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Wait Watchers: Mayyyybe there’s a better way to discuss this?

April 25, 2013


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.

Thinking AND hugging my water bottle. It's how I roll.

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 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.

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11 Responses to “Wait Watchers: Mayyyybe there’s a better way to discuss this?”

  1. Sarah Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Wow! I reblogged those self portraits. I really don’t want to be one of those people giving horrible looks at others.

  2. Tam Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    You know when I saw the cops, my first thought was “goofy man being a ham in front of a camera set up on a tripod”. How many times do you see people act like fools when they see a camera? I mean really? Is it hard to think that a man walking down the street, seeing a woman standing in front of a camera on a tripod would be goofy and put his hat on her head as she walked by? And to be very honest I thought she was very self centered to think all these people are all thinking about her. Most people are far too concerned with themselves to worry about others, especially strangers. Or maybe her tripod and posing is what is drawing attention really.

    Sorry I’m starting to ramble. This is fairly accurately my thought processes on seeing the series.

  3. Bonnie (TIAW) Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Ah, yes, if he saw the camera it does make sense that he might be just trying to be funny in a photo. For some reason I was thinking the camera was hidden or obscured or something.

  4. Anne Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I think you are completely wrong in just about everything you are saying. The woman obviously leaves it to the viewer to decide if there is a reaction to her going on behind her back or not, and what that reaction is. Your opinion of her and her work makes you sound like you sympathize with people in the background because you would likely be one of them, if you only had been caught on camera doing it. I would use the word “bitchface” too, but not at all based on your facial expression.

  5. Bonnie (TIAW) Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Well. Thanks for that, Anne.

    I keep trying to respond to this in a productive way, but I just can’t. You made a lot of accusations that I can’t clear up without just repeating what I’ve already written. Since I assume you must have read my entire post or else you wouldn’t be commenting, I must come to the conclusion that you and I simply disagree.

  6. Jamie Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    In the above pic the two could very well be thinking “What is this lady doing sitting on the swing like that?”

  7. Emma Says:
    April 26th, 2013 at 12:47 am

    Thanks for this thought-provoking commentary. I looked at the photos and largely saw people just looking. I love to look at people, all shapes and sizes. It is curiosity at how a wrinkle runs from eye to temple, or a roll of fat forms below the shoulder, or where the makeup line finishes, or how a streak of red hair catches the light. Just looking and enjoying our diversity and how we are made. When someone falls outside any given norms, I find them more interesting to look at. I am not hating or reviling. I have been a 350lb woman for the majority of my life, and a 168lb woman for the last few years. I notice that I am looked at both ways. I did not knowingly experience hate-looking when I was 350lbs, but maybe some curiosity.

  8. bethany actually Says:
    April 26th, 2013 at 2:49 am

    I had similar thoughts as Jamie about the picture above. Or they could have been looking at someone out of frame!

    As you know, I agree with you on almost every point. I think having a discussion about fat prejudice in this culture is A-OK. Using art to spark that discussion–yes, absolutely! Using innocent passersby in your art without their permission and making assumptions about their thoughts and motivations? That’s a bit of a problem for me. It seems like Haley is doing almost the same thing to the people in her photos that she assumes they’re doing to her: judging them negatively based on appearance. That just doesn’t seem like a good way to start this discussion. It feels kinda gross.

    I do disagree strongly with one statement above, though: you MIGHT be average…but you are ALSO awesome. Nothing you can say will convince me otherwise. :-)

  9. Summer Says:
    April 26th, 2013 at 6:45 am

    I disagree with Anne on 2 points. 1) I think you have a lovely face, both metaphorically and literally. 2) She does NOT leave it up to us to interpret. She has clearly interpreted it for us, by telling us what her photo essay is showing us. I DO sympathize with the people around her, because we’ve made judgments about them without knowing the story. Isn’t that what we’re accusing THEM of? I sympathize with her, too. I can sympathize with both.

  10. Carrie Says:
    April 26th, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Looking at all these pictures, all I can think is that people are looking at the camera trying to figure out what is going on. I don’t think it has anything to do with her. If I saw a lady sitting in a swing taking a self portrait I would be looking with a puzzled (possibly bitchface) on. I am as big, possibly bigger than this woman. Of course I have run into a few a-holes about my size, but nothing like this as far as I know.

  11. Mina Says:
    April 28th, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    I agree with every word Summer wrote.

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