Stepping into the playfully designed art therapy studio, I thought to myself, Justin Bieber would be happy here. A warm, quiet calm set over me as soon as I entered the room, where clean walls were the backdrop for brightly colored drawings, and a blue diorama, depicting a surreal Grecian dreamscape where cotton-ball clouds float among columns, sat neatly on a shelf. Yes, the decor was simultaneously playful and peaceful, which I enjoyed—but it was the small stack of adult coloring books on the reception desk that made me think it would be a good place for Bieber to find himself.
The public has come to expect wild antics from the "Baby" fame-boy, who in recent weeks both put dreadlocks in his hair and got choked in a club after putting a cigarette out on rapper Post Malone's arm. That's scary stuff, but what really startled his 65.1 million Instagram followers was a post on Wednesday. The image depicts a completed page from an adult coloring book—colored by Bieber himself—in which an anime-like young female is exposing herself in minimal attire, staring at the viewers from the page as her protruding tongue lingers on the small ax she holds in her hand. Bieber picked purple for her crop top and thong, gave her silver hair, and brown skin with blue eyes.
Nadia Jenefsky is the director of child and family services at New York Creative Art Therapists. She and her small team provide psychotherapy and creative arts therapies to people of all ages. After Bieber shared his coloring project with the world, I went to see Jenefsky to get her thoughts on the matter.
In her office, surrounded by arts and crafts materials, Jenefsky told me that she's often wondered about Bieber's psychological state: her young daughter was once a fan but departed belieberdom after her favorite pop star began behaving badly. Jenefsky has long wondered "just what he's contending with and what that's doing to him psychologically."
What is this man looking for? What do we, his public, have that he needs from us?
Personally, when I think of the word "baby," my mind goes to Bieber's song before it goes to generic, newborn human beings. At 16 years old the Canadian youth became a celebrity with its release, and so began six years of fame that enabled Bieber to produce more music, encultured him in the world of rich and famous, and progressively whittled away at the young man who came of age before billions worldwide. Among countless unhappy acts, Bieber peed into a bucket in the kitchen of a New York City restaurant, abandoned his beloved baby monkey after it was quarantined by German customs, and desecrated an Argentinian flag.
"The coloring thing is not surprising to me at all," Jenefsky said, explaining that coloring is a regressive procedure; it is appealing for adults who yearn to be children. "So you think about somebody that grew up in the spotlight and didn't really have a childhood, it makes sense that he would be drawn to doing something that is typically associated with being a kid," Jenefsky said.
The fact that Bieber is coloring in a pre-drawn figure and not attempting to create his own is an important aspect of his psychological profile. "The drawing is already there, so you don't have the anxiety of the blank page and you also kind of already know that its going to look kind of pretty when its done and also you don't have to make many decisions." Bieber has taken strides away from the cookie-cutter path designed for him at the start of his career. There is a certain familiarity in working with art that is pre-made, that demands very little creative input from the "artist."
"When we think of art therapy and structure, we think about something that is supportive, that guides you," Jenefsky told me. "That removes some of the responsibility and decision making from the process. So someone might do it if they don't want to think too hard." Apparently, coloring is also good for people who suffer from anxiety; the repetitive movements in coloring can be relaxing, quieting some of the many irate voices vying for power in our minds.
Before Wednesday, I had not ever considered that adults might enjoy coloring books. Like many, I had left those pre-figured playthings behind in elementary school—but now, they were suddenly surrounding me. Jenefsky explained that Bieber has tapped into a cultural, widespread coloring movement for adults. The craze, she said, all began when one Johanna Basford created a coloring book for adults in February of 2015 called Enchanted Forest.
Since then, the appetite of thousands to color in pre-drawn figures has become insatiable. "There are coloring enthusiasts who have huge followings," Jenefsky explained. "All they do is post images of their completed coloring pages." One of these is @coloring_secrets, an Instagram user who boasts more than 33,000 followers. Of course, their work far exceeds Bieber's.
There are a few faces here and there in @coloring_secrets feed, but the majority of their work is more abstract or of non-human scenes. The latter is more typical of coloring enthusiasts, Jenefsky explained. She pointed out that the fact Bieber chose a human figure—and a highly sexualized, hyper-gendered image, at that— which she said gives us insight into his psyche. "Therein lies the paradox of Justin Bieber," Jenefsky told me. "We're talking about how he's kind of a man-child and this might be a regressive activity, but he picked this super-sexualized woman to color."
"The large part of the coloring public is…" Jenefsky paused before finishing her thought, "is…women," she finished.
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By coloring in a hot woman, Bieber is preserving his masculinity. But the fact that the image is anime also suggests that gender is an issue here in addition to sexuality. "[Anime] is a very exaggerated version of sexuality which is more appealing to teenagers," Jenefsky explained. "Teenagers are really into anime and it's part of them figuring out their sexual identity or their gender identity. So they go through these phases where they're really into these hyper-sexualized, or hyper-gendered, things. He's a very hyper-gendered guy."
Jenefsky supposes that the coloring of this super sexy anime thing is a way for Bieber to negotiate his identity publicly, to communicate with his followers that he's still a man and he still likes women—even if he wants to use coloring books.
"I don't know how it is for Justin Bieber," Jenefsky said. We'd been talking for almost an hour. In that time we'd probed the mind of Bieber through his Instagram account, but were we really any closer to understanding him? "I get the feeling that, as an artist evolving, he's moving away from having other people tell him what to sing and how to sing it," Jenefsky said. "He's taken on an authorial role in his art and I think that's part of the growing pains, the rebellion that most adolescents have against their parents."
Walking back to the VICE offices after meeting Jenefsky, I was listening to Bieber's latest album on my headphones. I listened to "All In It," a song about the importance of investing all of ourselves into what we do. "Don't do nothing," Bieber sings, "unless you're all in it." He speaks to listeners at the end of the song, too. Much of his Purpose album has this confessional quality. What is this man looking for? What do we, his public, have that he needs from us?
"See, growing up I—I always felt like I had to be the best at everything
'Cause I, I just didn't think I was good enough
And maybe if I was good at something, that I'd get recognition from that
But I quickly found out that I wasn't going to get the recognition that I wanted or that I needed
Because, because people aren't perfect
And by not being perfect you—you sometimes can disappoint people."
My heart seized in my chest, I paused the music. Something that had happened only minutes before came back to me with newfound purpose. I had been readying to leave when Jenefksy handed me a coloring book, saying I could take it with me. She and her colleagues produced it, the printing occurred last week. I was surprised, again, at how timely and real the coloring book phenomenon really is. My eyes returned to the computer screen between us. Bieber's Instagram feed was backlit and I had lost myself for a moment, looking into it, into him.
"You're looking at somebody who was probably not given a lot of freedom as an artist and very much told what to do a lot of the time and then also had a huge pressure to conform," Jenefksy said. "And now you've got someone who's kind of like trying to come out of that and use his own voice and express himself and make his own choices and decisions in his career as he's getting older. So then you have coloring, which is a form of structure, but the difference is it's really low pressure. It's the nice parts of the structure and being told what to do next but its not the bad parts of like—you're not allowed to fail."