16 April 2013

Fat photo-activism and captioning

A sweet conversation has been evolving over on Facebook that has elements I'd like to share here.

Amanda Piasecki drew my attention to a vintage photo essay from Life magazine entitled Obesity in 1950s America: Early Days of a National Plague. As Amanda pointed out, the use of 'plague' is somewhat problematic! (though ripe for queer reclaiming). The essay is interesting because it troubles the idea that being fat was 'ok back then,' it shows that fat-shaming is not a post-millennial activity. The photographs are painful to look at because the captions are loaded with the abjection and pity that many of us experience viscerally and daily.

But vintage fatphobia is not the end of the story.

The Fattening saw the images and decided to re-caption them. In doing so, they have been completely transformed. Instead of abjection, the images reveal the potential for agency, humour, frustration, sisterhood, sexuality, badassery and sheer queer delight. When I read the captions I feel visible, acknowledged, vivid and real, not at all the pitiable object – barely even present as a human – that the original captions engender.

One might argue that these new captions aren't 'real' in the way that the originals are, they don't carry the authority of the original journalism. But in offering an alternative rendering of the photographs, they open up other possibilities for them which may or may not be taken on board by other people, including those who work captioning pictures of 'the obesity plague'.

This amazing and fairly tiny intervention has reminded me that we may be subjected to a thousand instances of fat hatred every day, and more, it runs through us like blood; but within that hatred there are opportunities for radical transformations that are simply done and amazingly effective. With their expansive activist imagination, The Fattening has done a great job in putting fat people into the picture and shown how essential it is that we tell our own stories. I can see this form of activism taking off in other directions.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing that the Life Magazine story is just the same as several I've seen over the last 40 years, and emphasizes the same messages: if you're fat, you'll be considered ugly, you'll be lonely, and you should diet and go through hell immediately if you want to be acceptable. Never mind that while you're working on changing your body you'll still be considered hideous and you'll be shamed into hiding yourself away. The girl in the story isn't even that "obese".
Love the new captions! By the way, I remember seeing several ads from the 1940s encouraging women who are "too skinny" to gain weight, epsecially by using the advertised product. I haven't seen any other ads promoting weight gain that were published after this period. Odd. I suppose the idea that you can never be too thin took root in the 50s.

Anonymous said...

I thought Dorothy, the subject of the articles, looked to be a nice lady and think it a shame how she must have lived her life not knowing her own worth because of the shame placed on her simply for her body type.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks, and yes, as I've said elsewhere there's a terrible amnesia about how fat is reported. I suspect that this is partly to do with the idea that fat is trivial and personal. It's also related to the alienation of many fat activists from historical accounts not only of activism, but also of representation.

Here's a blog post that touches on this http://obesitytimebomb.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/fat-in-news-its-same-old-story.html

I also recommend Levy-Navarro, E. (2010) Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Cheese, yes indeed.

Allison said...

I loved the re-caption...naughty!

lsstrout said...

I'd like to know if this lady gained back her weight.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Linda, what do you think?