Fat Bodies in Art: The Full Body Project and the Adipositivity Project
I am fat. I have been fat since I was five years old and not a day has gone by without the world telling me in subtle and not so subtle ways just how ashamed I should be of my fatness. Family members, peers, television shows, government anti-“obesity” campaigns, commercials, films, and magazines—all of them conspire to make sure I remember how fat I am, and that fat is wrong, ugly, disgusting, and unacceptable.From an early age, I learned how to dissociate from myself and my surroundings. I fled from my body, escaped into imaginary worlds of music, literature, poetry, and art where what mattered was my mind and my thoughts, not the body that I was taught to hate. In fact, I was so disconnected from my body that I had surreal moments of looking into mirrors and not recognizing the face that I saw. It was not just that I loathed my image, I did not even believe that I was made of flesh. I lived so deeply inside my own head that I could not comprehend that I was real.
In light of this profound disembodiment, it is no surprise that I have ambivalent feelings about the modern world in which image is everything. On the internet, pictures are the primary way to verify your existence. We document our lives through instagram and cell phone photos and post the images online in only seconds for other people to see. We have this need to be seen, but I don’t know if I want to be seen or if I am worthy of being seen or if I’m comfortable with what people think they see when they look at me. I am never just a person; I am always my fat body and because of this I avoid cameras as much as possible; I am afraid of what my fatness means, what it says about me and the kind of person I am.
In the article “The Coding of Fatness,” s.e. smith elucidates how, within Western visual arts, the fat body is loaded with negative associations:
Fatness is a code for gluttony, greed, laziness, repulsiveness. Fatness consumes the screen. Works of art use fat bodies as allegories, in political criticism, for example, of the disproportionate share of resources consumed by the industrialized world […] The artist can ignore the fact that these are real human beings, that fat people will see that art and be impacted by it, that art like that shapes perceptions of fatness and identity.
It is important to understand how dehumanizing depictions of fat bodies in popular culture directly affect the everyday, lived realities of fat people. We are relentlessly branded as the “other,” our bodies used for comic relief in sitcoms, our multidimensional lives reduced to crude stereotypes. All I knew for most of my life were these degrading representations of fat people. I was not exposed to an alternative narrative until I learned about two important photographic series: The Full Body Project and the Adipositivity Project, which both explore fat embodiment and attempt to expand cultural definitions of beauty.
Leonard Nimoy’s “Full Body Project” positions the fat female body as a subject worthy of artistic representation. In the black and white nude portraits, Nimoy reproduces classic visual images, substituting fat women in the roles once performed by thin women. Most famously, Nimoy recreates Herb Ritts’s iconic photo shoot of nude supermodels. In another photograph, Henri Matisse’s “Dance” is remade into a joyous tableaux of feminine community and love. In his mission statement, Nimoy reveals the impetus behind the portraits:
Who are these women? Why are they in these pictures? What are their lives about? How do they feel about themselves? These are some of the questions I wanted to raise through the images in this collection.
In fact, the women in front of Nimoy’s lens were part of the Fat Bottom Revue, a dance troupe founded by the late Heather MacAllister who once said that “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.” Nimoy was not photographing women who were interested in apologizing for their fatness. These were vibrant, brave, and defiant women who—despite knowing how controversial and politically charged their photographs would be—chose to fearlessly expose their bodies and be seen.
Another important photographer who has brought visibility to fat women is Substantia Jones. Her Adipositivity Project, an online collection of portraits of fat people, promotes body diversity and fat acceptance. Jones is on a mission “to widen definitions of physical beauty.” Her portraits showcase the complex lives of women who, just by stepping in front of a camera, are reclaiming their bodies and constructing their own identities.
Like Nimoy’s photographs, Jones focuses on the nudity and sexual dynamism of her subjects but, at times, she also represents what s.e. smith refers to as “the neutrality of fatness.” For smith, it’s important not only to have positive, celebratory depictions of fat people, but to also just let them be who they are without having to represent anything, whether it be good or bad. The women in the Adipositivity Project are often nude but they also engage in everyday activities, like playing a musical instrument, kissing their significant other, or swimming in a pool. These depictions illustrate how diverse and complex the fat experience is and that while we do encounter discrimination, we also have ways of resisting dehumanizing stereotypes and forging connections with our bodies and with others.
Looking at Nimoy’s and Jones’s photographs, I am reminded of an interview Sally Mann did in 2003 in which she said that photography is “almost a caress…it’s a sanctification.” That word—sanctification–haunts me. Does the camera make its subjects holy? Does that one frozen frame contain divinity? It is undeniable that Nimoy and Jones use their cameras to honor the women they capture. They see something—a spark, a light, a sanctity—that they want us to see not only in others but in ourselves.
As I grapple with my body, with the love and hate I feel for it, the beauty and ugliness I see in it, I will return to the images that Nimoy and Jones created. I will think of the women who smile and dance and pose in front of the camera; they will always be there to remind me that it’s terrifying to be seen but it just might be more terrifying to remain invisible.
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Caitlin is a contributing editor at the Ellipses Project. She is currently an undergraduate majoring in English and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her academic interests include feminism, women’s literature, fat acceptance, class, and embodiment. Of particular importance to her is how art and writing can be used to cope with grief, trauma, and mental illness. She has a penchant for Pre-Raphaelite art, British detective shows, and old Hollywood films.