Tag Archives: diversity

“God, The Human Body!”: People as Scenery

Debbie says:

Lynne Murray pointed me at this article by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his trip to Cuba with his Cuban-American wife and their daughter in the spring of 2012.

The whole article is interesting, and Sullivan’s complete unawareness of his American privilege is simultaneously business-as-usual and jaw-dropping. He’s been to Cuba two or three times. He really does think he knows all about it. The moment where he fails to tell the Cuban cook at the hotel omelet station why he doesn’t approve of the embargo between U.S. and Cuba deserves a blog post of its own. Racialicious? Are you interested? There’s some overly familiar anti-Communism in the second half of the article that you could throw in for free.

What struck Lynne and me, from a Body Impolitic perspective, is this:

Every time I looked up from the book, there were more people in and by the pool, as if they were surfacing out of the water, out of the ripples. I had black sunglasses on, so after a while I propped myself at an angle at which I could seem to read the book but really be moving my eyeballs, staring at everybody. God, the human body! It was Speedos and bikinis, no matter the age or body type. You would never see a poolside scene in the United States with people showing this much skin, except at a pool where people were there precisely to show off the perfection of their bodies. The body not consciously sculptured through working out has become a secret shame and grotesquerie in America, but this upper-class Euro-Latin crowd had not received that news, to my distraction. I took in veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, the weird shinglelike sagging that starts to occur on the back of the thighs, cleavage that showed a spoiled-grape-like wrinkling, the ash-mottled skin of permanently sun-torched shoulders, all of it beautiful. All of it beautiful and tormenting.

We’re at a hotel pool here, a hotel elegant enough to have an omelet station, and a large pool. Sullivan says he finds all the flesh “beautiful,” but everything else he says about it belies that belief. I find most of veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, sagging on the back of the thighs, wrinkled cleavage, and sun-mottled skin beautiful. I’m an American–I didn’t find this effortlessly. I’ve had to learn to work with what I see, to (in Laurie’s words) “make the invisible visible.” I would have loved being at that poolside recently. Sullivan is an evocative writer, and his descriptions are very visual. As he makes clear, however, he has done none of that work–he just thinks he should, so he gives lip-service to “beautiful.”

Where he goes from there is back into extreme American privilege:

You watched an 18-year-old Argentine girl in her reproductive springtime walk past an ancient Soviet-looking woman, her body a sculpture of blocks atop blocks, and both of them wearing black bikinis, the furtive looks they gave each other, full of emotions straight from the Pliocene, from the savanna. The old men scowled from behind mirrored shades. The young men tensed every muscle in order to seem not obsessed with how the girls saw them, a level of self-consciousness I found I could no longer really re-enter, as if it had been a drunken state. Everybody was stealing looks at one another, envying or disdaining or gazing, like me. We were all inside a matrix of lust and erotic sadness, all turning into versions of one another, or seeing our past selves.

Ask yourself: is that what was going on outside of Sullivan’s head? People of all ages, all over the spectrum of “conventional beauty” (as it is defined in the United States, the country most responsible for spreading our movies and advertising around the globe), are at a pool, wearing what they feel like wearing, and the driving emotion they are all experiencing is envy? The driving behavior is comparison? It’s possible.

I wasn’t there. I’ve never been to Cuba or even to the Caribbean or Latin America. Still, I would bet next week’s food that most of the people at that pool were just swimming, just lying at the poolside enjoying the sun. When they were looking at each other, they were either enjoying what they saw or moving on to the next person. It’s Sullivan, American, journalist, professional judge, who was “stealing looks, envying or disdaining.” He never says anything about what he looks like, or how he feels he looked to them; that just underlies everything he does say. He describes himself as “gazing,” but his prose says that he’s the one who wasn’t gazing. He’s the only person at that pool we can be certain was comparing.

At the end of the article, he describes a woman he met on an earlier trip to Cuba:

,,, a woman appeared in the passageway that led from the front room into the main part of the house, a woman with rolls of fat on her limbs, like a baby, and skin covered in moles. She walked on crutches with braces on her knees. She had a beautiful natural Afro with a scarf tied around it. She was simply a visually magnificent human being.

Again, this is evocative, visual writing. I feel like I can see her. What I don’t feel is like I know anything about what Sullivan means by “visually magnificent.” He brings her into the story to make a political point; he describes her in detail because if he says “a woman,” most readers will have a completely different image. The “visually magnificent,” to my ear, makes her sound like a sunset or a waterfall.

The trick, which Sullivan apparently has not learned (and probably doesn’t even believe is possible) is to see people as people, not scenery.


Fine Art, Social Change, and Community Involvement

Laurie and Debbie say:

A connection of ours who does excellent community work, including in the field of fat activism, has asked us to summarize how we create community involvement (especially diversity of involvement) in our work. Because all of the work we did before Body Impolitic was done before the explosion of social media, much of it would be done differently now–and at the same time, we both believe that face-to-face contact is a profoundly important piece of connecting to any community.

The basis of most of our social change work is Laurie’s photography, which is fine art first, and then becomes a tool for social change. A working artist all her life, Laurie became a photographer initially to create Women En Large. She says, “Artistically, I envision the world in black and white. I never considered being a color photographer. When I’m shooting, I don’t think about the message. I’m too busy working with the model to capture a mood, a facial expression, a pose in which they are comfortable, or a particular combination of visual balances. Each photograph is a stand-alone work of art.”



The way we integrate text with exhibitions of the photographs is one way we bring social change in to the fine art context. All museum and gallery shows have embedded text by models and others. The presence of the text strongly encourages the audience to see the work in a community context, fine-art photographs and related words, showcasing the diversity within an identified group.

Developing appropriate wide-ranging diversity in the photographs, as well as developing appropriate complementary text, requires a great deal of community work. From the very beginning of our collaboration in the United States, we have reached out to the community of people being photographed (fat women for Women En Large, men for Familiar Men, and later Japanese women for Women of Japan).

All three portrait suites are designed to provide an opportunity for people in the group being photographed (fat women, men, women in Japan) to see people “who look like them.” In a media-saturated culture, whether in the U.S., in Europe, in Japan, or around the globe, we are inundated with (photo-manipulated and literally unattainable) images of whatever the most conventional current representations of beauty happen to be, and almost no images of anyone outside the standard. Whether the marker is race, ethnicity, skin color, age, weight, class, ability, or anything else, those who do not come close to the conventional, unrealistic “norms” are, in our experience, hungry, often desperate, for attractive, respectful images of people they can imagine themselves being.

Each portrait suite includes a wide range of people in the group being photographed, including differences in age, race, ethnicity, class, size, etc. To accomplish this, we needed to show early photographs to the widest possible range of potential models, hear people’s suggestions and ask as many questions as we can think of: what do you want to see in these pictures? Who is missing? What kinds of images do you wish you had available? What do you have to say about the topic? What works? What doesn’t? What could we be doing better? We use the responses to these questions to continually refine and improve the work.

Over and over, during all three projects, when people saw photographs of people like themselves, or like people they cared about, they were deeply touched, which translated into a desire to work with us on the project. People became invested in seeing the work completed, and widely available.

People she knew introduced Laurie to models, from college professors to sewing-machine operators.  Ideally, she and the prospective model would have tea, looking at some sample photographs and text and discussing the project.  Very often the models had already been introduced to the work.  She asked the models to decide where they wanted to be photographed.  The places they chose reflected how they lived and perceived themselves.  Laurie wants the portraits not only to convey a sense of the person being photographed, but also to provide a sense of their lives that went beyond a photograph taken in the moment.

This comment from one of the Women of Japan models is exactly what Laurie strives for:

I assumed that I would be asked to pose as a “model Ainu,” and so I prepared my traditional Ainu garment to be photographed in.  And so when I was asked to pose as “My naked self” and as “a woman,” I felt suddenly quite nervous.  To be honest, my real intention was to be photographed wearing the Ainu traditional dress. But, Laurie’s passion was communicated to me through the lens of the camera, your “naked self,” “pose as you like,” and yet I feel that my face was still quite nervous.  Laurie said “relax” with a smiling face, and waited until I felt comfortable – I felt happiness from my heart.  To sit or stand in front of a camera lens is no simple task, and this was definitely a good experience for me.

– Komatsuda Hatumi, Women of Japan model and collaborator

Both in the United States and in Japan, we most often speak and write about the fine art and social change aspects of our work, and in both places (including in this post) we have also been invited to speak specifically about our practices of community involvement and how they work.

Community outreach to groups you don’t personally identify with takes far more time, effort and creativity than outreach to “people like you.” Without thinking about it, you know where “people like you” gather, what general things they expect and want, what messages they will respond to. And they are inclined to trust you simply because they recognize you. “People not like you,” on the other hand, will by definition have different experiences, expectations and motives, and be slower to trust. And groups are always composed of individuals, and general assumptions about the group are dangerous. It’s all about taking time, building trust, watching and listening, being open to change how you do things because you value the input, and making the diverse involvement deep, long-term, and necessary to the project.

(A different version of this post is in our essay on “Body Image in Japan and the United States” for the journal Japan Focus.)