Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Is Photographing Fat Women Art?

"Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it’s political. Add physical movement, then dance, then sexuality and you have a revolutionary act.”
--Heather MacAllister
UPDATED: I added some more thoughts and a link to the New York Times article.

Olvlzl at Echidne of the Snakes has a post asking what people thought about Leonard Nimoy’s The Full Body Project, which is photographing large, mostly nude (the one above is tame) women. Nimoy worked with Heather MacAllister of the Big Burlesque before she died and inspired this work.

Echidne has a follow-up post that is a response to many of the comments, which are basically “why are you defending these women and their unhealthiness?” She has a good response to it, but I think there are other angles to consider.

After witnessing a burlesque show I had real questions about what the message is of women posing nude, whether fat or thin. There is no question that if Nimoy’s models were thin his “art” would have an entirely different take. Not necessarily a porn vibe, as there is plenty of nude photography that has a purpose beyond mere titillation, but it’s hard not to realize that titillation is also part of the process of most nude photography, including Nimoy’s.

I remember hearing a story about a burlesque show at college that was supposed to celebrate women’s bodies but the reality was all the college co-eds worked for weeks to starve themselves to be “thin” enough for the show. And it wasn’t lost on me that at the burlesque show I watched the heaviest girl had the most clothing on at the end of her set.

The problem with being female is that our “fuckability” becomes an inherent assessment of our character. (Just look at the sophomoric “Democratic Women Are Ugly” image Ann from Feministing found on Facebook). So anything that invites more scrutiny to our bodies seems to be playing on the pitched battlefield. It’s accepting the rules of the game (women should be beautiful) its just trying to change the perception of beauty (Oh but fat can be beautiful).

But, I’m torn because as I say that, I can’t disagree that the photographs are fascinating to look at. But to they make me think the women are beautiful? Do they make me think of their humanity? No, I think I’m staring at their shapes. I’m looking at them as objects to be evaluated, and judged as some do (but it’s UNHEALTHY).

I’m not sure that the way to challenge the concept of beauty is to take nude photographs or strip nude. Because I can’t help but feel the titillation factor will be the dominant take-away from the project.

UPDATE: I went back and read the original New York Times article about the project that was written last May. And I remember a couple of quotes from the article that were quoted in some of the blogs.

Its interesting that, according to the article, it was his wife's idea to shoot the first woman nude, a confident woman who approached Nimoy and basically offered herself to be photographed. But I can't quite tell from the article whether it was Nimoy himself that felt the need to distance the sexuality of the women from their "beauty" or if the article's author, Abby Ellin, who pushed that idea that Nimoy's lack of sexual desire for the women was something that needed to be spelled out.
“We do overhear some reductive ‘Is Nimoy into fat chicks’ comments when the gallery room is first entered,” he continued, “but in fact the fun nature of the work and the quality seem to shut people up by the time they leave. I’ve had a few crank e-mails with snide remarks, but not a one from gallery visitors.”


And what of his own attitude toward fat women?

“I do think they’re beautiful,” he said. “They’re full-bodied, full-blooded human beings.”

He doesn’t necessarily find them sexually attractive. “But I do think they’re beautiful.”
This gets a bit at the heart of what I wonder what women who do this desire from the audience? My theory is non-professional women who do burlesque or this kind of arty nude photography, it's about a desire to be seen as a sexual object when you do not feel as if you are normally thought of as sexually attractive.

But if the reaction you get is "wow she's confident and beautiful (as an abstraction) but I still don't find her sexually attractive," is that enough?


Anonymous said...

This is Diane Arbus type stuff. That Leonard Nimoy would be involved, I find highly illogical. Nimoy should be In Search Of . . . a shrink.

Jim in Cleveland

NewsCat said...

Why? Why does he need a shrink?

Anonymous said...

As you said, what is the purpose of this? I'm not someone who says a heavy woman or man cannot be attractive physically, but you have to wonder why anyone would find interest in taking pictures of 300 lb. women playing Ring Around the Rosie in the buff. It reminds me of that old Chris Farley bit where he was a Chippendale dancing to Working for the Weekend, only Mr. Spock isn't trying to be funny.

Like I said, Diane Arbus {http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diane_Arbus) stuff. Obviously, she may have benefited from a shrink.

Jim in Cleveland

Anonymous said...

I keep returning to this post, wanting to comment, only I don't really know what to say.

I do know that I don't want my daughter's character judged by her looks. Also, I don't want my son to be judging girls' character by their looks.

Sorry, I'm new at this being a feminist thing. (Been a feminist, pro'lly since I found out we'ld be having a girl.)

Yeah...I really don't have a good definition of feminist either. Pro'lly something along the lines of "don't judge by gender."

Maybe I should take a woman's studies class if I ever go back to college.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there is the misconception that all heavy or fat people are unhealthy. There are many examples of people that don't fit the traditional image of what health looks like who are infact very physically fit. There are a number of atheletes that if judged by a cursory inspection would be considered unhealthy. These people are typically not women. You may draw your own conclusion for why that may be. As someone who is a lover of women of all descreptions, I think the human body is beautiful regardless of shape as long as it functions properly. Healthy or unhealthy is irrelevant the real femenist question is why fat guys can be fun, popular or attractive but fat women can't.

Anonymous said...

I found Nimoy's work facinating and empowing as a fat chick myself. I am still new to the whole BBW cocept. But it's men like, NImoy and Les Toil and my loving husband that tell me that even though I am a big girlI am still beautiful and lovable and even more impoertantly a working part of society.
Society in general has shunned the fat girl. But we are taking what is ours. Not all of us have CHOSEN to be big, but we accept it and have enough pride as human beings to dare to walk with our heads held high. Because we ARE beautiful. Imperfect, as the rest of the world, and just as beautiful.
Mr Nimoy has related that seniment beautifully. He admires and respects these women. He found them delightful and facinating. He is a true artist, one who finds beauty where ther rest of the world passes by. He captuers it and presents it to the world to reject it, accept it or reflect. I wish we could all see the world as he does.

Anonymous said...


As a daubing artist I find full figured nudes more fun to draw and/or paint. More shadow and curves. They give me more to include or exclude as I see fit. My wife for over fifty years started as a size 0 or 1. Through the years and three children grew to the none of my dam business size. I've enjoyed all of her varying bodies.