Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Activism Is a Risky Business

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were struck by this post on Shakesville about how Melissa McEwen’s photograph has been treated on the web.

Someone posted a fake OKCupid profile using my picture…, then linked to it on Reddit. The profile was, of course, full of fat jokes, but it was also deeply racist: The entire premise of the “hilarious” profile was that I desperately want to have sex with black men, and there were all kinds of plays on the stereotype of fat white women and black men, and the objectification of black men as sexual studs.

Stealing my picture to make fat jokes is so routine that I don’t even give a shit anymore. Stealing my picture to set up a fake dating profile is an issue: I don’t want people who might recognize me thinking I’m cheating on Iain. But stealing my picture in order to perpetuate racism is a serious fucking concern.

I’m pissed to have been put in a position where some people will misconstrue my objection to the meme as embarrassment (or some other negative reaction) to the suggestion I’d be sexually intimate with a black man, as opposed to being angry my image is being used to perpetuate oppressive stereotypes of black men as: 1. A Mandingo monolith; and 2. Consolation prizes for white women considered undesirable by white men.

The question is logical. The public response to the Occupy movement has been characterized by intense police response: from Wall Street to Oakland, from Denver to Davis, policemen have busted heads at Occupy camps and Occupy marches, sometimes in the face of intense public objection. No one has (yet) been killed, but it’s come close more than a few times.

The answer, however, is also logical: she can’t do anything that will both interfere with the power structure and keep her safe. She can make specific choices about where to be and when; she can cherry-pick her actions; but in the end, if she puts herself physically out there, she can’t avoid the risk. (She can’t avoid it by staying at home, either; not unless her mortgage is in perfect shape and the bank agrees with her about that; not unless her job is magically secure–but that’s not the point.)

What’s important about Melissa’s post is that she knows she’s engaging in a radical act just by being fat in public, fat on social networking, fat and willing to have political opinions. She knows what’s going to happen. She’s paid attention, she’s analyzed the risks, and she’s not going to stop. She knows why she’s doing it:

The only option is to not post pictures of myself. But the reason I post pictures of myself in the first place is because there is a dearth of imagery of fat women, especially fat happy women enjoying their lives. That’s partly because of media that disappears fat people unless it’s to shame us, and partly because fat women know that their images will be abused. Oh the irony, etc.

I’m not going to stop posting my picture. That’s a calculated risk. Pictures of me are going to be stolen, appropriated, exploited, abused. When they’re used in a way that demeans other people, I will have to write posts like this one.

If pictures of fat people were “normal pictures,” instead of “freak pictures,” this would happen a lot less. That’s a lot of why we do what we do.

But pictures of fat women are still “freak pictures,” and pictures of women are not “normal pictures” either; they’re fair game for the fake dating profile, the photoshopped nakedness, the crude comments  just because they feature women. And there are trillions of images of women on the Web. Would it be a victory just to have pictures of fat women treated like pictures of women of other sizes?

Wryly, yes, it would. Which is why Melissa is engaging in radical action and powerful political speech, both by putting her picture out there, and by responding this way when it is used “in a way that demeans other people.” Because she’s not letting the ways anyone uses it demean her.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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