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Body Image: Photography and Weight

May 17, 2013

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” right? So, what words do you think of when you see these photos?

Fantasy No. 1. 2004

Loneliness? Desire? Isolation? Longing? Fantasy? Reality?

This is the power of art. To convey and captivate emotionality, to transform, to inspire us to think and feel. And, recently, many female artists have been using their medium to explore and express body image and self-representation.

The above images are by Jen Davis, who has been creating evocative self-portraits that she is now sharing with the world.

…Davis spent roughly a decade photographing herself, using her camera to shape her own sense of beauty and as a way to develop her vision as a photographer.

Much of that work included photographing herself in ordinary situations: eating, relaxing, showering, etc. Her self-portraits also explored a private, fantasy space that were inspired by a sense of longing, though Davis explained that the line between fantasy and reality—especially when using photography as a medium—is easily blurred.

“Some of the images are real genuine feelings, and others are things I wanted to experience, and I used the license of the camera. … I wanted to know what it felt like to be held by someone or to be with a man, and the camera allowed me to have that experience,” Davis explained.

I am fascinated by this endeavor and the outcomes. Most of the photos feature Ms. Davis, on her own, in a variety of situations. But, all focus on her body in an honest, nothing held back way, which, as an overweight woman is rare, defiant, captivating, but often socially criticized.

The exposure also allowed her to work through that sense of vulnerability and insecurity.

“I was able to deal with the emotion and vulnerable state and release it,” she said. But something else happened during the process: She became upset with herself for not changing her body, and showing her work spurred her to take action.

“It was kind of shocking, kind of painful to look at myself and to see myself evolving and growing and understanding a deeper sense of myself but my body not being able to change after nine years’ time. I was shocked and thought ‘why can’t I take control of my life?’ and I realized I didn’t want to wake up at 40 and be in this body—I wanted to know what it would be like to be in a different body, and that was a painful realization,” Davis explained.

And so, Ms. Davis underwent Lap Band surgery, lost a significant amount of weight, and continued to document her “new” life of self-discovery, self-portraiture, and love.

Untitled 2013

But there is a resignation and loneliness that also pervades these photos of her “new” life as a thinner woman. I am most intrigued by this, the forlornness that is captured even after Ms. Davis went to such lengths to lose weight and find love. Perhaps this is a testament that weight is not the end goal, but representative of health and life as an ongoing search, as something to ever continue to strive towards? Or perhaps her message is a bit darker, that though we think something as culturally significant as realizing our dreams of becoming thin(ner) will change our lives, often it is our perception of ourselves that must make the shift or nothing in our reality will be any different?

And while Ms. Davis mainly explores her relationship with herself (and, occasionally, one other), another photographer is documenting herself directly in relation to others.


Pictures of People Who Mock Me” was recently featured on Salon. “For years, strangers have made fun of me for being fat. But I got my power back–by turning the camera on them,” writes Haley Morris-Caffiero, who decided to document her struggles with strangers who inappropriately impose themselves in her life by subversively or forthrightly mocking her for being overweight.

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.

That doesn’t mean the world is comfortable with how I look. Even though I’m a college professor, who works 12-hour days and eats healthy, even though I have none of the diseases constantly reported in the media as linked to obesity, 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.

I suspect that if I confronted these narrow-minded people, my words would have no effect. So, rather than using the attackers’ actions to beat myself up, I just prove them wrong. The camera gave me my voice.

Now, it is no secret that overweight people are often victims of bullying, criticism, hatred, shame, disgust, and even violence. It often seems that discrimination against overweight people is the last bastion of societally-acceptable bigotry. But Ms. Morris-Caffiero has decided to empower herself through the camera lens.

And I don’t get hurt when I look at the images. I feel like I am reversing the gaze back on to them to reveal their gaze. I’m fine with who I am and don’t need anyone’s approval to live my life. I only get angry when I hear someone comment about my weight and the image does not reflect the criticism. That’s frustrating: when I didn’t get the shot.

There are so many people in the world who feel they have the right – no, the obligation — to criticize someone for the way they look, and to be that recipient of those insults can feel so lonely. I got an email from a 15-year-old girl in Belgium who said my images made her “feel better and not care about what others think and live my life.” That made me proud. As for what the images mean, viewers may interpret the images as they see fit.  I’m just trying to start a conversation.

And I hope y’all will join in this conversation. There is so much power in these images, so much raw emotion, so much that they have to say. Let’s continue to speak about them.



(Images courtesy of Slate and Salon–kudos to both for featuring such thought provoking pieces!)


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Paige permalink
    June 10, 2013 6:23 pm

    Here’s my only issue with “Pictures of People Who Mock Me”… for the most part, the looks I see on people surrounding her isn’t mockery. It’s expressions of “What is going on?” as in “Why is this lady taking her picture?” or “Oops, better get out of the way, so to not interrupt the photo”. If I see someone taking photos, I stare too. That’s not me mocking them, that’s me just being curious about what is going on.

    Even in the Salon article of the cop putting his hat above her, I don’t see that as mockery. I see that as a cop who’s trying to be funny when seeing a woman take her picture. It’s a moment. Not a mockery.

    • June 12, 2013 8:02 pm

      It’s an interesting point, but I think it’s all about perception. Clearly, she was involved in the actual experiences and was picking up on people’s reaction to her or overhearing what they were saying about her and we are just viewers of the photographs, but I understand what you’re saying. There is quite a bit of public mockery of overweight people still though, and I think that is what she was highlighting.

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