I’ve been a fan of Michelle, the Fat Nutritionist, for some time, and in fact have recommended her to people looking for nutrition advice. Last week, she wrote an extremely important essay about the relationship between body image and photography.
As most journeys to self-esteem do, Michelle’s starts with her history of being called “ugly.” She had a brief foray into “pretty” in her mid-teens, and then she got fat.
I didn’t look in the mirror for a long time, still believing in the misogynist fever-dream of “vanity.” For a long time, after I gained weight, I felt I didn’t have the right to leave the house or exist in public, that maybe I was too ugly to even deserve to live — even though I knew that, intellectually, to be bullshit. I took steps to fight against it, but it was a long, slow battle.
I started to come out of it around age 27, and took the first photos of myself in a long time. A couple years later, I got my first webcam and began taking more self portraits. When I was surprised by the way I looked in the pictures, I realized that I wasn’t actually familiar with how I looked, because I avoided looking at myself so much. This disturbed me; I deserved to carry a self-image in my head instead of a vague, dread-inducing void.
Later, as I took more pictures, this thought changed slightly: I also deserved to show other people what my image of myself looked like, how I saw myself. Whether or not this matched up with how they saw me was almost irrelevant — their image of me was no more objective or true than my image of myself. I deserved to be able to say, with my photos, to other people, “Hey, I know you see a crude barometer of my social status when you look at me, but this is what I, a human, actually look like.”
Laurie is on vacation, so I can’t get a comment from her, but all of this is right down the center of what we believed when we started working on Women En Large, and what we both believe even more now.
Here’s Michelle again:
I have weighed a lot of weights in my life, and looked a lot of different ways, and I have been human the whole time.
For reasons I shouldn’t have to spell out, this is really, really important for people’s health and well-being. We need to be allowed to see ourselves as human, at any size, and to see ourselves represented alongside other humans. We need to be able to share our images in public, if we want, and push the recognition of our humanity. Mostly, we need to be allowed to have images of ourselves imbedded in our brains, alongside everyone else. When we see nothing but images of people who don’t look like us celebrated and represented by our own culture, little by little, it degrades our sense of being human. It is a form of systemic emotional abuse.
The end of Michelle’s essay goes into what happens to us when the images we deserve are digitally altered, or mocked, and what that means.
I don’t have much to add. Michelle has, very effectively, nailed why Laurie and I do what we do, and why we think body image is not just interesting, not just important, but critical to living in a better world.