Grok My Enthusiasm (36)
September 14, 2016
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars.
Every few weeks, the same cycle: I’m in a crop top and little else, as is Sunday custom, rifling through the internet for what I’ve come to call images of aesthetic fatness. A portrait or print, an IG or frame of a gif; anything that annihilates our cultural attitudes towards fat people — my people — and makes room for a kind of radical empathy.
What I look for is not impossible, only elusive. In our personal library is a small and rowdy section my partner and I have dedicated to fat liberation. This is where we keep our copy of The Full Body Project (Five Ties, 2007), a coffee table book of fat female nudes photographed by the late Leonard Nimoy.
I treasure this book because it shouldn’t exist.
The Full Body Project was published at a time especially treacherous for fat women, that is to say all time — forever. Whatever yawns this way and that. All recorded history is an operating system, six feet deep, installed by male pleasure to enact unspeakable violence on women, but women who are fat, and with darker skin, or with disabilities, who do not conform to expectations of gender identity, bear the full extent of its circuitry. And the qualities of the mid-early Aughts, the period this book was published, were no different in its plunder of fatness than those that describe our current moment almost a decade later: a $64bn diet industrial complex (in the U.S., anyway) and barbarism masquerading as medical intervention. Or the horrifying rhetoric of online white supremacy insisting that of the hundreds of Black people murdered by U.S. police, those who were fat were somehow more worthy of execution.
How bad it was and how bad it is and how bad it will be, it eats away at you. More plunder, preverbal, this time of the soul.
But I truly believe there exists an alternate order to the world, one where I and the fat people I love, and even the fat ones I hate and will never know, can chart our own course. I write in service of this order and boost those who do the same. I draw courage from whatever offers a glimpse of it.
In 1999, Nimoy was in Nevada giving a lecture about his latest fancy, a series of female nudes exploring the Judaic concept of god as a kind of feminine energy. After the seminar he was approached by a woman of whom we know very little — Nimoy kept her identity a secret. She described his work back to him. I think about this moment often, and her tone. Flat, perhaps, the way we signal our disappointment with a gift by ruthless, unmodulated summary: a dongle, 2 gigs, Sandisk.
“‘You’re working with a particular body type,’” Nimoy recalled her saying in a 2007 interview with NPR. “‘I’m not that body type.’” And according to Nimoy, this was true. She was fat, fatter than anyone he had worked with before. Catching him off guard, she flexed, again: “‘Would you be interested in working with me?’”
In time, Nimoy agreed and with his wife, the actor Susan Bay, photographed the nameless woman at his studio in Northern California. Something changed, perhaps everything. Nimoy discovered the fat acceptance movement, and found its history and literature — artifacts of the struggle date back to the 1970s — arresting. Ley lines drew him to the work of Heather McAllister, an anthropologist, burlesque performer and fat acceptance activist. McAllister believed that a fat body dancing “was a revolutionary act,” and formed The Fat-Bottom Revue, an all-fat burlesque collective out of San Francisco. Nimoy invited them to model for a new project, more nudes, this time for a 2005 show titled “Maximum Beauty” at the Benrubi Gallery in New York, and the troupe obliged, providing their own direction for many of the compositions. Select images from the exhibit make up the majority of The Full Body Project; Nimoy’s Northern California session, its coda.
Earlier, I described these works a series of fat female nudes. That is too tidy a description — heartless, even. The women are fat and they are naked, yes, gloriously so. And Nimoy remains part of a centuries-long tradition of capital turning light into fact and nakedness into nudity. (Make no mistake, his photographs are humane and thoughtful. Still, I praise him cautiously.) But these bullet points diminish what it means for someone with a non-normative body to be naked at all. To take part in such a project is to challenge, at ramming speed, an erasure so systemic it amounts to a kind of natural law. And for the tire fire of public consumption! What strength did these women summon, I wonder? What well did they draw their courage from?
Leafing through The Full Body Project feels… sacred. Here, fat women laugh and enjoy each other’s company; fat women explore their relationship to their built surroundings (many were staged in L.A.’s Hammer Museum); fat women recreate famous works like Matisse’s Dance (I) (1909), and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). The moment belongs to no one else but McAllister and her troupe. In these images, life is theirs to live.
A favourite: the women surround a sculpture from Patty Chang’s video installation, Shangri-La (2005). The sculpture resembles a mountain range cut from pure mirror and its surfaces, as far as I can tell, are not warped like a Funhouse but broken, like bad luck. From our vantage point, the effect is kaleidoscopic. A roll of back fat, a furrowed knee, cellulite like chainmail — glimpses with no organizing principle. The women gaze at its surface intently. Some have their backs turned to the camera. Others try out poses: contrapposto, tribhanga. On the right-hand side of the image is a woman, possibly of African-American descent, intercepting that which Shangri-La reflects. What that is we do not know, but the intensity of her stare is palpable. You could slice it with your hand.
How technically successful these images are, I cannot say. Nimoy wouldn’t be confused for Ruven Afanador or Nan Goldin. Nor would these works appear in the likes of Aperture or 032c.
Still, we make do. We must. When you’ve been denied representational justice your entire life, making do is an elemental flex. The images of The Full Body Project may not be stylish or contemporary or technical feats or even intersectional — the troupe was disproportionately white — but they have moved people, as fat as I am and fatter still, as I am not. They offer a glimpse of that alternative order in an all-too violent and dispassionate world. I remind myself of this whenever I think of McAllister, who passed away just before the book’s publication, assisted suicide finishing what terminal cancer started.
Perhaps this is what it means be moved at all, a kind of simultaneity of what was and what could’ve been. A photograph stops you cold. You look on, feeling every step of its creation and, at every turn, its annihilation, kaleidoscopic and shimmering. You feel it so deeply that the fact of its existence challenges the story of yours. All those steps, it’s a wonder you exist at all. Spock takes up photography; cells divide by zero; a woman enters a lecture hall on a hot Nevada day. It pummels you, the enormity. It brings you to your knees.
GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: Rob Wringham on THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | Gordon Dahlquist on WEEKEND | Joe Alterio on MILLION YEAR PICNIC | Adrienne Crew on LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | Josh Glenn on THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | Alix Lambert on THE SKIES BELONG TO US | Adam McGovern on PENELOPE and CHAVEZ RAVINE | Rob Wringham on THE LYKE WAKE WALK | Mark Kingwell on NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | Gordon Dahlquist on FELLINI SATYRICON | Erik Davis on AH! | Devin McKinney on WHISPERING AFRAID | Mimi Lipson on 1973 SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG | Jessamyn West on MOSS | Josh Glenn on THE SCOUT HOW BOOK | Brian Berger on SLACKER | Alix Lambert on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS | Chelsey Johnson on MONOTREMES | Devin McKinney on THE BUTCHER COVER | Flourish Klink on ONE DIRECTION | Gordon Dahlquist on FULL METAL JACKET | Allegra Huston on CLOTHESLINE | Jenny Davidson on POWERLIFTING | Evan Narcisse on REZ | Deborah Wassertzug on VEGETARIAN MEATBALLS | Chris Spurgeon on WALLACE AND GROMIT | Mandy Keifetz on BENEFICIAL MICROBES | Annie Nocenti on MARKS ON WALLS | Molly Sauter on THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF | William Nericcio on LAND OF THE LOST | Dan Fox on “VOICE OF GOD” RADIO DJS | Brandi Brown on WIKIPEDIA TALK | Claire Lehmann on THE APPARATUS REVEAL | Alice Boone on COSTUME JEWELRY | Colin Dickey on WIDESPREAD PANIC | Anshuman Iddamsetty on THE FULL BODY PROJECT | John Hilgart on MAKING GRATEFUL DEAD ALBUMS | Rob Wringham on STEVEN UNIVERSE | John Overholt on DECKLE EDGES | James Hannaham on HABIT PATTERNS | Jessamyn West on THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM | Adam McGovern on THE SPACE GIANTS | Brian Berger on MEDIUM COOL | Chris Spurgeon on THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT | Joe Alterio on TABLETOP WARGAMING | Mimi Lipson on TRASH PICKING | Jason Grote on CZECH CINEMA | Roxane Gay on AUTOMATED CAR WASH | Dan Fox on JULIA DAVIS | Amy Thielen on BINGO | Steph Burt on FEIJOA.
#SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.