Speech: Kyoto Symposium
Laurie Toby Edison

Opening Remarks

Hello, I'm Laurie Toby Edison. I'm a photographer who frequently works with the nude human figure. I'm also a feminist who uses her art as a tool for social change. I'm pleased and honored to speak to such a distinguished group of people on my work and body image. I bring you greetings from the Body Image activists of the US, who were thrilled to hear about this conference.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Professor Kazuko Watanabe for her invaluable work, in making this conference happen, and for moderating here today. And to Professor Rebecca Jennison for all her invaluable support and help, as well as translating this talk. This is my second visit to Japan, and both times I have been extraordinarily impressed with the passion and the brilliance of the Japanese feminists I have met. So, although I do not have time to name them all, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone both here in the Kansai and in Tokyo who has been kind enough to help.

The topic of my talk is the question of seeing and being seen in our respective cultures: Who is seen and who is invisible? Who has the right to see, and who has the right to be seen? I have lived my whole life in the United States, and I will talk mostly about my own observations there, but I know that our cultures have many points in common (as well as their many dissimilarities) and I look forward to the commentator's remarks to help enlighten which is which.


My role as a photographer is to make the invisible visible, and to reveal to people some of the things which the culture denies them the right to see. Photography is an especially powerful tool for social change because it carries with it a profound sense of reality. And because we see photographs every day in the media and the newspapers, they become a central part of our social and psychological reality. The American photographers Dorothea Lange and Roy deCarava are good examples of artists who have used this characteristic of photography as a method of social commentary.

Pictures of bodies, most particularly women's bodies, are constantly seen everywhere in the popular culture. However, the bodies chosen represent only a very tiny percentage of the real bodies which inhabit the world where these pictures are shown. In this way, the media deny the reality of most of the real bodies in the world, and artificially inflate the importance and value of the ones they choose to showcase. Thus, effectively used, the perceived reality of photography is a powerful way of changing how people see either in advertising or in social change work.

In this context, I want to discuss my projects Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and Familiar Men: A Book of Male Nudes. I will be showing you slides of some of the photographs, and talking about how I structured them both as fine art and to comment on the power of seeing and being seen..

Women En Large

Women En Large, my first photography project, is both a book and a gallery exhibition. (This month, incidentally, is the fourth anniversary of its publication.) Some of the photographs have been exhibited in Japan at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, in Michiko Kasahara's wonderful show "Gender: Beyond Memory" as well as across North America and in Europe. The book has been sold all over the world, from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to Germany to South Africa. The writer, Debbie Notkin, and I have been both amazed and deeply moved by how much the messages of both the photographs and the text have crossed deep cultural boundaries.

Fat women are big; they are hard not to notice. Nonetheless, there is a particular way in which we don't see fat women. I never used to think about the artistic possibilities of their bodies. When I began working with Debbie Notkin on issues of fat oppression and size acceptance, I began really paying attention to fat women's bodies (something most people never do). I was thrilled as an artist to discover that fat women have marvelous curves and masses distributed very differently from thin women, in aesthetically fascinating ways. Thin women are also beautiful, but I was already familiar with the limited variety of our bodies' shapes. Fat women's shapes are wonderfully different from each other.

Historically, fat women have been visible in some periods of Western art, mostly as feminine icons rather than real women. These works depicted romanticized and idealized fat women; they had little interest in conveying the reality of fat women and no interest in conveying whatever power their subjects might embody. Among the exceptions are the 17th and 18th Century Dutch painters, who tended to portray real people (and to whom my work occasionally pays homage). In this century, fat women have been invisible as individuals. They have not had the right to be seen, except as the grotesque and the other. A book (or gallery show) of beautiful and powerful fat nude women makes these women visible, and asserts their right to be seen by themselves and others.

And I, as an artist, was given the opportunity to work in unexplored territory, and on what would be the first, and after four years still is the only, book of its kind.

Historically, most female (and male) nudes have been portrayed by male artists. In fact, in the French impressionist period, women painters were barred from life drawing classes, regardless of the model's gender. In that period, "nude" came to mean "female nude." Not only Renoir and Degas, but many artists created nude images that obscured the real woman, replacing her with a created stereotype generated to fulfill a particular cultural requirement.

I studied those stereotyped nudes the figures we see repeated over and over again in museums, in movies and on television, in books, and on T-shirts. Their poses have remained consistent for more than a century, although the "preferred" size of the women has varied with time. Nineteenth-century salon painting, with its poses ranging from passive to limp and attitudes from tender to evil, has had an especially strong influence on the popular Western nude.

The sheltered woman in her garden, the "angel in the house," the sleepily-limp Victorian maiden, the Calvin Klein ad: all are examples of the way in which the image of the nude is charged by our culture and our history. These nudes carry coded messages in every curve, pose, smile, every tilt of the hip or head. They carry the baggage of gender politics and sexual dynamics across the centuries.

None of the familiar images were ones I chose to replay. Sometimes, instead, I took those "classic" poses and subverted them by replacing the traditional figure with a beautiful, individual fat woman, too real to be anyone's simple stereotype. When I put a fat woman in a classic Bauhaus nude or a Playboy setting, I am putting her in the place of an icon of beauty. By doing that, the viewer will see her differently in the context of beauty.

This is, of course, only one way to use photography to undermine the dominant vision. Subversion can take many other forms, such as the constructions of Cindy Sherman or the classical formalism of Robert Mapplethorpe.

The photographer/model relationship is very fluid. To photograph someone and capture some sense of their essence requires two people working together. The model must feel safe and comfortable enough to express herself (or himself), and I have to feel relaxed enough to compose, suggest, and even direct the model's poses. I am very careful never to ask a model to assume a pose or position that does not feel natural.

I usually photograph people in their own homes, to produce images which emphasized each person's own sense of uniqueness, not merely my perception. The familiar objects of their lives give them additional reality. These Women En Large photographs you are about to see, as well as the photographs of men I will show later in this talk, are truly environmental portraits. I found that black and white photography best expressed the beauty I saw, because it most successfully conveyed the subtle textures and masses of the women's bodies.

For centuries if not forever, the male gaze, men's view of the world, has constrained both my culture and yours. Historically, we see this, among other places, in the traditional gaze of the male artists whose works dominate the art world, and whose images of women have defined how women were seen. In the present time, this has been substantially replaced by the male gaze of popular culture and the media, which places different (and perhaps even more substantial) limitations on how women are allowed to be seen. Women internalize these strictures, self- censoring how we see both ourselves and other women.

The male gaze changes its image of beauty over the decades, over the centuries, and from culture to culture, but it seems to be inherently committed to the concept that there can be only one kind of beauty at a time. When women with large breasts are fashionably beautiful, women with small breasts cannot be. When short black hair is the ideal, there is no place for beautiful women with long blonde hair.

My entire portrait oeuvre is in opposition to this conceptualization: I believe that the most interesting ways to examine beauty are by looking at beauty in difference, at the vast range of body types, body shapes, and body varieties that can constitute beauty. Another way to say this is that I refuse to give up my right to see what I see; I refuse to be told by the male authorities what there is for me to see and what there is that I should not be allowed to see. And, once I see something, I claim the right to show others how I see it.

As a thin woman photographing fat women, I certainly have the gaze of the "other," but my work is still one of a very few examples of bringing an empathetic and inclusionary gaze to bear on a subject that the conventional gaze has ignored almost completely. Thus, in Women En Large I took on the task of making the invisible visible and, to the best of my ability, demonstrating the beauty in a group that had been cast aside as not worth looking at.

In periods where women begin to take on power, such as First Feminism's culmination in the 1920's in the US, and from 1970 to the present, the ideal woman becomes thinner and thinner. The obsession with "slimming" and dieting has become more and more pervasive in the US, and I understand the same phenomenon is observable in Japan as well.

In Victorian times, in the West, large women were the epitome of beauty. But when women begin to become powerful, the male society requires them to become smaller and smaller, and thus more juvenile in form. This is not an accident. The body image conflicts, the self-hatred, and the obsessions thus created contrive to make women far less powerful.

Women En Large came out of the fat activist community and the work that Debbie Notkin and I had done in body image workshops. When I began looking at fat women and realized that theirs was an undiscovered and unexplored kind of beauty, I tried portraying what I saw in a medium other than photography. I am also a metalworker (jewelry and small sculpture), and I tried those materials first. I always visualized nudes, because clothing masks the differences between bodies. My intent was to show the beauty, variety, and especially the individuality of fat women. While the jewelry was fine, it didn't begin to encompass the subject.

Since Debbie and I were profoundly involved in social change work around body size in the US, we decided that we would produce a book for which I would do the photography and she would do the text. We felt that in the long run, a book would be the most effective tool for social change. Books stay available, in stores and libraries, and can be shared or given as a gift always ready to change lives.

My experience as an artist was also molded by the community outreach that characterized the entire Women En Large experience. I was not working alone I made a point of collecting reactions from models, from audiences at slide shows and presentations, from the fat activist organizations that Debbie and I contacted. The ongoing feedback over the almost eight years from our initial panels on body acceptance to the publication and distribution of Women En Large was incredibly enriching and effective. What people said they wanted to see and their reactions to the work profoundly influenced the photographs and the text. And I want to continue this tradition in the question period, by hearing your reactions and opinions of my work.

And lives have been changed. Some social change work is difficult and wearing, because the changes are so hard to see. Not so with Women En Large - from the very beginning, woman, thin and fat, have come up to us and said how much seeing women like themselves, or like their mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, spouses and friends, helped them to change their lives. Many of the models for Women En Large were inspired to volunteer for the book after seeing photographs in gallery or slide shows.

None of the women who modeled were professionals. They were all women who felt that the work was important, and that the way I took these photographs was life-changing. They are molecular biologists, radio producers, au pairs, librarians, poets, photographers, housewives, college professors, musicians, dancers, paleontologists ...

Since the book has been published, we have been deluged with stories from women who have been profoundly affected by the work. Whether we hear from a woman who decides she is free to wear a bathing suit for the first time in her adult life, a recovering anorexic who prevents herself from a relapse by looking at our pictures, someone who gives herself permission to have a romantic life, one who successfully confronts a workplace bully who was harassing her about her size, or any of a multitude of others, each one adds to our store of confidence that the time and energy we have put in has been well spent indeed.

Familiar Men

My current work in progress, Familiar Men, explores some of the same territory and some new territory. "Beauty" in the male-dominated culture is considered "feminine." Disconnecting beauty from gender and applying the word/concept to ordinary men causes great discomfort and confusion and begins a redefinition of masculinity. Once again, I am exploring beauty in difference.

At least in the United States, male beauty is even more narrowly defined than female beauty. Once again, when I look at men I see a far wider range of beauty than the male gaze has ever acknowledged. On the other hand, when I photograph men, I can only photograph them as "other," as the female gaze encroaching on the territory of the bodies of the privileged, viewing them in a way that most male-identified artists choose not to see, depicting them in a way that the culture does not wish them to be seen. Part of my goal with this project is to capture a redefined masculine aesthetic, to offer a cross-section of how a wide variety of men look as individuals, when photographed in the same way that I photograph women.

Photographing women and men is, for me, both similar and different. Women are used to being the object of gaze. Even if they have never posed themselves, the concept is totally familiar. And they are likely to perceive the gaze of a woman photographer as more comfortable and less judgmental. Certainly, most of the women I photographed were nervous but part of being a good portrait photographer is putting people being photographed at ease.
Men are not used to being the object of gaze. As a group, they find it more difficult to relax than women. They especially lack women's cultural associations and familiarity with being photographed in the nude.

But they too seem to find a female photographer's gaze more comfortable and less judgmental. Most of the men I've photographed did indeed relax enough to work comfortably with me.

Men's identities are commonly tightly linked to what they do, their work. Unclothed men can easily lose their visual identities without the intense work and class markers that clothing encodes. The men you are about to see include college professors, rock musicians, aerospace workers, bookstore owners, warehouse workers, computer consultants, retired businessmen, artists, dancers, disability activists, museum directors, tattoo artists ...

Because of a combination of other social factors and these messages of threat, there are fundamental differences between perceptions of and reactions to female and male nudes. One of the most important is that male nudity, in some contexts, can be very frightening. As an example, I was walking home in San Francisco late one night, and a door opened. I briefly saw a nude woman illuminated in the light. I walked on thinking I had seen something very lovely. If she had been a man, I would have walked away very quickly.

Because real male nudes are almost as invisible as those of fat women, I have been learning a great deal about representations of male nudity, masculinity, and the reactions to them.
At least since the end of the last century (when the word "nude" came to mean the unclothed female body), the male nude has been largely unexplored artistic territory. When we see male nudes at all in the United States, they are primarily thin, buffed, white, and young. We have no visual access to the bodies of men we are familiar with, the skin colors and textures and shapes and postures of the real men we see every day.

Because of the different sexual roles of men and women in the culture, "nudity" itself is a variable rather than a constant. In images of women, any body revelation (the curve of a shoulder, the hint of an upper thigh) is perceived as nudity. Men, on the other hand, are not nude until the penis is revealed. The male bodies we see, nude or otherwise, are "armored" by the limited cliches of culturally approved presentation.

The "armor" has two distinct cultural effects. First, it serves the classic function of armor: it protects men from vulnerability, open-ness, and even beauty (attributes which are socially reserved for women). Secondly, it serves to reinforce the culturally-accepted stereotype that images of naked men, in certain contexts, can and should be actively threatening.

Overwhelmingly, the image of masculinity in the media is narrow. Because of its position of privilege and dominance, masculinity is like air: you only notice it when it isn't there, or there isn't enough. Everything else is measured against it while it remains assumed and unexamined. The general discourse takes it for granted and moves on.

Although most of the armored men of mainstream media are not naked, their invulnerable stance underlines the division between images of men and women. By making all men the same, the distinct message "If one man is dangerous, all men must be dangerous" is sent. (It must be noted that, while men are a privileged group and African-Americans are an oppressed group, the cultural mechanism used to make African-American men appear frightening is similar at least in the West and, not coincidentally, intensifies the confusion between the primacy of their gender and the subjugation of their ethnicity.)

The late 20th century is rapidly becoming recognized as the age which commoditizes and sexualizes everything, and the male body is no exception. Although much attention has been paid to the objectification of the female body and the unreality of the model as opposed to the real women who emulate her, the male model is in fact equally unreal, and real men are similarly exposed to a standard which they cannot meet, either in each others' eyes or in the eyes of women.

These photographs show real men in their own environments - old, young, fat, thin, diverse in race, ability, ethnicity and class - familiar and unfamiliar men in unarmored portraits. Through these photographs, masculinity can be perceived broadly, differently for different men, depending on age, race, class, context, individuality. Specifically, the portraits discard, as much as possible, any external standards and definitions; thus, they attempt to allow a definition of masculinity to arise on its own terms, from the men who inhabit it.

I am still exploring these edges and implications of masculinity as I continue to take photographs for Familiar Men.

Historically speaking, the male nude was considered the icon of beauty for many centuries. But by the end of the 19th Century the male nude rapidly disappears from Western art. For much of the 20th Century it has been expressed mostly in homoerotic art and nudist photography. One result of this history is that we have a very limited intellectual and emotional vocabulary when we view nudes of real men.

Many of my nudes lack cues of armor, of role, of status, of class. Some people immediately appreciate that level of reality. Others are simply disoriented, and unsure how to react. Some people find the men feminine. Men who are comfortable seem vulnerable, and some people identify all vulnerability with the feminine. Once past these reactions, they are open to a broadening and a redefining of masculinity. And many people, as with the female nudes, see men like themselves, or like the men they love.

Photography's mechanism is light, and aesthetically my work is very much about light - the play of light and darkness, reflections across the human figure, light's entrance into the frame, the way light reflects, illuminates, or disguises articles in the background, the way light shapes the face.


Underlying the concepts of the female gaze and beauty in difference is my initial question: Who has the right to define visibility, let alone beauty? It is only because we have been so overwhelmed by the dominance of the popular culture gaze that we have accepted the primacy of any gaze other than our own. A definition of beauty that is entirely interior and personal is radical. "I am beautiful because I choose to see and present myself as beautiful; your opinion is not at issue." In this context of the individual gaze, body image becomes more intricate and powerful. It can be based on how we look to ourselves, or on how we feel to ourselves. Body image can (and perhaps appropriately should) be at least partly defined by how we feel rather than how we look: sensation, tactility, health and well-being, all play a significant part in a healthy body image. Shifting the central concept of "body image" from who has the right to see and be seen, to who feels good and presents herself as looking as good as she feels, is as radical an act as can be conceived of at the end of the century.

If we can imagine a body image that is individual and not determined by anyone's distant gaze, that relies on difference rather than sameness, and that is sensual as well as visual, the entire universe of discourse shifts. In the new universe, everyone has the right to determine her or his own level of visibility and only his or her own, no one else's. My work allows both the people I photograph and the people who look at the photographs I take to define their own visibility, and hopefully expand their vision of beauty.

Laurie Toby Edison
P.O. Box 77370
San Francisco, CA 94107
Email: Laurie Toby Edison

Last Update
July 26, 2002

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