Public Perceptions of Obesity

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“How I Got Back at the Strangers Who Mock Me for Being Fat” is the title of an account by Haley Morris-Cafiero, assistant professor of fine arts and photography at the Memphis College of Art. She takes her students on field trips with an unusual purpose. For instance, in a popular tourist area amongst the artistic and architectural marvels of Barcelona, she once noticed two young men:

I could see them in the reflection of a mirrored building, making gestures with their hands to suggest how much bigger I was than the thin girl standing next to me, her small waist accentuated by her crop top and cut-off shorts. They painted her figure in the air like an hourglass. Then they painted my shape like the convex curves of a ball. The guys were saying something, too, but there was only one word I could make out: Gorda. Fat woman.

Scenarios like this have become fodder for a combined social experiment and artistic project, a series of images called “Wait Watchers.” A literal-minded commentator who obviously doesn’t understand word play tried to correct the teacher — “Don’t you mean Weight Watchers?” No, Morris-Cafiero does not mean that. The whole point is to cruise public places and wait for someone to react unfavorably to her appearance.

To provoke the desired gaze of disapproval, she might throw in a little extra stage business, like savoring ice cream at an intersection, until a passerby looks at her. Then an assistant takes their picture. And this constitutes her revenge upon a fat-shaming world. Indeed, the performance pieces have occurred not only in Spain and Tennessee, but in Chicago, New York, and Peru. The artist explains why:

I was interested in capturing something I already knew firsthand: If the large women in historical art pieces were walking around today, they would be scorned and ridiculed… I’m up against quite a few stereotypes as an overweight blond female artist. I’m constantly fighting strangers’ criticisms that I am lazy and slow-witted, or that I am an overly emotional slob.

The more academically-phrased version of the impetus behind this quest is found in the artist’s faculty biography:

Haley Morris Cafiero is a photographer and sculptor who creates images and objects that reflect the lack of control she feels about her body and her surroundings. Sometimes the work deals with the reactions of people and objects to her inability to control the size of her external body. Other times, her art is inspired by the possibilities of disease silently eating away her internal body.

Trouble started when Morris-Cafiero graduated high school, and regular games of soccer were no longer part of her life, and her clothing size increased rapidly from 7 to 14. There was a medical problem too:

Eventually, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Though I did go through phases of food restriction and over-exercise, I came to realize that I shouldn’t punish myself for something I can’t control. Self-criticism is a waste of time. I look worse with tons of make up and products in my hair. I am happy when I am not stressed — so I don’t stress.

This is the crux of the criticism her project has garnered. The consensus seems to be that anyone who goes around looking grouchy, dressed inappropriately, eating ostentatiously, and with a student aiming a camera at her, is bound to attract glances. Doubters who have examined the photos closely believe that in many scenes, the subjects are not even looking at Ms. Morris-Cafiero. Even other obese women do not always extend sympathy, and advise her to get over herself.

Several commentators have rejected the hypothyroidism explanation. “Marie” writes that when she began to be treated for the condition some years ago, she expected that the medication would help her weight melt away. But no, it’s not that easy, says Marie:

From my own experience, I cannot use the synthetic drug they automatically prescribe (Synthroid) and have had to use a milk-based med (Levoxyl). But I ask for a broad spectrum blood analysis every checkup to ensure what I am taking is working… [A] patient must ask for a TSH test WITH a T3 and T4, as well… For women who don’t research this condition, they won’t know to ask for this and they will be under-diagnosed and under-treated.

One complainer says it’s illegal and improper to capture and publish strangers’ images without their permission. A dissenter points out that in public places, there is no expectation of privacy, and besides, the camera is out in the open. An online commentator who goes by “madihwa” adds some attitude:

Why not? They insult her without her permission. Do you think it’s fun to be insulted and laughed at? I guarantee you it’s not… One time a girl and her father made disparaging comments behind my back about me. My son has extremely acute hearing and he overheard their remarks. He gave them HELL!!! I’ll bet they never did that again..

On online critic known as “Booze and nonsense” adds:

Unfortunately we live in a world where people are prejudiced. That doesn’t give you the right to shame them. How are you any better than the people making fun of you? This is a terrible exercise in ‘getting back’. No excuses.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How I Got Back at the Strangers Who Mock Me for Being Fat,” Alternet.org, 05/15/13
Source: “Haley Morris-Cafiero,” mca.edu
Image by Frederique Panassac.

Comments

  1. I love this art project! Kudos to the artist for capturing her discrimination and sparking conversation on the topic.

    Side note: people do make assumptions when you reveal you have hypothyroidism. Most think this is a handy “excuse” for laziness/overindulgence/etc — all directly related to fat stigma.

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