Fat women know all too well what it’s like to be stared at.
“It’s a fundamental and persistent” part of life, said Susan Stinson. And the disdainful glances and the snide comments that often accompany the staring can hurt – a lot.
Stinson, 47, a writer and activist who lives in Northampton, was speaking from firsthand experience. “I’ve been fat since childhood,” she told an audience of about 25 people, nearly all women, that gathered last Saturday at the R. MichelsonGalleries in Northampton.
She was wearing a soft and swirly dress that covered, but didn’t try to hide, her rounded belly. She has long, flowy hair, and she wears pointy-frame glasses. Stinson is the author of three novels – “Venus of Chalk,” “Martha Moody” and “Fat Girl Dances With Rocks” – and some of her characters are women who are fat and proud. “Never before,” wrote one reviewer, “have I encountered the large body depicted with such beauty.”
Stinson was the lead-off speaker at a day-long symposium about women and body image. It was held in conjunction with the opening of “The Full Body Project,” an exhibit of photographs by Leonard Nimoy, the actor and director best known for his role as Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” television series and movies. The exhibit is drawn from photos in the just-released book of the same title, with text by Natalie Angier.
This is the second exhibit at the Michelson Galleries for Nimoy, who has said he began taking pictures with his Kodak at age 13. He studied photography at the University of California at Los Angeles, and has been showing his photos publicly for many years. His first show in Northampton took place in 2004; titled “Shekhina,” it featured nude and semi-nude women and it explored themes surrounding spirituality, sexuality and the feminine nature of God.
The current show also features black-and-white pictures of naked women. But these women are fat. Unmistakably fat. Undeniably fat. Unapologetically fat. Rippling-rolls-of-fat fat.
“I love them,” Stinson had said of the photos in an interview before her talk. She loved them, she said, because the women depicted look exuberant, confident, gorgeous, joyful. And, she added, she also liked the fact that most of them were group photos that showed women dancing, touching, enjoying one another’s presence.
Go ahead and stare, the women in the photos seem to be saying. Stare all you want. We don’t mind.
Leonard Nimoy, 76, a tall figure with his face half-hidden under a dark baseball hat, slipped in during the symposium and sat unobtrusively in the back row, taking it all in. Besides Stinson, the speakers included author Leslea Newman, also of Northampton, whose many books include some, such as “Good Enough to Eat,” “Fat Chance” and “Eating Our Hearts Out,” that have explored issues related to eating and body image. The third speaker was journalist and New York Times contributor Abby Ellin, author of “Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help,” a book written for parents and obese teenagers, drawn in part on Ellin’s experiences as a teenager who spent summers at fat camps.
During a break between speakers, Nimoy paused to answer a reporter’s questions.
“It’s a steep learning curve for me, hearing these voices,” he said of the speakers and the give-and-take with the audience.
He had not, he said, undertaken “The Full Body Project” with any idea of promoting a particular message, or taking up the cause of combating the cultural bias against fat. Acing to an essay he wrote to accompany the exhibit, Nimoy had been approached some years ago by a woman who pointed out to him that his photographs showed women who reflected a mainstream notion of beauty. They were almost all thin, she said – very much unlike her, or most American women.
One thing had led to another and Nimoy eventually met the members of the Fat-Bottom Revue, a burlesque troupe based in San Francisco – “the epicenter of fat liberation,” in the words of Heather MacAllister, the troupe’s founder. In addition to its raucous public performances, the revue also offered workshops on topics ranging from body acceptance to tassel-twirling. In a story about one of the group’s shows, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “they shimmy and grind as they peel off leather, lace, and boas to expose a bounty of flesh while keeping certain vital zones covered and left to the imagination.”
Nimoy, assisted by his wife, Susan Nimoy, did several photo shoots with members of the revue. In one shot, they replicate a photo taken years ago by fashion photographer Herb Ritts of five nude supermodels, all tall, all thin. The poses are the same; only the body sizes and shapes are different. Both photos are included in the Northampton show.
Nimoy said the experience forced him to think a lot about his own assumptions and made him much more aware of the impact of the diet and beauty industry – the incessant pressure to lose weight, shape up and undergo plastic surgery. The industry is saying “you don’t look right,” he said – and the so-called right look, he added, is “unattainable.”
But no one knows where all this is heading, Nimoy said – certainly not him. Only the day before, he noted, he had been looking at a magazine rack at the airport and noticed the covers of two women’s magazines with wildly contradictory messages. One offered advice for losing those extra 10 pounds, the other promoted a story about self-acceptance and self-esteem.
“It’s a huge conflict,” he said. It may be far from resolved, he added, but he hopes the exhibit will continue to spark conversation. “This has been a terrific thing,” he said of the symposium, “and I’m very, very grateful to have it here.”