So this thing started going around Tumblr last week (I can say that because I totally Tumbl now. How cool am I?). It’s a series of self portraits taken by a woman, Haley Morris-Cafiero, in public with the intent to collect reactions to her appearance. She is overweight and pretty, but seems otherwise unremarkable. In that she is not a freak show by any stretch of the imagination. In that, if I were to walk past her on the street, I wouldn’t notice her anymore than I’d notice anyone else. Except I might be jealous of her clothes because they’re pretty cute.
And yet, she feels that people react to her size. She feels the effects of fat discrimination and she wants to open up this for conversation in our culture. I’m down with that.
Only. Let’s back up for a minute and talk about something entirely different: bitchface.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across this comic going around Facebook. I SO IDENTIFY WITH IT. I remember even way back in high school, struggling with chronic bitchface. I have a vivid memory of sitting at my locker feeling perfectly content, even happy, and having someone come up to me and ask with concern if I was ok. “Dude. I’m fine. That’s just my face.” My go-to thinking look is a frown. If I’m trying to remember what’s on my grocery list, I’m frowning. If I’m doing math, I’m frowning. If I’m thinking deeply about how to solve world problems and create a beautiful Earth, I’m probably frowning. I’m frowning right at this very minute as I try to think of other examples of frown-inducing thoughts I might have.
On occasion, in public, I’ll find myself, lost in my own brain, making eye contact with a stranger. Just briefly. Just for a split second. But I sometimes wonder if, based on that split second, they think I’m angry with them. Or they judge me to be an angry person. Dude. That’s just my face.
One of the best lessons my friend Bethany has taught me is to never assume that someone is feeling a certain way or thinking a certain thing about you, because more often than not, they are dealing with something internal that has nothing to do with you at all. I find that following this philosophy not only makes my life simpler, but it also is usually correct. 99% of the time people aren’t thinking about me. As much as I like to believe I’m that awesome, it turns out that I’m just average. So, unless they tell me clearly that their issue is with me, I just assume it’s not. It works. Really.
Looking at these photographs, I see a bunch of people who are dealing with their own personal thoughts. Looking for a break in traffic to cross the road, glancing across the street, or talking with a friend about how best to pose. Even the photos which show people laughing provide no evidence that they are laughing at this woman’s body shape. Statistically it’s much more likely that they are laughing at something entirely different.
Are there people who publicly mock and humiliate overweight people? Of course. Unfortunately for us all, the world is full of assholes. Within the photo essay itself I question the motives of those two cops. Hopefully it was something innocent. But that’s the only picture that, without lack of other evidence, struck me as something that could be more sinister in intent. Morris-Cafiero wrote a piece over at Salon.com detailing what led her to start this project and some of her experiences while taking the self portraits. In one situation, she mentions that a girl stands beside her slapping her own belly while Morris-Cafiero stands next to her eating a gelato. I don’t know that that even counts as the evidence it’s presented as. People do lots of things with their own bodies that have nothing to do with anyone around them. Mouth noises, knuckle-cracking… I’ve certainly known people to have belly-smacking habits. I’m not convinced by that alone that it was commentary about this woman’s size. Overall I think that people on the street aren’t really paying attention to the people around them. And overall I think most people wouldn’t be cruel or bold enough to be that openly hateful.
In fact, in my almost seven years of listening to moms’ experiences on SOAM, I hear the opposite. When a woman who is overweight, or has stretchmarks, or any other unconventionally beautiful aspect to her finally finds the courage to wear shorts or put on a bikini at the beach, she usually finds that no one around her cares very much. That has certainly been my own personal experience.
I think that it is absolutely undeniable that there is significant fat discrimination in this culture. And I appreciate the effort to incite conversation about the subject. I just don’t think that making snap (pun not intended, but fully embraced) judgements about people and then posting those assumptions as facts on the internet for everyone to see is the right way to do it. Had these people been interviewed so we know what was really happening I would feel differently. As it is, I’m a little horrified at the project. I know that, if it were myself featured in one of her photos, I’d be so hurt to be labeled cruel, and so angry at the idea that the entire internet is talking about what a jerk they think I am.
So let’s keep talking about fat discrimination. Always. Talk loudly and often about it. But let’s figure out a way to do it without accusing possibly innocent people of bigotry.