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Boys will be beautiful: Minneapolis high schooler’s art project tackles toxic masculinity

Pa Nhia Moua wanted to explore feminism outside of her comfort zone. Her male classmates helped.

Pa Nhia Moua wanted to explore feminism outside of her comfort zone. Her male classmates helped. Pa Nhia Moua

As a senior at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis, Pa Nhia Moua was asked to choose a theme for her work in visual arts class. She chose “feminism."

For a while, that meant a lot of drawing and painting the female form, focusing on the gender expectations placed on women. But for a project she tackled this winter, she decided to get out of her “comfort zone.”

First, she sent a Facebook message to some of her male friends and asked them if they would do her a favor by being her models. They were game – even if they didn’t really know yet what they’d signed up for.

Moua's models surprised themselves by how beautiful they felt in makeup.

Moua's models surprised themselves by how beautiful they felt in makeup. Pa Nhia Moua

Then, over a series of photoshoots in her parents’ basement, Moua set out to capture the feminine sides of six of her male classmates. She asked them to bring nice clothes, but eventually asked them if they’d be okay going shirtless. A lot of the women she painted were, she reasoned.

She colored and powdered their faces using techniques absorbed from countless makeup tutorial videos. She made their eyelids sparkle, their cheekbones pop, their skin glow in a rainbow of tints and shades. She gave them flowers to hold and caress and place behind their ears. She called each and every one of them “beautiful.”

And then, one by one, each of them began to feel beautiful, too. Model Jonah Beck says he and his fellow models looked at one another and confessed, laughing: “Man, I would date you.”

Model Koua Lee felt strong and independent in bold eye shadow and lipstick.

Model Koua Lee felt strong and independent in bold eye shadow and lipstick. Pa Nhia Moua

The confidence was infectious. Model Koua Lee, in bold blue eyeshadow and coral red lips says, for the first time, he wasn’t worrying about his acne. He says he felt like “a whole new person.”

And for Moua’s part, she says it really “opened her eyes” to a side of feminism she hadn’t explored as often: the gender expectations placed on men, and the joys of being liberated from them. Both men and women, she says, are “really similar” in that way.

Everything in the basement was joy and exploration and newfound confidence, but outside of those four walls, the real world still waited. One of Moua’s models, whose name she preferred not to share, went home with his makeup still on, only to be dragged to the bathroom by his parents and told to wash it off immediately.

The flip side of freedom and openness, Moua learned, is vulnerability. She worried about what might happen after she revealed the photos – whether her models would be targeted for ridicule, or worse.

Then she posted her art project on Facebook two weeks ago.

Many of Moua's subjects, like model Jonah Beck, posed demurely, with flowers -- showing a softer, more feminine side of themselves.

Many of Moua's subjects, like model Jonah Beck, posed demurely, with flowers -- showing a softer, more feminine side of themselves. Pa Nhia Moua

“This is not to offend anyone,” she explained in the post. “I wanted to begin this project with a solid base & learned from it & leave it with an open mind. I hope you enjoyed the beauty of men.”

The next day, she says, everyone was talking about it at school. Her classmates complimented the models on how pretty they’d looked, and praised her makeup and photography. Patrick Henry, for the moment, felt a lot like those photoshoots in her basement: A place where beauty was admired and encouraged, no matter who you were.

“That’s my motivation to keep doing art,” she says.