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How I Got Back at the Strangers Who Mock Me for Being Fat

For years, strangers have made fun of me for being fat. But I got my power back -- by turning the camera on them.
 
 
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I was traveling with students in Barcelona in the summer of 2011, walking through La Rambla, when I noticed two guys making fun of me. I could see them in the reflection of a mirrored building, making gestures with their hands to suggest how much bigger I was than the thin girl standing next to me, her small waist accentuated by her crop top and cut-off shorts. They painted her figure in the air like an hourglass. Then they painted my shape like the convex curves of a ball. The guys were saying something, too, but there was only one word I could make out: Gorda. Fat woman.

I’ve been hearing comments like this for much all my life. Maybe someone else would have yelled at them, or shrunk inside. But I don’t get upset when this happens.

I pulled out my camera, and set up a shoot.

For about a year, I’d been taking pictures of strangers’ reactions to me in public for a series I called “Wait Watchers.” I was interested in capturing something I already knew firsthand: If the large women in historical art pieces were walking around today, they would be scorned and ridiculed.

So I found a crowded crosswalk farther down La Rambla, used my rangefinder camera to set the exposure and focus of where I would stand, and handed the camera to my assistant. I bought a cup of gelato and began eating it. I’ve learned I get more successful reactions if I am “doing” something.

In my peripheral vision, I saw a teen girl waiting for the signal to cross the street. As I stood there, eating my ice cream, I heard a repetitive “SLAP, SLAP, SLAP” of a hand on skin. I signaled to my assistant to shoot. It was only when I returned home to Memphis and got the film developed that I realized the sound was the girl hitting her belly as she watched me eat. She did this over and over. I have five frames of her with various facial expressions. I called the resulting image “Gelato.”

My struggle with my body started after I graduated high school. I played soccer my whole life, sometimes three teams at one time. I never thought about “exercising.” I just ran around, knocked people over and kicked the ball hard. When I started college, there was no more soccer and my weight ballooned from a size 7 to a size 14 in weeks.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Though I did go through phases of food restriction and over-exercise, I came to realize that I shouldn’t punish myself for something I can’t control.  Self-criticism is a waste of time. I look worse with tons of make up and products in my hair. I am happy when I am not stressed — so I don’t stress.

That doesn’t mean the world is comfortable with how I look. Even though I’m a college professor, who works 12-hour days and eats healthy, even though I have none of the diseases constantly reported in the media as linked to obesity, I’m up against quite a few stereotypes as an overweight blond female artist. I’m constantly fighting strangers’ criticisms that I am lazy and slow-witted, or that I am an overly emotional slob.

I suspect that if I confronted these narrow-minded people, my words would have no effect. So, rather than using the attackers’ actions to beat myself up, I just prove them wrong. The camera gave me my voice.

The idea of the “Wait Watchers” series came one day when I was shooting on the bleachers in Times Square. I’d been doing a series of photographs in which I sought out public spaces where I’m most uncomfortable, like swimming pools and restaurants (I always feel like I’m not “allowed” to order fattening food).

 
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