrees of things happening in different paintings. I also think that people look at them and interpret them in different ways. I know shame gets used a lot with my work, and I don’t like that word. I don’t relate to it that way.
Is there a different way that you would describe it?
I would describe it as compulsive, as secretive. But I feel like it’s a person trying to soothe themself. It’s like trying to nurse yourself but not doing it in a way that is actually helpful. Again, I’m not sure why shaming—I think maybe the use of the word: when women do it, it’s shameful, but when men do it, it’s compulsive. Take away the eating and it could be anything—drinking, surfing the net, any behavior you’re using to check out.
Well I thought it was interesting because I read on Bustle that work has the ability to be perceived as “food-shaming,” and I just found that so… weird.
I have to say, that word [shame] somehow everyone’s clung onto it, and that’s what everybody wants to call it. And it makes me really uncomfortable. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I really believe that compulsive behavior is more misguided than it is shameful—you’re doing something to try to make yourself feel better and, in the end, you’re harming yourself. It’s sad. It’s human nature. But I don’t put these women in private rooms because I’m trying to portray that they’re ashamed. I’m putting them in these private rooms because that’s what happens. You don’t take a compulsive behavior and flash it around so everybody can see it. You’re doing it in a hidden way.
On the other side, you said there are some that seem really joyful. The one I’ve heard people interpret that way is the Happy Meal one, which I never intended for people to do, but again, I think people interpret them as they relate to them. I don’t know if any of them are joyful. In the ones where the figure is looking at the viewer…they’re more a defiant thing to me.
I think that those are another category. They’re not so much of a compulsive eating thing. That does get into sort of a commentary on how women should look, or the struggle to be a certain size or behave a certain way.
Would you say there has always been this strange fascination in society with the relationship between women and food and the relationship women have with food?
In my lifetime, it’s always been there. I flash on these commercials for TAB diet soda—I think they were from the ’60s. But they basically said, your husband goes away and while he’s away, you better drop those pounds—even the bottle of TAB was shaped in an hourglass. It was the idea that, drink TAB and you’ll be thin. To me, I think there has been an extreme focus on women and their figures.
I’ve also read mentions of TV and film characters like Bridget Jones and Miranda from Sex and the City when speaking about your work. Would you say pop culture is also playing a role in this?
Definitely. Well, when you say “playing a role in it,” do you mean in the link between women and food obsession or the link between women and body size?
Kind of both.
Yeah—I guess when I think about it, it’s both. It does perpetuate. I keep thinking back—this is a bit off the topic—to the statement of how women use food the way men use sex. For whatever reason, it’s what we use to check out. It’s what we use to try to make ourselves feel better.
Why do you think it’s such a thing with women but not men?
I don’t know if it’s because it’s the thing we’re supposed to avoid. We’re supposed to be a size 2 and to be acceptable we need to look a certain way. And yes, as perpetuated in pop culture, the media, and magazines—everywhere. So I don’t know if it’s a struggle thing where we want it because we can’t have it, so we focus on it.
I think that food is an easy way to nurture yourself. I also feel like women do have a tendency of feeling like we’re supposed to take care of other people, so it’s an easy way to take care of ourselves back.
Do you think this work is bringing to light or trying to help change these conceptions?
No. To be completely honest, like I said, I did not start out trying to make any kind of statement whatsoever. And I still don’t think I’m trying to do that. I’m making paintings that are very personal, and I want people to react to them however they react to them. One of my favorite quotes is, “The more personal, the more universal.” And I feel like that really applies to art—make art that’s very personal and a lot of people will relate to it. I get emails all the time from women who relate to them because they have an eating disorder or because that’s how they deal with really horrible situations in their lives. And to me, it’s like, okay, I make these paintings, I put them out there, and 100 people will look at them. And out of those 100 people, 50 people just won’t react. 30 people will take it some other way that I don’t mean it, and that’s totally fine. But out of those 100 people, there will be a few people for whom these paintings make them not feel so alone. And that’s the most I would want. I’m not trying to make a statement; I’m just painting about my life. And then I get those emails on occasion where people tell me that my paintings have touched them or helped them. That’s what I’m trying to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.