30 January 2011

Research: taxidermied dodos help question obesity science

The other week I had to drive from Hartford, Connecticut, to Kennedy Airport in New York. As is my way I set off too early and ended up with some time to kill. I stopped off in New Haven to have a look at Yale (sites of preposterous privilege and power are so interesting, don't you think?), and I went to the university-affiliated Peabody Museum. I wasn't expecting much, I just wanted to stop driving for a bit and have a pee.

Museums of natural history don't tend to float my boat. You've seen one dusty taxidermied baboon, you've seen 'em all. I prefer nature to be explained to me in person, from behind a car's windshield, or on TV. No one could accuse The Peabody of being a cutting edge museum of 21st century best practise. Its centrepiece Black Holes exhibition looks like it was designed in 1987, and much of the collection has the reek of old skool natural science and colonial anthropology about it, the seamless segue between rocks, insects and animals, then mummies and 'primitive peoples' is especially cringeworthy, for example.

However, in some areas of the museum, brave curators have drawn attention to these shortcomings. A notice points out that a giant model of a dinosaur, one of the museum's treasures, was put together wrongly by the 19th century scholar who supervised its assembly. He didn’t know any better and it was only when evidence surfaced years later that anybody realised the skull was a bit off, that there weren't enough vertebrae, and that the tail should have been in the air, not on the ground. I really enjoyed this admission because it exposed the myth that representations of natural science are pure and objective truths, it shows that they are as much a product of contemporary ideology as anything.

The exceptionally round Peabody Dodo
I don't know about you but I'm fascinated by Dodos and The Peabody has a little display devoted to these sweet and extinct creatures, featuring a skeleton and a model made of chicken and ostrich feathers. Again there is a note saying that more recent evidence suggests that the model is not an accurate representation of how a Dodo really looked.

This is where it gets interesting in terms of fat. The model Dodo is almost completely round, whereas the text display says that in real life they were probably leaner and "more athletic". The panel suggests that the Dodo was probably represented as being fat like this to emphasise the belief that it was stupid, helpless, basically a sitting target for hunters. This assertion is likely to represent present-day thinking on what fatness represents, rather than an objective truth.

I don't know when the model was built, or if this interpretation is what the model-makers intended but I'm really fascinated that the association between fat and abjection could be played out in the model of a Dodo. I think debates about the meaning of fat being transmitted by media, epidemics, fashion, or whatever, are commonplace, but using a Dodo to get the message across is jaw-dropping. The way fat people are typically represented within Obesity EpidemicTM rhetoric is also very Dodo-like; we herald extinction, we are useless beings, we are laughable, pointless and stupid. It's funny how the leaner interpretation of a Dodo is associated with more modern and enlightened thinking, the future is thin!

I don't have much with which to conclude other than that the reproduction of fat abjection moves in mysterious ways, and my interest in Dodos just got a lot geekier.

Bristol's very own fat Dodo
PS. I went to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (in the UK) about a month after I wrote this post and I was excited to see they have a fat Dodo model there too, though with no explanatory text. Any more sightings?

19 January 2011

Report: posing for The Adipositivity Project 2011

I've been in the US for a bit, visiting archives and finishing the last of the data collection for my PhD. I've also been doing what might be referred to technically within sociology as 'entering the field' in terms of fat activism, but I draw no distinction between my real life and the things I am studying, so thus can neither enter nor leave the field because I'm always already there. The lay version is that I've been talking with a lot of rad fatties, seeing a lot of fat activism, and taking part in some of it myself.

One of the people I spent some time with is Substantia Jones, the photographer behind The Adipositivity Project. If you are unfamiliar with Adipositivity, go to the site right now and feast your eyes on the amazing variety of fat flesh. This is one of my go-to places if ever I am having a bad fat day – and when I'm feeling perfectly fine too.

Substantia took my photograph in 2009, I'm Adiposer 303, 379 and 413, and just last week she did it again. Here's the pic that appeared on the site today, number 442, and there may be outtakes of me with Mickey Mouse and a snowman in Chinatown floating around somewhere. By the way, yep, it was very cold, I got undressed in a restaurant toilet and dressed again out on the pavement, they're real streets in Chinatown in Manhattan, there were comments from passers-by (the guy in the main pic wanted my number – no chance!), it's as true as you see it.

When we were talking beforehand, Substantia asked me what it was like to pose for Adipositivity. I gave a jumbled up response, so I thought I'd try and give a more considered answer here.

I love the Adipositivity aesthetic, which is totally at home with femme and queer identity, often full of delicious colour, witty, sexy, imaginative, and stuffed with personality and style. Substantia has great visual ideas an collaborative skills, she makes the shoot fun, an adventure. When Substantia takes your photograph, you enter this world too and you get to see yourself within this frame, literally. It's a gift considering that many of the people who are photographed grew up with body shame and self-hatred.

When you appear on the site it's a measure of how far you've come in refuting fatphobia. It's not only about having your picture taken and allowing others to see it, it's also about being able to look at your own image without terror or disgust. Being there is a way of showing that having a fat body is alright, it gives permission to be visible and unafraid. There you are, part of humanity, not the fattest, not the thinnest, not the prettiest, or any other category that is supposed to be important, just there, doing your thing.

You could say that Adipositivity is a means of creating a new kind of beauty, or appreciating beauty. I don't think that beauty is the only thing going on in the pictures, they are also about flaunting fat, sometimes quietly and shyly, sometimes not. I love that the photographs are 'positive' but that they are never trite or monodimensional, 'positive role models' is an expression that makes me want to burn and rob, and I never get that feeling looking at these images. Instead they suggest another way of being, a richer way of considering fat embodiment. There is nothing apologetic or placatory about them and I think that this is because they are not necessarily created by and for 'them', but by and for 'us'. Whenever I come across the photographs they make me want to climb inside the frame and inhabit the world in which they were taken, I've been lucky enough for this to actually happen to me.

I come from punk and I appreciate that although Subsantia's photographs have high production values, they also strongly support a DIY ethic. Adipositivity is put together on next to nothing, it uses available resources, easily accessible web technology, for example, and also manages to have a really powerful impact. It is created without the pressure of advertisers, completely on Substantia's own terms.

It sounds cheesy but I'm really proud to be part of this project, grateful to have an opportunity to pose, and glad of Substantia's friendship. Although I live far away from New York, being an Adiposer makes me part of a community that wants to see images like these and is ready to help make them happen. I love seeing myself within this context and am delighted to be able to offer it my embodied support.

PS This still seems inadequate. Oh well, I'll write more next time, hopefully there will be a next time.