How Frida Kahlo, the OG Queen of Selfies, Redefined Art & Femininity

Frida Kahlo, Women Who InspireBy all accounts, Frida Kahlo was a delicate woman. By the time she was 6, she had contracted polio and a limp, and by 18 she had shattered her leg in 11 places, broken her spine, and had her vagina and uterus ripped apart by a metal pole. She had a unibrow, a temper, an addiction, and an amputated leg. And yet her face takes up a space in art history that's usually reserved for women like Aphrodite or Mary Magdalene. She's mischievous, mysterious, and, to some extent, an open book. She's essential to the story of femininity, and an essential subject during Women's History Month.


It's hard to talk about Frida Kahlo. She was a magnificent artist, and you don't want to reduce that by gossiping about her drinking problem and her sex life. But she had famously public affairs that were famously reflected in her paintings, so maybe the two go hand in hand.

Who She Is

I've already used it, but my favorite word for Frida Kahlo is mischievous. She was born in Mexico City in 1907 (though if you had asked her, she would have lied and told you 1910) to a native Mexican and Indian mother and a German father, and she grew up sickly, self-obsessed, and tomboyish. She started painting when she was bedridden at 18, and after that, she didn't stop.

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She strode into the art world, where she demanded a critique of her face and her body -- and she got it. But her talent was recognized instantly: She lived to see her first painting hung in the Louvre, and she was able to tour around Mexico, the United States, and Europe with and for her art.

On her travels, she also swayed and slept with an incredible number of people -- Leon Trotsky, Josephine Baker, and Georgia O'Keeffe are all on the list, though the most famous is undoubtedly the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. "Volatile" is probably the nicest way to refer to her marriage with Rivera -- they constantly yelled and fought and cheated and divorced each other and remarried each other. I don't know if it was love or obsession or indulgence, but in any case, that relationship defined both their careers.

How She Shaped History

The easiest way to describe her influence is through her contribution to the art world: Even though Kahlo rejected the label "surrealist," that's more or less where she's placed in history. At the time, her paintings, which were mostly self-portraits and still lifes, were bold and transgressive tributes to her body, her relationships, and her strong Mexican heritage. The honesty and whimsy in her paintings ushered in a new era of contemporary art, and the art world wouldn't be where it is today without her influence.

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But the more complex answer is about her sexuality and her self-obsession and her standards of femininity. Frida's diary is a mystical universe strapped between the pages of a book, and in it, she reveals her love for her unibrow and her love for sex next to her penchant for communism and her excitement for death. Frida is not a woman who fits neatly into any definition of womanhood or personhood, and she's one of those rare figures who didn't just live outside the lines -- she molded them and edited them until her new lines fit us all.

Her Words to Live By

Between her diaries, her letters, and her appearances, we have so many words from Frida to live by. Here's my favorite:

I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you.

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But if this isn't the essence of Frida Kahlo, I don't know what is:

Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing. 

How She Inspires Me 

My favorite story about Frida Kahlo is this: A few years before her death, Kahlo was in the hospital for many months because of an infection due to a faulty surgery years before. Just after she was released, her first solo show was due to open in Mexico at the Galería Arte Contemporáneo, but her doctors told her she was too weak to go. I imagine she laughed. A few days later, she was rolled into the opening of her show on a stretcher, and with a good deal of ceremony, she installed herself on a four-poster bed as a living display. 

Art historians love to say that Frida spent her life feeling deformed, defective, and unloved, but I don't think that's true. I think she loved her deformities and her weaknesses, and I think she asked for even more love from the people around her and got it. I think she loved her pain. She embraced body positivity a century before that even had a name, and she was the OG queen of selfies.

Frida Kahlo walked up to the world, tapped it on the shoulder, and asked for what she wanted. The world gave it to her. Frida suffered, but she did it with a laugh and a scoff and not an ounce of self-pity. She was chronically unlucky but didn't seem to care. She only wanted to create, and I am so glad she did.


Image via Bettmann/Corbis

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