Originally published in Ladies of Leisure print edition three, March 2017. Artwork by Montana Kitching.
Artist, nurse and soon to be young adult non-fiction author Montana Kitching talks to Tara Kenny about Instagram fame, their shared days in the old school yard, and how to help young women navigate that feel when you’re a teenager and you don’t know what the fuck is going on.
Tara Kenny: Hey Tan! I’ve noticed that you’re getting a lot of traction online and on the gram at the moment. What has that experience been like and how has it impacted your artistic practice?
Montana Kitching: I’m not THAT Instagram famous, Tara! It has been quite weird though. One night I went to sleep and woke up with 1000 new followers after some sites in China, Japan and Thailand featured my work. My best friend and I were out to dinner Googling my name and laughing at our first world problems. I translated the articles and found that they were specifically focusing on body image and sexuality in my work. It’s really interesting to see how different groups and cultures pick different parts of me to focus on.
I also received one hate e-mail, which was surprising considering I’m kind of a nobody!
TK: Not for long, especially with these books you are working on. Can you tell me about them?
MK: I’m writing a series of books about the physical and emotional difficulties of growing up. At some point most young people feel alone and confused, and experience things they feel weird discussing.
Some of us are lucky enough to have an older sister or mum to learn from. I’m really close to my mum but I was still too ashamed and insecure to be like, “Mum, why do I have hair on my vagina?” My close friend’s mum passed away when she was young and she grew up in a really small town with her dad and three sisters. He didn’t think to educate them about all of this stuff, or he was too scared. They all had to figure it out for themselves, which is what a lot of girls do – even if they do have a mum.
That’s kind of what I’m saying in my book: you’re going to figure this stuff out anyway, but you’re probably going to learn it when something embarrassing or scarring happens. I may as well tell you my embarrassing stories instead! As a teenager you feel really awkward because you don’t know what the fuck is going on. I hope this book will tell young people straight up: this is going to happen to you.
TK: Real talk!
MK: Literally! My housemate and I nanny an eleven year old girl who has been staying at our house a couple of nights a week for about two years. It’s such a curious and vulnerable time for her. Every week she looks a little bit different. Maisie and I are very open, which has made her comfortable with us.
Her mum asked her whether she would date a boy or a girl if she had to choose, and she said she’d date a girl – like me! Who knows whether she actually thinks that or not, but the fact that she feels fine saying it is really great.
TK: She’s really lucky to be exposed to you two! I’m interested to know whether there’s anything like your project out there at the moment?
MK: There are a lot of very scientific biology and physiology textbooks about puberty, and there are books for parents. I haven’t found anything written in a way that I would have appreciated as a teenager. I printed out all these handouts that schools give to kids in Phys. Ed class. The first headline was “Heavier, Hairier and Smellier.” How bad is that? A kid would immediately read that and be like, “Eww, I don’t want that to happen!”
TK: Do you remember Sex Ed. at our school? I don’t know if I blocked it out, but all I remember is that sixty-year-old science teacher Miss Barnes putting a condom on a banana.
MK: That’s literally all I remember too! It’s interesting that you say that because all the people our age who I speak to can’t remember if they had it or what was said. I think schools approach it wrong, so teenagers end up sitting there and treating it like a big lol. They get old teachers to be like, “This is a condom!” [nasal voice].
TK: Sorry, but that is lol! I think it would be really cool as a teenager to have someone who isn’t that much older than you telling you that everything is going to be okay; it’s different to hearing it from someone ancient. I also think there are so many things that aren’t specifically “sex ed” that need to be addressed in school: being a woman, feminism, and how not to feel shit about yourself.
MK: That’s the thing. I started off thinking of writing one small book and then realised there’s too much to cover! I want to do one on sexuality, one on mental health, one on body image.
The one I’m working on now is targeted at young girls who are entering puberty. It covers your first period, underarm hair, and boobs, but not how they’re usually approached. Every chapter opens with a little story, like “this happened to me when I was ten…” There are also going to be a lot of illustrations.
The little girl we babysit is always sitting and watching me draw. She saw a nude painting I was doing and commented that it looked silly that one boob was bigger than the other. I told her that’s really normal and she was like, “No, it’s not!”
TK: Haha! Were you like, sweetie you’d be surprised? Seriously though, I think it’s really important to expose people to diverse body types early on. I remember when I was in high school I got all these ideas from consuming so much media. I would obsessively look at photos of the Olsen twins and Paris Hilton, and read articles in Cleo about how to be hot and give good blow jobs, basically.
MK: Totally. How to shave your legs and how to impress your man, never giving you the option of not shaving your legs!
TK: It’s not like women being valued predominantly based on their appearance is confined to our generation, but I do feel like younger people now are exposed to more diversity through social media. Like your work, which discusses typically personal experiences – anxiety, body image, mental health – in a public space.
MK: It’s cool to see reposts or hundreds of likes on a really personal drawing I’ve done about hating the skin I’m in, an anxiety attack, or something else that people don’t usually expose about themselves. There’s so many things that we rarely talk about, but EVERYONE knows. Posting that image and saying you relate to it is such a small action, but it’s a powerful platform for opening conversations. Even little things, like you could be sitting at a table with a group of friends and feel your period bloop out of your tampon and everyone would know what you meant and could laugh about it.
TK: Haha, yes that always happens to me lol! Has exploring these topics in your art opened up discussions in real life?
MK: It’s been therapeutic. I used to get really tongue-tied trying to discuss anxiety, body image, and sexuality with my friends and family. Now that I’ve drawn so much around those topics I’m fine to talk about them, and people understand me so much better.
TK: Your work is so relatable, whether people know you or not. Personally, seeing people like you address difficult issues through art has been really important in helping me be more open. Amongst my old friends I feel like it’s only in the last few years that we’ve become more willing to talk about “embarrassing” things. When you’re younger people are so much more scared of being embarrassed and not being normal.
MK: It is scary in high school. You’re stuck with the same people and if you mess up and everyone hates you your life is ruined!
TK: When people tell kids “high school doesn’t last forever” they forget they still have like three more full years, which is a really long time! I was actually thinking about my memories of you in high school before this interview; you seemed so unaffected and not too caught up in things.
MK: I was a goody goody! As soon as I came to the school “Maddison’s little sister” became my identity. He’s such a cool, beautiful angel that I didn’t have to try too hard to forge my own path. I’m not really a party person and I didn’t drink until I finished school. I just had a few good friends and was pretty happy with that.
TK: That’s so cool! It’s interesting because for a lot of teenagers – certainly for me – insecurities play out in a really obvious and public way. I don’t think that was the case with you, at least from an outsider’s perspective. Do you consider your adolescence a hard time, in terms of the topics you’re addressing now?
MK: I had an eating disorder in high school. I wasn’t in a “popular” group or being egged on, but I definitely didn’t feel like I could speak to anyone about it at all.
TK: Me and so many of my friends have to varying degrees experienced eating disorders, or just really negative physical self-perceptions. It’s really sad and confronting to hear my friends – the most beautiful people in the world – be honest about the way they perceive themselves when it’s not always positive. I wonder where they even got those ideas.
MK: Eating disorders can just take over. When I got better I kept wondering how I could help other people out of that headspace. Personally I just had to find a reason to get myself out of it, which was my little sister Lou Lou. One day she wasn’t eating her lunch and when I asked her why she said, “You never eat, so why should I?” Medically there’s no set way to treat eating disorders, which is one reason I think positive body image from a young age is so important.
TK: I totally forgot that you’re also a nurse! Did that help you consider your body in a different way?
MK: Totally! I learnt to appreciate the functions of my body and how clever they are, and to nourish them. People hate on periods and go on fad diets without realising what they’re doing to their bodies.
TK: Very true. This is such a clichéd last question, but what advice would you give to your younger self? Or will we have to wait for the book?
MK: Do you remember we wrote letters to our future Year 12 selves when we were in Year 7? Mine was something along the lines of “Hello you. I am sitting on a rock. You probably remember it.”
TK: I do remember doing that! I wish I just put 20 bucks in mine so I could have gone to the tuck shop and bought them out of zooper doopers.
MK: Oh, and boston buns! Back to the question, I would say don’t compare yourself to others, but it’s inevitable that I would have done that anyway. Also: You are gay. Do not waste time trying to have boyfriends.
TK: When you’re a teenager sexuality is so confusing that the idea of “coming out” as some kind of big reveal is quite strange.
MK: And the idea that once you say it you can’t take it back.
TK: Did you have to make a big announcement to your family?
MK: Basically, yes. When I was coming out maybe four or five years ago I remember driving to work and telling myself, “You are not gay, you are not gay, you’re not gay, you’re overthinking it, do not be gay.” I feel so sorry for my former self that I was so ashamed. The only place that I said it out loud was literally in my car alone. It was so strange because lots of my friends were gay and I had no issue with that.
TK: Of course, everything feels different when it’s personal. So many wise words from a wise woman. Thanks Tan.
MK: You’re welcome. Thank you.