“The idea for this project had been brewing for a long time,” says photographer Daria Dar. “I remember when I was a child, my parents kept telling me: ‘you’re a girl, you have to be feminine’ – but I didn’t know what ‘feminine’ meant. By the time I was 25, I had short hair, wore oversized clothing, and barely used makeup. I was often addressed as, ‘hey dude’. Even now I feel that people define femininity by someone’s appearance, without thinking about their personality.”
Based in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, Dar had been aware of strict gender norms since early childhood. “I grew up in a patriarchal family, where certain requirements were imposed on women,” she says. “[They had] to run the household, be beautiful and obedient, not stand out, hide their emotions, get married, have children, be gentle, elegant, calm, wear dresses and push-up bras, and absolutely not bother men with their problems.” But as this rigid set of rules, garments, and suitable behaviour was laid out in front of her, Dar realised that the very meaning of femininity remained elusive and alienating. In Search of Femininity is her playful yet sincere attempt to explore the concept of Russian womanhood and how it impacted her life.
“My collages are a search for an answer, a rethinking of clichés and patterns that were laid down for me from an early age. I dress up my cut-out self-portraits like paper dolls, by attaching long hair, ‘feminine’ clothes and make-up,” the photographer explains. She used different clichés and tokens of femininity as her starting point, adding more research from mainstream sources like Wikipedia, and even polls on gender from her Instagram audience.
Dar first became interested in photography in 2012, but her true artistic journey only began three years later, when she landed in hospital after a misscarriage. When she was discharged, she picked up the camera both to process her trauma, and to use it as a tool for conscious storytelling. “At that point, I realised that many of the themes I was most interested in were internal: the body, psychological and physical trauma, motherhood and memory.”
In Search of Femininity is a project about social expectations layered onto the gender binary — but also a tireless dialogue of the artist with herself. This tension between the public and private gaze is at the heart of the matter, just as it forms the core of our day-to-day experience of gender.
“In Russia, the ideas and perceptions surrounding gender are changing — but it’s not clear yet exactly how or in which direction they’ll move. At the moment, it feels like the stronger the push for more progressive gender views, the more resistance those views meet, even from women themselves,” says Dar. “I would love to see more acceptance of our humanity regardless of gender, religion, or skin colour.”