Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes
by Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin
Books in Focus, San Francisco, 1994/116 pp. $24.95 (sb)
TEE A. CORINNE
Knowing that emotional integrity and social imagery directly correlate with confidence and self-esteem, if one is fat, where does one find affirming reflections of oneself? How are fashions in body type and acceptability established? During the 1600s Peter Paul Rubens painted women with voluminous bodies. Ancient fertility goddesses were honored for their plentitude. In times of famine we equate fat with wealth. But as Chupoo Alafonté, one of the subjects of Women En Large, states in a text accompanying a nude photograph of herself, "When I think of what it means to be a fat, black woman, I think of my ancestors, women at the lowest rung of society, who were forced to serve, nurture, and give birth to a nation that hate[d] and fear[ed] people who look like me . . . These women did not have the luxury of worrying about their growing dress size. The life they lived called for big, strong bodies that could endure."
The impetus for Women En Large was panel discussions about fat issues organized by Laurie Edison and Debbie Notkin and held at science fiction conventions. Edison, a jeweler and sculptor by trade, learned the basics of photography in order to create images for the book. Money was raised for the publication of Women En Large by presenting slide shows of the work-in-progress and by publishing a newsletter in which images were reproduced. These activities also functioned to entice additional subjects to the project and generate feedback about which images were most effective. Edison and Notkin were unable to find support from either mainstream or counter-culture publishers and published the book independently.
Women En Large contains 41 photographs of 27 nude fat women. Editor and author Notkin maintains that it is healthy to be fat - that stress and weight fluctuations are medically more dangerous than weight itself. In "Enlarging: Politics and Society," Notkin smoothly interweaves factual material from health and psychology professionals with the models' personal narratives of oppression due to body size. Notkin tells about her own life and how the book developed in a second essay, "Enlarging: The Personal Story," Brief biographies give access to marital status, sexual orientation, paid and unpaid occupations. The models' careers include HIV educator, director of computer services for a public radio station, library assistant, molecular biologist, public school teacher, retired paleontologist, housewife, dancer, property manager, and Federal employee.
Most of the women are depicted in domestic interiors, some are outside in natural settings. The subjects are racially diverse, young and middle-aged. One woman is pregnant, one has had a mastectomy, one is in a wheelchair, one has several tattoos, one has diabetes, which produces a different distribution of body fat.
Models cite combating personal demons and addressing stereotypes about fat as reasons for posing. Bernadette Bosky states that the "myths about fat and sexuality may be among the most widespread lies about us, and the most damaging." Yet given "the right frame of mind and the right partner, it is amazing how little effect size and weight can have. Often fat people are thought to be asexual, not only undesirable, but beyond any desire themselves. What we are instead, I think, is shy and full of shame."
Women En Large is a handsome book, startling and, for many viewers, ultimately comforting in its words and imagery. The comfort is the least expected of qualities, stemming in part from the relaxed way the subjects stand, sit, lie down, lift weights, dance, shower. Women who saw the early stages of the project repeatedly asked for more active pictures as antidotes to the victimization of passiveness.
Despite assertions that feminism as an influence on art is dead, Women En Large is clearly situated within a feminist practice of empowerment through the honest examination of individual women's lives. In Women En Large the visual stance and narrative of self revelation are used to confront attitudes and institutions. As Naomi Rosenblum, in A History of Women Photographers, states, "No aspect of existence seems more reflective of feminism's message - past and present - than sexuality and the nude" noting that women photographers "have attempted to recast the way [the female nude] is represented." This recasting is a dominant feature of Women En Large wherein images of the body bountiful supplant those of classical idealization and contemporary anorexia. The photographs in Women En Large fill a vacuum and redefine the parameters of admissable imagery.
Because this is content-driven work it functions outside of the codifications and language of academic theories. The photographs are closer to documentary practice than to traditional art historical discourse and, although they share with nudist camp publicity photos an emphasis on naturalness in structure and setting, they have the power of family secrets being revealed.
Revelation, itself, can be healing. Elise Matthesen, one of the subjects in Women En Large, describes seeing some of the photographs for the first time. "When I was alone again, I thought about them. Thinking, I realized they made me want to cry. Why? For the braveness. For the sheer unmitigated courageous act of a woman standing there in the flesh she is, all of it, and being nakedly herself."
Too powerful to be dismissed, these images have the ability to disturb even some people committed to fat liberation. In an interview with the author, Edison tells of an editor of a magazine catering to large women who was unable to hold or look at the photographs. What the editor apparently preferred was nicely made-up, stylish women artfully imaged. The images in Women En Large were too hard, too clear, too confrontational.
The directness of descriptions can be disconcerting as well as disarming. Lani Ka'ahumanu discusses her body in a text facing a photograph of herself looking wary, but not displeased. "Besides the pearly stretch marks that texture my arms, legs, breast, and belly, that I acquired during my two pregnancies, there are scars: a long thick pink one that follows my right rib line for 6 or 7 inches (from gall bladder surgery between the births of my son and daughter); a seam line from hip to hip and one around my belly button from surgery that removed three pounds of hanging skin; an appendicitis scar; and one-inch wide stretch marks - from after I lost the 120 pounds seven years after I gained them."
All of the images in Women En Large are memorable, some are extraordinary, like the image of school teacher Rhylorien n'a Rose who has had a mastectomy, standing behind a wooden chair, her long hair loosely flowing over her shoulders. A gentle image of a subject only recently permitted for art investigation, it is political without being rhetorical, activist without being adversarial.
It is important to note what the images in Women En Large are not like: they are not fat lady or sideshow pictures. They are not clinical studies. They do not participate in the decadent voyeurism of Joel-Peter Witkin, the almost cruel observations of Lisette Model, or the sly meanness of Diane Arbus. The images are buoyant and upbeat, the mood is celebratory. What is missing is a sense of the art world dialogue into which these photographs enter by the fact of their publication. Where there has been a dearth of images available, it is always seductive for those filling the void to see themselves as the first, the only, rather than as part of a continuum.
The late twentieth century is a time in which the canon of beauty is undergoing rapid change. Although this project comes directly out of the same feminist tradition that produced Shadow on a Tightrope, there are other resonances and precursors to be found in diverse places: Joyce Tenneson's inclusion of fat women in her etherealized photographic studies; John Coplans' self-portraits of his aging body; "Judy" cuddling her own breast in Cathy Cade's Lesbian Family Album; George Dureau's exquisite images of differently-abled men; Deborah Hoffmann's photos of wheelchair-bound women; Laura Aguilar's representation of fat individuals in her "Clothed/Unclothed" series; and her unforgettable self-portrait as a seated fat nude in a white room in front of a fan. Another precursor is a 1983 calendar called "Images of Our Flesh," produced by a Seattle, Washington lesbian separatist group called Fat Avengers. Yet Women En Large expands upon these other studies by the breadth of its inclusiveness, the accessibility of its intellectual framework, and the marketing strategies which utilize mainstream as well as counter-culture bookstores.
Old women are conspicuous by their absence from Women En Large, a surprising omission caused, perhaps by the double jeopardy of fat and age. Very young fat women are also missing, obviating consent issues. A few of the images seem to be unnecessary duplications, yet each contributes to the power of the whole.
Traditional narrative photographs are moments of change caught, codified. The photographs in Women En Large reflect the change in values embodied in what critic Laura Cottingham has called the "conscious incorporation of feminist insights . . . an understanding of women's experience - and of women's historical devaluation and cultural exclusion." For the models, change began before the images were shot, when each woman consented to take her clothing off and be photographed, and later when she saw the pictures for the first time. For some readers changes will occur long after the book is closed in altered self-images, altered possibilities, opened futures.
Women En Large expands the visual dialogue, the repertoire or catalog of stored images upon which aesthetic understanding rests. These pictures establish a right to territory. They form a strategy for renegotiating each individual's relationship with society and, at the clearest and deepest levels, assert the right of fat women - and by extension, of all people - to exist.
1. Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers, (New York: Abbyville,1994), p. 226.
2. Lisa Schoenfielder and Barb, Wieser eds., Shadow on a Tightrope, (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1983).
3. Joyce Tenneson: Transformations, interview by David Tannous, introduction by Vicki Goldberg, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993).
4. Melody D. Davis, The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).
5. Cathy Cade, A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists, (Oakland, CA: Waterwomen Books, 1987).
6. George Dureau, New Orleans, introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith, (London: GMP Publishers Ltd., 1985).
7. The Blatant Image, A Magazine of Feminist Photography, No. 1, (Sunny Valley, OR: The Blatant Image, 1981).
8. See Laura Aguilar in Nueva Luz, (New York: En Foco, Inc., 1993), Vol. 4, no. 2.
8. Caffyn Kelley, Forbidden Subjects: Self-Portraits by Lesbian Artists, (North Vancouver, BC, Canada: Gallerie Publications, 1992).
9. The Fat Avengers, Images of Our Flesh, (Seattle: The Fat Avengers, 1982).
10. Laura Cottingham, "The Feminist Continuum: Art After 1970," Norma
Broudy and Mary D. Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art, (New York,Harry N. Abrams,
Inc., 1994), pp. 279-282.
Tee A. Corinne is the author of Courting Pleasure and art books columnist for Feminist Bookstore News.