I’ve recently returned from the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) Conference and I’m reflecting on all I’ve learned. I’ve wanted to share and further explore Substantia Jones’ keynote, “Fat Visibility Through Photography: the Who, the How, and the Hell Yeah.”
Jones is a photographer, a “Fat Acceptance Photo-Activist,” and the proprietor of the Adipositivity Project. She started Adipositivity in 2007 to “promote the acceptance of benign human size variation and encourage discussion of body politics” by publishing images of women, men, and couples in larger bodies. Substantia is passionate about the fact that fat people don’t see a balanced representation of themselves in the media—as she says, “Humans need visibility. Positive and neutral visibility is being denied to fat people.”
So many of the media images we see of larger-bodied people portray them in negative and stereotyped ways: unkempt, unhappy, eating fast food, and often headless—as if they are ashamed to show their faces. At the same time, the range of body types provided by media images does not really represent most bodies. The media typically culls the thinnest or fittest sliver of the population, and then proceeds to photoshop the images of these bodies. According to the Body Project, “Only 5% of women have the body type (tall, genetically thin, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, long-legged and usually small-breasted) seen in almost all advertising. (When the models have large breasts, they’ve almost always had breast implants.)”
In September 2009, Glamour included a photo of Lizzie Miller, a model who is a size 12-14. The photo showed Lizzie nude and looking joyful while displaying a roll of belly fat. The response was overwhelming—American women were thrilled to see a woman who looked more like them and was happy to boot.
While this was groundbreaking, the average American woman is a size 16. So where are the images of the upper half of the weight spectrum? It should be noted that it is not only larger bodies that are marginalized; other bodies are often not portrayed in mainstream media. These include bodies that are darker-skinned, disabled, aging, and gender diverse.
It is important that people in larger bodies see images of people that look like them. It is also important for all people to broaden their aperture on what people should look like. This includes viewing images of fat people who are happy, sexy, desired, and beautiful and engaging in all the activities that make up a fulfilled life.
Those working in the field of body acceptance confirm the therapeutic value of seeing attractive images of larger-bodied people. Unfortunately, these images can still be hard to find. One must look outside of the mainstream media. With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to provide resources for beautiful, artful photos of people living in larger bodies.
During her keynote, Substantia shared photos from several of her favorite fat-positive photographers, including those that inspired her. Below I list some of the photographers she shared and where to find their photos and information about them.
- The photography of Patricia Schwarz can be found in Women of Substance – Portrait and Nude Studies of Large Women, published in Japan in 1996 by The Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts. Little has been published about her aside from this article, which states that Schwarz, who belonged to the fat liberation community in the 1980s, specialized in full-color photography of fat women. The book features women posing in domestic, natural and urban settings in various stages of clothing and nudity.
- Laura Aguilar is known for her photographs of people from various marginalized communities (including fat, lesbian, and Latina). She is particularly known for portraying her own nude body as a sculptural element in desert landscapes.
- Leonard Nimoy (yes, that one) published The Full Body Project, a collection of black-and-white nude photos of members of a burlesque troupe called the Fat-Bottom Revue. According to Nimoy, the purpose of the book was to challenge the harmful beauty ideals promoted by Hollywood.
- Catherine Oakson was described in an obituary as a creator of “artistic self-portraits—some playful, some sensuous—and messages of body positivity.” Unfortunately, since her death, her photographs are extremely hard to find. Her website, “Cat’s House of Fun,” is only available via web archives (web.archive.org). Search for the website, http://catay.com and look at screen grabs prior to 2017
- Shoog McDaniel, an artist and photographer living in Florida, was also present at the ASDAH conference, and their art was used in the conference program. Shoog was featured in this article in Teen Vogue which described them as “the photographer pushing the boundaries of queer, fat-positive photography.” Shoog states “the work that I do is about telling the stories of people who are marginalized and not usually put on the forefront, and whose lives are beautiful and important.”
- Substantia Jones presented some of her own fabulous work as well. One of her goals with the project is to challenge weight bias. Her photography has been featured in several art exhibits.
Although Substantia’s presentation did not touch upon it, it’s worth mentioning Representation Matters, the world’s first website providing high-resolution, royalty-free, stock images of diverse bodies for commercial use. (The image in this post is from Representation Matters.) They specifically include larger bodies portrayed in a positive light. These photos are available for purchase.
Unfortunately, diet culture and thin privilege are alive and well, and those in larger bodies remain marginalized and excluded from most mainstream media. I hope you’ll check out these resources and come to appreciate the vast diversity of the human body. I purchased some photography books to share at my office. Together we need to work to challenge the notion that there is a best way to have a body and learn to celebrate the beauty of all bodies.
On a closely related topic, I’m thrilled to see that Meredith Noble has a great list of body positive artists to follow.
Baker, Cindy. 2013. “Aesthetic Priorities and Sociopolitical Concerns: The Fat Female Body in the Photography of Patricia Schwarz and Jennette Williams A Review of Patricia Schwarz: Women of Substance, by Patricia Schwarz, and The Bathers: Photography by Jennette Williams, by Jennette Williams.” Fat Studies 2 (1): 99–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2012.709447.