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Last week, singer-songwriter Meghan Tonjes posted a picture of her underwear-clad ass to Instagram. Instagram responded by removing said picture as “mature content” -- and given that butt pictures are hardly a rarity on the site, it sure seemed to some folks that Instagram found Tonjes’ ass to be unusually objectionable because of its size.
The site has since reversed course, apologized for the mistake, and restored Tonjes’ photo, and Tonjes herself has begun a good-time pro-butt crusade with the hashtag #bootyrevolution. But while Instagram's decision certainly looks like an absurd hypocrisy on a photo-sharing site where “#belfie” is an actual thing, it’s not surprising. And I think it’s worth unpacking how a fatter ass might be more likely to get flagged as offensive in the first place.
In another life, when I had aspirations of being a proper academic, I used to give guest lectures at colleges and universities. I’d get up in front of rooms full of quarrelsome and bright young adults and present a bare-bones introductory version of the subject in which I’d spent the better part of my life developing my expertise: deep cultural analysis of the ways in which women’s bodies, particularly fat bodies, are represented in media.
Part of my lecture included a comparison between two images. One was an image of four nude women, lounging strategically over one another to cover crotchparts and nipples, taken from Cosmopolitan magazine. The other was an image of a group of nude fat women, from Laurie Toby Edison’s art photography book Women En Large.
The Cosmo image was very carefully posed and structured, and as I put it on the screen behind me, I would watch the reactions of the audience. The women present would barely blink, as it was an image of a sort powerfully familiar to anyone who picks up women’s magazines on a semi-regular basis. The men present would sometimes grin or giggle or murmur to each other, but even they didn’t seem especially scandalized. It wasn’t porn, obviously. It was an “arty” editorial photo meant for women to look at and imagine that they are men looking at themselves, were they able to look like the women in that photo. (Women’s magazines are complicated affairs.)
The Cosmo image was unprovocative because it was the same dully provocative image of women we see in ads and media every day. It’s controlled, it’s what we expect to get. Naked ladies, photoshopped taut and fleshless as wax, giving us sexy looks.
Then I would show them the second image, the one of the nude fat women chilling outdoors in the sunshine. (You can see a small thumbnail of it here, if you’re curious.)
I didn’t warn the students before switching images, and the reactions from at least a couple people in the room were often dramatic enough that I felt like a cruel and borderline-unethical anthropologist. (Today, I would have taken a different approach, but this was over 10 years ago.) Routinely, half the audience or more would openly grimace, gasp, and turn away. Occasionally, one or two people would stomp out, indignant, as though I’d walked down the aisle to their seat and slapped them across the face. A few times, gentlemen in the audience who howled or yelled would have to be asked to leave.
On two occasions, women in the audience burst into tears. TEARS. One even sobbed, which was… intense.
For those who stayed, I’d leave the second image on the overhead screen and then open a conversation about the difference in reaction to the two images. It's pretty impossible to coherently argue that the lack of response to the first image, and the often visceral and involuntary reaction to the second image, are not both a result of cultural attitudes and exposure. Still, people tried. And if we want to change culture, we need to unpack it first.
In one lecture, I asked why people responded so differently to structurally similar pictures, and a young woman in the back row blurted out, seemingly involuntarily, of the image of the fat women -- “That second picture is like, PORNOGRAPHIC.”
The finer points of what “counts” as pornography are, obviously, up to individual taste. Still, this young woman’s assessment doesn’t really fit with the established definition of pornography; as open to interpretation as that concept may be, I think most of us would agree that porn must have a clearly sexual component, and the image of the fat women lacks this (although, ironically, the Cosmo-girls' image had it in spades).
But she had a point -- and what she was trying to say, as we worked out in the subsequent discussion, was that the second image struck her as obscene. Not obscene in the sexual sense, but in the broader sense of the term, the that’s-scandalous-and-kind-of-repellent sense. “Nobody wants to see that,” says every insulting commenter ever. Your picture is grotesque. It’s offensive. It’s like being physically struck. Your image abuses its viewer. What is wrong with you? Why did you make us look at your thighs?
Let’s say you have two nearly identical images -- two women’s asses, for example, one of them fat and dimpled, and one of them slender and polished and featureless in the socially acceptable and expected way. The latter may inspire a range of responses, but the former will likely only present one dominant reaction, some mixture of revulsion and rage. On the other hand, the slender image is familiar enough that we know how we will react to it even before we see it; if asked, “What do you think of a picture of a conventionally attractive woman’s ass?” we can to some extent answer based on what we already know. We can say “I think it’s hot!” or “I think it’s trashy!” or “I think it’s objectifying!” or “I think it’s fun!” The picture does not need to exist in front of us. We can imagine it, because we’ve seen it so often before. We know about certain asses, so we can predict our feelings about them.
We can’t predict a response to something we never see.
The reason the naked bodies and flesh parts of fat women may seem more transgressive, more pornographic, more mature-content-flag-worthy, is because we have no established cultural script for reacting to them, aside from recoiling from the unknown. We have no context for reading these bodies; we have not done any background reading or preparation. We never got that education. The image of the fat women I used in my lectures is explicitly not sexualized, and that was an intentional choice. It’s an image that does little more than document existence. These women exist as real, multifacted individuals. They sit and stand together, naked, outside, in the sunshine. Still, they are "obscene" because they are taboo.
Of course, we also have no script for reading an image of naked women who aren’t being sexual in their nudity, regardless of whether those women are fat or thin, cisgender or gender-nonconforming, disabled or able-bodied, a cancer survivor, or otherwise present in a body that defies easy cultural reading as a sexual object.
So in a panic some will put a sex overlay on top of a non-sexual image -- because this makes it readable and more familiar, at least. Some of us are so steeped in dominant cultural attitudes about bodies and sex that we cannot imagine a circumstance in which a naked woman isn’t inviting a sexual gaze. For those people -- and most often they are men -- such an image confronts them with a woman they know they are duty-bound to find revolting, but who is demanding a sexual response nevertheless, a response that many men are too disgusted (or too terrified) to supply. (And what if he IS turned on by it -- what then? He is likely to be ashamed by his body’s betrayal of what is culturally “normal.”)
When I talk about the need for more diversity in the bodies we consume in our media every day, it is not because I want all bodies to be seen as “beautiful” or “sexy,” or even worthy of aspirational imagery. I don't give a crap about sexy. At its root, this battle to see a wider assortment of types of bodies is about wearing down that knee-jerk disgust response. Think of it as a form of mass-media exposure therapy -- the more different bodies we see, and the more often we see them, the less terrifying and offensive they become. The taboo breaks down, and a fat ass is no more pornographic than a thin one.
But nobody wants to see that. Nobody wants to see a body that requires us to really look, to read it as something real and not a Photoshopped fantasy. It’s why Shape magazine asks a woman with loose skin from significant weight loss to put on a shirt. It’s why people get so irrationally angry at Lena Dunham for putting her naked body on television and not even being sorry about it.
Looking at these unfamiliar bodies is work. It’s WORK. It’s work to look at a body that doesn’t look the way we’ve trained ourselves to assume naked bodies are supposed to look. This is also why so many women refuse to see themselves naked in a mirror -- it’s work. Often difficult, miserable, messy work. How do you look at yourself when you can’t see anything but the places where you fail to look like the only other naked bodies you regularly see -- and in subtext, therefore the only bodies worth looking at? It’s work. It takes effort and thought, and the only readymade cultural script we can fall back on to tell us how to feel is the one that tells us we should feel depressed and ashamed for not measuring up.
The proliferation of social platforms has changed a lot about our shared culture over the past several years, but arguably its most dramatic influence has been its ability to give everyday people the opportunity to be their own media. We see this in massive hashtag campaigns with multitudes of participants, and in singular individuals speaking true experiences for the benefit of anyone who has ever been too afraid to share what they thought was their burden alone.
By putting more of ourselves into the social media stream, we are building a new understanding of mass communication, one that doesn’t erase the aspirational stuff we’ve lived with for so long, but one that incorporates that model alongside the fact that sometimes we’re just getting through the day. Real life is conflict, and complexity. It's not black and white. Sometimes our triumphs and victories are not found in how well we’ve achieved a magazine-quality life experience, but in how well we’ve managed to succeed in feeling happy and proud despite the things that we’re told should make us ashamed or depressed. Sometimes, we feel good about ourselves because of the things that make us different.
And sometimes, our asses are fat.
Sharing these parts of ourselves -- literally and figuratively -- from a place of self-acceptance and care demonstrates that we value ourselves, that we are worth looking at, and by doing this publicly, we give permission to others like us to value themselves too, to defy the overwhelming shame and to stop apologizing.
That idea may still be offensive and even obscene to many people. But if people like Meghan Tonjes have their way, it sure won’t be for long.