The Fashion Industry, Social Media, & a Tribute to Self-Acceptance – An Interview with SOFIA SZAMOSI
Comic Book Yeti Contributor Andrew Irvin welcomes Sofia Szamosi into the Yeti Cave to discuss her graphic novel Unretouchable, described as an unforgettable take on social media and an image-conscious society. This is a wonderful conversation about a unique and timely new graphic novel.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Thanks for making time to discuss your debut title, today, Sofia.
SOFIA SZAMOSI: Thanks so much for your time as well and your interest in Unretouchable.
CBY: So, this is your first foray into graphic novels as a medium, but you’ve got a decade’s worth of illustration, painting, zines, and other media in your portfolio. What prompted this undertaking, and how long has it been in development alongside your other creative efforts?
SS: Unretouchable was born in 2016 after I did an internship with a photo retoucher. The internship and subsequent soul-searching inspired me to create a zine – basically an illustrated personal essay – about my experiences, which I called Unretouchable. When I shared the zine with my agent, Jennifer Weltz of JVNLA, she saw the potential for it to become a graphic novel. I love graphic novels, and I’ve always loved telling stories with pictures and words together, so it felt like a natural progression and a very fun challenge.
CBY: From your Girls and Their…on Instagram series in your zine portfolio, it’s clear the subject matter concerning social media and image manipulation have been a point of fascination leading up to Unretouchable. Can you speak a bit about how the recursivity of female creators being both the progenitors and subjects of their content is central to the conceit of your story, and how you feel the expectations around this sort of image manipulation has been mainstreamed from fashion publications to bleed into representations of what would ostensibly be framed as candid, or if posed/staged, considered “slice of life” content?
SS: Yes, I have always been fascinated/repulsed by social media and enjoyed making art about it. It’s interesting and disturbing how it’s evolved in the 6 years since I made the Girls…on Instagram series that you mentioned, and did the internship that inspired this book. At that time, I think it was seen as more shocking or embarrassing to retouch your photos, and posting selfies could still be seen as conceited or cringey.
Today, beauty filters and retouching apps are the norm, and social media feeds off manicured selfies. We as creators supposedly have control over our images, but because social media validates and propagates a very narrow kind of “beauty,” I think a lot of people can be left feeling very less-than. And that insecurity is very profitable – it keeps us buying and spending. And along the way, young people are taught by the virtual atmosphere they're swimming in to think that it's their job as a person – especially as a woman – to present continuous self-representations, all "corrected," to an audience. For a lot of people who may make their money (at least partially) from social media marketing, the choice to conform to these beauty standards may not feel like much of a choice at all. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t judge anyone for wanting to change their appearance, online or off. We should all have agency over how we portray ourselves in the world. But I think it’s so important to stay awake to what larger societal structures and beauty standards are shaping our choices, and how those choices affect other people and ourselves.
CBY: You made mention of the term, “a great personality” as a loaded phrase at one point. You also make a point of juxtaposing gendered tasks in the fashion industry in a few choice panels. How do you think perceptions of body image are impacted differently across the gender spectrum, both within the fashion industry, where certain looks are prized/compensated at premiums, and across the social media sphere at a pedestrian level? How has the deconstruction of image and gender identity over the course of this century run in parallel, and diverged in any ways you’d like to address?
SS: Yes, perceptions of beauty standards are definitely going to be experienced really differently by different people. Socioeconomic status, sex, race, gender, sexuality, age, background, ability – factors like these all play such a big role in how peoples’ bodies get read, and how people experience their own bodies. One huge issue that doesn’t really get opened up in Unretouchable is how racist beauty standards impact Black, LatinX, Indigenous and other people of color, and the vital ways people are fighting against them.
Another important topic is the many ways people are using social media to resist and come up against the gender binary and other oppressive standards of beauty and acceptability. For a lot of people, self-presentation can be a form of empowerment and resistance, and social media can be a place to more freely and safely portray themselves (though it's not without its own risks).
CBY: Body positivity is a topic of discussion amongst the characters, and to explore the concept further, what do you see as the benefits of the movement, and are there any limitations? For instance, to what degree does it correct perceptions perpetrated by the media market around unrealistic expectations of physical appearance, and to what degree, if any, do you find it may gloss over legitimate dialogue around nominal health, nutrition, and fitness parameters? What does a #bodyrealism conversation look like both within and beyond the fashion/image industry space?
"...insecurity is very profitable – it keeps us buying and spending. And along the way, young people are taught by the virtual atmosphere they're swimming in to think that it's their job as a person – especially as a woman – to present continuous self-representations, all 'corrected,' to an audience."
SS: In Unretouchable, Olive discovers the body positivity movement online and it helps her regain a shred of hope in social media. There are a lot of cool aspects to the body positivity movement, and it is refreshing to see more types of bodies represented and celebrated by big brands. However, a lot of these images are still being reconfigured and packaged for our consumption. In the book, Olive’s best friend Toni points out that the body positivity movement was founded by queer, black, fat and disabled communities, though today it has mostly been taken over by brands trying to make money. It’s gross hearing brands tell us to suddenly feel good about ourselves and love our bodies, as if they weren’t the ones telling us to feel bad about ourselves (by propagating unrealistic beauty standards) in the first place. The message of total “positivity” also doesn’t leave room for much gray area or complexity – who feels positive 100% of the time? This opens up one more way for us to be defective (not loving ourselves enough) and the more defective we think we are, the more we keep spending.
CBY: Exploring image and visual narrative, I wanted to turn to your expressive style of illustration – it’s a clear counterpoint to the hypersexualized style that emerged out of the male-dominated major publisher bullpen culture in previous decades. Having looked at your portfolio and the stylistic versatility you’ve displayed, this was clearly a conscious choice. Can you share with our readers a bit of your process and approach to illustration and the choices you’ve made around depicting this glimpse at a world of high fashion in the manner you’ve chosen?
SS: Ever since I was little, I have loved drawing with clean, bold black lines and shapes. This was the style that I used to illustrate the zine that inspired the book, so when it came time to make the artwork, it was natural I would continue to work in that style. It was not a totally conscious choice at the time, but I did choose to draw Olive in a very simplistic, non-sexy style. I think I wanted to avoid participating in the objectifying project that I was writing and drawing about.
CBY: You turn a highly critical eye towards participation in social media spaces throughout the story. As someone creating media for publication (and hopefully profit!) how do you navigate your need to engage in social media spaces for promotion and career development, and what kind of tensions and conflicts do you feel it creates? Are there any reflections on this process you’d like to share, and alternatives to the current means of engaging online that you envision or would like to see develop for subsequent generations of creators?
SS: In Unretouchable, Olive becomes increasingly alienated by the digital world around her and decides to swear off social media completely, at least for a while. I also quit social media for a few years, after doing the internship that inspired this book. It was a wonderful hiatus and if I wasn’t trying to promote this book, I’m not sure I would have re-joined. But, I want to share my work with the world and hopefully one day make money from it, so I’m willing to participate in this system because, for now, it’s the only/dominant show in town.
I sincerely hope that changes. It would be awesome if big tech and social media companies took more responsibility for the harm their products cause and made efforts to make them less addictive. This would take some of the pressure off us as users. As the creators of technology that’s designed to suck us in and turn us into narcissistic addicts of likes and distraction/consumers, the accountability is theirs. In the meantime, we should keep talking about this stuff, and I hope Unretouchable can be part of that conversation.
At the time of writing Unretouchable, I was still personally sworn off social media and I did feel conflicted about whether or not Olive should re-join. In the end, I realized that having her swear off social media completely might alienate a lot of people. I also acknowledge that complete social media abstinence is not realistic or desirable for a lot of people (myself included). I wanted Olive to grapple with these questions in a way that is relatable and leaves room for nuance, complexity and conversation.
CBY: Unretouchable was a refreshing read, and now is the time to feed the beast – what social media links, etc., would you like to share with us so our readers can take a deeper dive into your work and access this graphic novel of yours? And Sofia, thank you for sharing your insight and reflections today, and good luck with the launch of Unretouchable!
SS: Thank you so much for your very interesting and thoughtful questions!!!
Check me out here: