I have adored Jen Davis’s work ever since I first saw it a few years ago. I love it for so many reasons. She’s one of the few self-portraitists whose body is not slender. Her photographs are complicated. They engage with the experience of having a body that becomes almost public property in the way that our fat-hating culture loads so much bullshit on it. People see a fat body and easily leap to ideas, assumptions and judgments about the person, the whole life inside. Many people have written smarter words about this than I can at the moment, so I will quote liberally from them.
First, a note on my use of the word fat. “[T]he word ‘fat’ is usually a put down. Fat, when used as an adjective describing a person, has become synonymous with some really negative words like-lazy, ugly, smelly, stupid and disorganized. It is often assumed that fat people have no will power or have ‘let themselves go’, it even prejudices some people on the quality of a persons parenting or work ethic depending on their size. But the big one is health. If you are fat you are automatically unhealthy and any or all health issues are directly related to your weight, which is not always the case.”
(from Free Range in Suburbia)
I am using the word fat as a neutral adjective, without the value judgments that can often be associated with it. I want to reclaim the word fat so it doesn’t carry all that other bullshit with it.
“There is nothing I can do, as a person with a fat body, that is deemed acceptable by my society except not have a fat body. Actively trying to not have a fat body while loathing my fat body and policing other fat bodies and agreeing yes I am disgusting no of course I am not working hard enough yes I’m lazy no you don’t have to like me yes hate me hate me more I’m sorry I’m sorry I’ll diet more and more and more eat less and less and less — this is the one thing approved of. It’s the one thing I’m allowed to do. And it’s still not enough, never enough, because then I am pathologized for hating myself (because they demanded it) for focusing too much on food (because they demanded it) for still, despite all that STILL, existing as a fat body.”
“My not dieting is pathologized by a culture that says fat = unhealthy. My not having dieted is pathologized. My having accidentally lost weight is pathologized. If I admit to “less than perfect” eating, now or in the past, I am pathologized. If I talk about eating “well”, in a way that doesn’t endorse restricted eating, if I hold up having a healthy, loving relationship with food as my ideal instead of weight loss, I am pathologized. If I say I eat healthfully, I am called a liar. If I reject the paradigm of “healthy” food, I am called delusional and in denial.”
(from Feeding my Boychick)
“In our society as it is today, fat people are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If a person is caught eating in public (going to a restaurant, even a nice one and not the stereotypical fast food restaurant), many people think they have the right to comment on what the fat person is eating. If the fatty is having something high in calories or carbs or whatever-the-latest-diet-baddy-is-today, the person feels justified in telling them how to eat better. ”Are you really sure you should be eating that?” I’ve heard that all too often.
“However, even if the fatty is being a Good Fatty (TM), and only eating a salad (with low cal/low fat/low taste dressing on the side!), they are still subject to revilement. ”That’s not going to help you!” and “If you ate that way all the time you wouldn’t be as fat as you are!” are said to fatties who dare to eat in public.
“It is commonly assumed that all fat people are lazy and never, ever, EVER exercise. After all, it’s evident because they are so fat! When a fat person DOES try to exercise in public, they shamed by hearing cat calls. They are told they are deluding themselves because if they really did exercise they wouldn’t be that fat. They are told they should never attempt that exercise until they lose weight.
“It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t world, if you happen to be fat.
“[...] To get get rid of my fat body, you have got to get rid of me.
Almost everything that is being aimed at fat people is being aimed at getting rid of them, of us. ‘I don’t want to see you, you are gross, disgusting, a slob, stupid, lazy! I don’t want to know you even exist! Get out of my sight. Preferably, go eat a gun!’”
(from A Day in the (Fat) Life) (The horrible sentences in her last paragraph have actually been said to the author.)
And in case you think that the concern with fatness is really about health, here’s just one study to contradict that idea.
* * *
Jen Davis’s photos subvert some of that bullshit, and they resist the typical weight-loss narrative we see everywhere. In her photos, you can’t NOT look at her. There is great ambivalence in the photos, for sure. She’s not always comfortable being looked at, I think, but I don’t see misery. When I see emotional discomfort in the photos, it’s often a result of the outside world pushing in on Davis, or its potential to (it’s the too-tight jeans that are the problem, the people looking at her and maybe thinking some of the thoughts I’ve quoted above, not Davis’s body. Or at least that’s how I see the photos.
The Oprah magazine just did a story on her that makes me very sad. And I don’t know how to write about it without disrespecting Davis’s right to live her life however she damn well chooses, without finding myself among all the shitty and supposedly well-intentioned commenters on fat bodies. But I still feel deeply sad that we live in a world that is so fucked up, it makes sense, after a lifetime of pain and isolation, to ask someone to cut into your contentious body and tie up a part of it — with no less than a 40 to 50 percent chance of failure — in an effort to make it less contentious. Davis made herself vulnerable in doing the story, and I don’t want to shit on that or her in any way.
What bothers me the most is that the Oprah story just reduces Jen Davis and her wonderful, complicated self-portraits to parts in yet another weight-loss narrative, where the person loses weight and lives happily ever. Now the photos are relegated to the role of evidence of that time she used to be fat and unhappy, a time on which the door is now closed because she has lost weight and become happy and confident. Of course, it’s just Oprah, and of course they would do a story like that, a story that just trots out all the usual narratives we have for women. This is why I avoid those dumb-ass magazines. But I still just feel so sad about this whole state of affairs. (I wonder if every blog post I write now will be about how fucked up this world is.)
The story begins with a description of Davis’s physical appearance, reinforcing the idea that the only way a woman can realize her true potential or selfhood or whatever is through physical beauty (She “has the kind of straight blonde hair the rest of us have to fake.” Imagine if women could find a way to just love ourselves as we are; what would the Oprah Empire do then?). The discussion of her accomplishments — exhibitions in France, Spain and Italy; the New York freakin’ Times featuring her work; awards, grants, residencies and invitations to give lectures about her work — merits only one small paragraph on the second page of the article. No, what really matters is her appearance and the age-old story of The Ugly Duckling. What really matters is romantic love, as the story is book-ended with quotes from Davis about how she wants a romantic partner and she’s 34 and has never had a boyfriend (you know, the Never Been Kissed story, except that in Davis’s case she’s not exactly virginal – there is tremendous sexuality in some of her self-portraits and especially her webcam series). (Don’t get me wrong, romantic love is great and important and I think she more than deserves to experience that. But the Oprah story makes it sound like the problem was always centred in Davis’s body, not our fat-hating world and the wounds it inflicts.)
I feel like this article has reduced a full, rich, complex human life to a trope. I don’t know Davis personally at all, and this is the first interview with her I’ve read. But I wish I could give her a big hug. I would tell her that she is beautiful and awesome now, but she has also been beautiful and awesome all along and she will remain beautiful and awesome for the rest of the her life, regardless of her body’s shape.
Do yourself a favour and look at all the her beautiful work on her website.