Defy Convention (Or Be Forgotten)

image of Frida Kahlo

A few weeks ago I saw this tweet from Johnny B. Truant:

If I were Frida Kahlo, I would have painted myself without a unibrow. Or at least have become aware I needed a pair of tweezers.

Johnny made me smile. Then he made me think.

Would we remember Frida Kahlo today if she hadn’t had the audacity to leave her eyebrows natural, and sport a wisp of a mustache across her upper lip?

We might. Her artwork is memorable and intensely personal. She’s considered by many to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

But from what I’ve read, Frida was too smart to leave her fame and reputation to chance.

She went against the conventions of the day and left her brows and upper lip au naturel in order to stand out. Those were, of course, just a few elements of the overall style that made her unforgettable. Everything about her — from her appearance to her paintings to her personal life — worked together to create a powerful message.

You can do the same thing, and there’s no eyebrow pencil required.

Start with the truth

When Frida was in her teens, she was riding a bus that collided with a trolley car. She broke her spinal column and pelvis, and shattered her right leg. She suffered severe pain for the rest of her life, and was in and out of the hospital for surgeries from then on.

She spent a lot of time alone, and began painting to fill those hours. She was confined to a bed, so she painted what she had at hand — herself.

Painting helped relieve the boredom and loneliness she experienced. It gave her a mode of expression, and helped define her life.

As writers, we bring our life experience to our keyboards. Our best work comes from tapping into our emotional lives and sharing some of it when we talk to our readers.

Frida painted her pain, her joys, and her frustrations. She would have made a fascinating blogger.

Are you sharing some of your life experience with your audience? You don’t need to over share (really!). But expressing some of your inner struggles can help forge a stronger connection with the people who read your work.

Take a stand

Frida’s paintings could have easily been eclipsed by her famous husband’s. Diego Rivera was a beloved muralist whose projects appeared around the world. Kahlo and Rivera had a tumultuous marriage that was marked by deep respect for each others’ work.

As a woman living in the mid-20th century, she might have had an easier road if she’d simply basked in the reflected glory of her husband’s successful art career. But she knew she had something to say. She wanted to be memorable in her own right.

What does your writing stand for? Are you willing to devote yourself to your ideas despite the odds?

Because as your readers, we can tell if you’re passionate about your topic. It comes through in what you write and how you write it.

Choose your style

For all the raw, honest emotion she shared through her paintbrush, there was one aspect of Frida’s life she consistently lied about. According to her official birth certificate, she was born in 1907. But according to Frida, she was born in 1910.

If she wasn’t vain about the unibrow or the mustache, why shave three years off her age?

Apparently, it was in solidarity to her native Mexico. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and signaled the birth of a new government. Frida shaved three years off so she could say she was born at the same time.

She also made a decision as a young woman to dress exclusively in native costume, and continued to use this elaborate style of dress her whole life. Photos show her confined to a hospital bed decked out in multiple colorful layers of fabric and jewelry.

She created her own style of art, and dressed to communicate what mattered most to her. Her costumes reflected her passion, her message, and her life experience.

Does your site have a style? What’s it based on? Is there a connection between your visual style and your overall message?

Creating a visual style that’s memorable and communicates your message will help your audience keep you at the top of their minds.

No unibrow required

I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. ~Frida Kahlo

You don’t need a unibrow, pink hair, or a bad-ass attitude. But you do have to share your unique voice if you want us to remember you.

Don’t be afraid to express passionate opinions. Find a way to communicate them that’s unique, both in content and delivery.

Maybe you feel powerless and broken, like Frida might have after her life-changing accident. You might think everyone around you is more talented. It might seem like the odds are against you.

But if you share your passion and your inner life in a way that’s remarkable, people could still be talking about you 100 years from now.

How will you stand out and be memorable?

About the Author: Pamela Wilson helps small businesses grow with great design and marketing tips. Learn the basics with her free Design 101 e-course at Big Brand System.

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  1. Pamela:

    If you Google “Frida Kahlo”, the first entry is a good Wiki article on her.

    It’s doing something different that helps you be remembered. Yesterday, I listened to an audio tape by Bob Bly and Clayton Makepeace (i.e. Makepeace total package) on headline writing. What struck me is that they often did headlines that weren’t being now done – yet they did follow certain patterns.

    I’m happy you illustrated unconventional wisdom via a painter. I remember taking out a membership in the Chicago Art Institute, many years ago. When I needed a break from software engineering, I would attend a free lunchtime painting lecture. What struck me is that many renown painters defied conventional wisdom.

    The other thing I remember is the age element – Frida’s age story. I once went to a lecture. The speaker brought up Grandma Moses, Freud, and several other famous names. The question was, “what did all these famous names have in common?” Answer: they made their most important contributions “after the age of 60.”

    Hey. I remember studying Frida. It brings up memories of sitting in Spanish classes at COD. Like the Wiki article mentioned, “Kahlo’s work was not widely recognized until decades after her death”. The same thing with one of my favorite painters – Vincent Van Gogh. Even brings back memories of Lenard Nimoy doing a one-act play on Vincent.

    Great post. Many thoughts to think about.

    Randy

    • Wow, Randy, it really got you thinking, didn’t it?

      I must confess I didn’t really like her work when I first saw it many years ago. But as is the case with a lot of art, the more you understand about the time period it was created in, and the life of the person who created it, the more you can appreciate the end result.

      Now I find it fascinating, and inspiring (obviously!).

    • I do not know Frida Kahlo. We never heard of her here in the Philippines. But I am encouraged to comment because:

      1. Randy provides us more information about an article every time he comments. He is a real online conversationalist because always gives value to what we say, and make sure that he says something of value too.

      2. Pamela’s article reminded me again to defy convention. I am not yet there. But a constant reminder is what I need.

      3. Pamela’s article reminded me that one does not have be in the best situation in life to be inspired to do something. Whatever we have now is a gift we can use to share with others. We can package our gifts, but we must always remember that the gift (who we are) is more important than the package (convention).

      Thank you and have a happy new year!

  2. :) Involving a piece of art always makes a blog post look wonderful :)

    especially if we are talking about Frida Kahlo :)

  3. Finding your own Identity is what you have to do, once you get your mind set to who you want to be..then the rest is easy..people will then follow.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  4. I wonder if Frieda wanted to tweeze but didn’t because she wanted to stand out, or if she was cool with going natural and then just painted what she saw. I hope it’s the latter. One of my personal philosophies is to never say, “I hate that I’m so hairy, but it’s good for my branding.”

  5. I don’t know if I could write without my voice coming through. I’m transparent in the “real” world and I think that comes across in my blogging as well.

    I love the analogy of Frida being a blogger. That would have been amazing, but then, would we have missed out on some of her best works of art?

    • We probably would have. Good thing she never had Internet access!

      • I got thinking after I wrote my comment that Frida was indeed a writer. She just used paint instead of words.

        I’ve always wanted to be able to draw, but I’ve come to realize that to be truly memorable, we must find our own medium. No, I’ll never be able to use paint to convey my passion, but words are what make me tick.

        • I’m with you: I use a keyboard and a stylus pen to express myself! They’re just tools … it’s the act of expressing your unique voice that really counts, right?

    • I think you make an excellent point about a writers inherent “voice.” I understand the importance of “Defying Convention” as part of breaking the rules and striving to reach beyond your comfort zone to ultimately innovate. But I think, and I’m sure Freida would agree, you need to learn the “rules” before you break them, and for a writer (copywriter, Blogger, etc…), developing you own definite voice is a big part learning the Capital-R “rules.”

  6. Reading this post helped me to ‘see’ Frida through your eyes Pamela…Now I cannot wait to learn more about her. I suppose that is what a good blog post should do; engage the reader and get them to take action. Thank you for this bit of wisdom. It really got me thinking.

  7. amazin piece once again, love the way you inspire others to JUST BE YOUR SELF i just wish i seen more people puttint the SOCIAL back into SOCIAL MEDIA and leave out the MARKETING. people will always buy you before they buy your service i learned back when i did home loans “which i feel terrible about”. lookin forward to the next one mos-def

    @BlogginDre

  8. We have a Mexican restaurant here in Madison (on State Street) called “Frida” which features many large portraits of her. It always seemed odd to me that such a remarkable woman would be the inspiration for a restaurant that serves completely uninspired and typical food. Still, the place has real potential. Maybe I should show them your post!

  9. Fantastic! Creative, insightful, provocative column — thanks so much for continuing to show us how it’s done. Warmly, Melanie

  10. Thank you! (I’m blushing).

  11. That painting really captures your attention, doesn’t it? And you did a great job of following along with it with some excellent advice.

    I think those of us who don’t have a unibrow, pink hair, or something else that can be “shockingly” unconventional sometimes have to dig a little deeper to find out what’s uniquely interesting about ourselves, and I think that we sometimes don’t give ourselves enough credit.

    Great stuff, Pamela! (But then, I’ve come to expect that. Your stuff is always good.)

  12. There’s a fine line here, and I struggle with it. Used well, image can make you memorable and be a further expression of who you are and what you stand for. Used badly, it can be a smokescreen and a poor substitute for real substance. Even used with honest intent, it can be distracting.

    Frida seems to have found the right balance, at least in the example. If you ignore the facial hair, the scene is tranquil, as evidenced by the forest critters that wandered into the scene. Even her expression is quite peaceful. But then there are those vines. Are they creeping in to choke her? The images complement each other in a way that can’t quite be put into words. As they should. The severe image is part of the painting.

    Your thoughtful piece asks the right question, “Is there a connection between your visual style and your overall message?”

    • Is there a connection between your visual style and your overall message?

      When I think of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Lady Gaga I can’t help but say Yes!

  13. It’s always lovely to hear comments from people who’ve “gotten” what I was trying to say. Thanks, Paige and Jack.

  14. Great post, Pamela. Goes right to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: vulnerability. And what’s vulnerability but a willingness to be seen for who you really are?

    Whether you’re an artist, a writer, or a musician, your livelihood depends on being noticed, and to be noticed, sometimes you need to stand out.

    Scary awesome.

  15. Jessica Leigh :

    The reason she really resonates with me is not just because of her distinctive image, but because it’s about brutal honesty. She looked at herself and saw a whole person, mustache and all, and she didn’t try to hide that from her audience.

    I think that sometimes people’s biggest mistake is to try and hide their flaws, but in doing so we hide our humanness. It’s kind of like that moment you have with someone where you say, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!” There’s something really profound about those connections because they’re borne out of vulnerability. I think for bloggers this is especially important because you really want your audience to form a personal connection with you and the best way to do that is show who you really are.

  16. The amazing thing about really great art is that it brings up that feeling of connectedness. Not just “I’m not the only one,” but “I’m in good company!”

    Creative expression draws us together.

  17. Freida’s story resonates so deeply inside of me that I’m practically humming on the inside in response. I became captivated by her story some years ago and was awed by his monumental creative talents, emotional strength and fortitude,and furry personality. This was a women who refused to be broken and literally made the world stand up and take notce. In the cosmetic,air brushed, nip tuck, noticed world we live in now, Freidas message is timely. She was not a conventional beauty, and yet she forced people to really SEE HER and not the mask that comes out of a jar, or from a salon, or a surgeon. Culturally she teaches us to celebrate who we are and where we come from, as it is that rich soil where we truly bloom.
    Thanks so much Pamela, for writing this! My only regret is that I didn’t write it first!

  18. Interesting and thought-provoking post, Pamela. What a gorgeous pic of the painting, btw … I was unaware of her before this post – what a talent.

    I love the focus here on contrarian thinking. I’ve recently changed the direction of my content, which is the polar opposite of others in my niche. Will it “work”? Who knows, but at the very least I’ll be confident in the fact that my voice will be honest and true to who I am. That’s enough for me …

    Best to you,
    Scott

  19. Perhaps best known for her self-portraits, Kahlo’s work is remembered for its “pain and passion”,

  20. perhaps she was so free
    that
    she simply did what
    was necessary
    to awaken the culture around her.

    if others had a unibrow
    i bet
    she would
    have plucked.

  21. Thanks for the great reminder that our uniqueness can also be our strength!

    Best,
    Christine Hueber

  22. I LOVE this post, because her work has always taken me by surprise. There are so many different elements it’s hard to really assign her an identity, yet we recognize her work instantly because you have both the aesthetic beauty and the shock factor. I think that’s what makes this so great-and so very, very something we should incorporate into our writing. All too often we edit for the sake of making it “pretty” and lose so much in translation.

  23. Sonia is the only one allowed to rock the pink hair! But seriously, I make art, have an art degree, play music and create marketing solutions for my company and our clients. Through all of this and I always hesitant to stick to the formula. So many clients want to look like or present themselves as something other than what they really are. I think simply starting with knowing your true identity, as a person or an organization, is a great way to be independent and interesting. If you are boring, then maybe you need to embellish a bit. ;-)

  24. I loved Frida Kahlo since I discovered her work in college. I was fortunate to study her work more in-depth in a class taught by Robert J. Loescher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Loescher actually saw Kahlo in the flesh as a child and when I showed up in class with my hair done like Frida’s the professor told me I got it right!

    A semester later I asked Loescher to sign a form that would release me from his Meso American Art course but not because I thought his class sucked. I had an idea to take my research (mid-semester) to a housing development in Queens, NY, to launch a computer arts program for children. I needed his signature and he, thankfully, signed on the line. He even even passed me for the rest of the term because he felt my research was ahead of the class. They all (professors) signed on the line and a new career was born!

    Kahlo taught me not just to stand up but to ask the questions most would be too timid to ask like, ‘Can you release me from your class here so I can go there and live my dream?’ or ‘Can I be truthful about this society we all live in that really needs us to push for change for the betterment of all?’

    • That is a fantastic story! I love how someone who has been gone for over 50 years can inspire you to act in the here and now. Thanks so much for sharing this.

      • You’re welcome. Thanks for posting. At the time I took those courses I was overcoming a debilitating illness and Frida’s inspiration encouraged me not to give up or slow down… too much.

  25. Great post Pamela. Some good lessons in there.

    It took me a long time to get comfortable using my quirky self to teach photography, but it’s not like I could hide it. Now I celebrate my own brand of nerdiness and wear it all over my website and marketing materials.

    Not sure if that defies convention or not, and time will tell if I’m memorable.

  26. Great article Pamela.

    Very thought provoking.

    Interestingly enough, this is the second time I heard this message today. The first was a specific message from a wise young lady who said that an article I’m working on lacks my blend of quirkiness.

    With the same message from two wise women in one day, I’m off to give my keyboard a pep talk :)

    Thanks!

  27. Get to it, Mike! Can’t wait to see what you do.

  28. Great post, Pamela. I think another way of saying “Defy Convention” in this case is to simply be who you are. Just by being human we’re blessed with enormous creative resources… making us capable of producing work that no one has ever seen before. By following that creative impulse and being true to our own passion–as Frida did–we find that we’ve brought something new into the world. And we just might be remembered for that. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece, Pamela.
    Steve

  29. Great article, Pamela. Loved it! I went to her exhibition a few years ago and was totally gripped. She is an awesome woman and a great inspiration. Thanks for the reminder.

  30. Frida is such a perfect example for your message here. And it’s interesting that you mention her one bit of inauthenticity. I think sometimes in the pursuit of purpose or message, we forget pieces of ourselves. I have just recently realized that I left a big chunk of me behind when I got into online marketing, and I’m rediscovering the playful me who was forced to put her yo yo away in exchange for SEO. Yuck. Now that yo yo girl is back, I’m finding it easy to stay true to the real me in my blogging.

    I’m also finding it very interesting that as I’m on the verge of launching a project that’s all about honoring and using the strength of your I AM, I am encountering posts like this wherever I go. I think the universe is cheering me on. :)

    • That’s really cool, Ande. Good luck with your new projects!

      • “shit!” ! used that word in the subject box of a recent constant contact email and I was nervous about offending. The email had a record number of opens! So, it’s not about having a unibrow, but rather about finding the courage to be authentic, no matter how frightening. Thanks!

  31. Shame is a two-edged sword.

    One side of it keeps most of us from abusing animals or people or the environment…

    … the other side keeps us a prisoner to mediocrity.

    The side of shame that keeps us from expressing and exploiting our own personal unique ability that brings massive value to one teeny part of the universe, needs to be castrated.

    It’s this side of shame that keeps people worried sick about confrontation, rejection and adversity. All of which are part of the package that is bringing your gift to the world. Welcoming those “Scared Shitless” feelings when they show up in your body is in my mind, the root of all success.

    If you bury those feelings, they eat you up inside and because you’ve got all this past garbage rotting a hole in your gut you’re eager to avoid piling more on top of it so you do whatever you can to not place yourself in any situation where confrontation, rejection or adversity is possible. You’re basically a dead person walking when you’re trapped here.

    But when you welcome up all those feelings let them go and breathe, you step into a way of living in which you’re tension free and emboldened.

    This was a mindset shift that I got from The Sedona Method. It’s a program that was designed to help you manage your emotions so that you feel peaceful, relaxed and happy rather than scared, conflicted and timid. Google Sedona Method and see what you think.

    It’s been life-changing for me!

    Thank you Pamela for this reminder to own my uniqueness! I need and can’t place enough importance on it.

  32. great post! this is one of the secrets to success! nowadays people are giving the value
    other people but they forget that they have much value when they fail to borrow others’ success.

  33. Thanks Pamela – great post! There was a wonderful film about Frida a few years ago; she was so dynamic and talented, and considering her physical limitations, she had an amazing life. We can all learn many lessons from her, though I myself will continue to tweeze.

    It’s so important to have the guts to be yourself if you want to be successful. Provided, of course, you’re not a serial killer….

  34. Hi Pamela!

    I’ve seen the movie “Frida” starring Salma Hayek and indeed, Frida Kahlo, is a character. The unibrow was quite a distraction but yes, without it, it just wouldn’t be her anymore.

    We all have distinct features that make us truly ourselves and we should delight in that fact. It is our uniqueness that makes us very interesting.

  35. Frida’s life story, as does her art, touches many of us. Thanks for the reminder.

    For me the core message of your post is to ‘find your own voice’ and let the authenticity shine through even if that means defying convention. And, yes, this often is an emotional journey until that uniqueness of voice begins to come through as steady as the way we breathe.

    Some get it backwards — in their desire to be noticed and remembered, they defy convention for the sake of being different, without letting that first emerge from within. Style without underlying substance.

    To quote Rainer Maria Rilke, “There is only one journey; going inside yourself.”

    • I agree, Marc: defying convention only really works when it’s expressing something of substance.

      And you quoted Rilke! He’s one of my favorites. I have a post idea about him that I’ve had on a back burner for a while… it might be time to finish it up and submit it.

  36. While most of us applaud Frida for her tenacity and strength, the truth is few of us would have the guts to sport a unibrow and that really says something that cuts to the core of who we really are. Vain, self absorbed creatures overly concerned with our appearance and how we are perceived by the world. We applaud her now that she’s dead and can be elevated to such a high status(which she deserves) but I wonder if she was still here with us, how she would be viewed?
    I recall shortly before Michael Jacksons death, how in spite of his monumental talent, how he was laughed at , and ridiculed by the media for his unconventional appearance and behavior. Everyone had at least one Michael Jackson joke back in the day, and now that he’s gone,”everyone’s a fan”
    If most of us are really honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are really uncomfortable with people like Freida who defy convention. They end up showing us who we really are…

    I know I need to change MY attitude, how about you?

  37. The message to push one’s individual expression in spite of convention or inertia is always good to reiterate. It’s so much more fun than playing it safe or just dreaming without the action piece.Using Freda’s unibrow is a great visual.

  38. That’s certainly something to think about, because to be honest I think my tendency is to get lost in the crowd.

  39. Defying convention is certainly something I strive for, but I feel there is a balancing act when blogging for a company. I do want to craft my voice further and I will definitely continue to find unique vantage points of my opinion and my take while I maintain the voice of my company. Thanks!

  40. You’re walking a tightrope, Dane. Not easy to find the sweet spot, but it can be done. Most corporate communications can use an injection of personality!

  41. I have been catching up on my e mails and just read this post today. This morning I was writing a blog entry that was very emotional for me and will probley be hard for some people to read. My blog is about the loss of my son and how I survived such a loss. I plan on posting this blog next week so I have time to change it but since starting to write it I have been questioning if it was to much information. Reading about Frida has given me the courage to go ahead with it. Thanks for the story.

  42. It’s nice that you made such comparisons when it comes to blogging and painting. All I know about the infamous Frida Kahlo is that her paintings and inspirations did not only come from her personal struggles but also from the fact that at that time, societies around the world are already starting to stand up against capitalism. And it was through their (Kahlo and Rivera) art that they depicted their opinions about this global phenomenon. When it comes to blogging, I think that it is also essential to be good at what you do, and I mean, you should really know what you’re talking about in your writings. It’s not only about the style, the packaging, but it’s also your expertise on what you want to come across. It’s not about what is in or what you think is cool to most people to be unforgettable, it’s also about your credibility on a certain subject.