Last night I ran across a New York Times slideshow collecting the work of Jen Davis, a photographer I first became aware of when I saw one of her self-portraits in a contemporary photography exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a few years ago.
In the portrait, Davis is standing in front of a wall. The wall is the color of the sky on a cloudless spring morning; the nightgown she wears is a soft pale turquoise, its hem frozen in movement, as though Davis turned at the last moment before the shutter snapped. She faces the source of the light in the room, her expression one of distraction, of a person fully aware of the camera pointed at her, but simultaneously trying to ignore it.
I knew the expression well; at the time, I had spent a couple of years taking outfit photos to post online, in places like Flickr’s Wardrobe Remix and the Fatshionista community on LiveJournal. My face in these pictures often bears a similar tension; I want to seem candid, unworried by the apparatus in front of me, but when you’re taking your own picture that can be very hard to do, and frankly no one who takes self portraits is interested in being captured in a candid moment anyway -- we take self-portraits because we can control the outcome.
I stood and stared at Davis’ portrait in the MFA for a long time. Seeing it felt like being punched in the throat, because her body looked familiar -- her body looked like mine.
I stared for long enough that I began to feel self-conscious as other museum visitors milled past me. How did they read my interest? What did they see in that portrait, and what did they think I saw? How did I look to them, standing in that gallery, transfixed by the portrait of a woman who ought to be ashamed of her body, as I ought to be ashamed of mine, but neither of us particularly seeming to feel that -- her in her willingness to take this photograph and share it, me in my willingness to physically juxtapose myself with it.
The New York Times slideshow speaks to this; it is called “Seeing Yourself as Others Do,” and the accompanying text says that Davis first began taking self portraits because, “...I wanted to see what the outside world saw when they looked at me.” All of Davis’ work is intimate, even voyeuristic, as she attempts to capture her conflicted private relationship with her body.
I carried that image from the MFA -- the one with the blue wall and the blue nightgown and the willfully disaffected expression -- in my head for a few years. I kept it because it was such a vivid illustration of a conflict I occasionally feel. I’ve never been a person who cared much about being seen as aggressively sexual, and nightgown notwithstanding, Davis’ image got under my skin for sliding too far in the opposite direction, almost childlike, self-conscious, unpleasantly awkward -- the very distillation of not-sexy, of uncertainty. It is a lonely image, lonely and detached. A cautionary tale.
Still, I was struck by her willingness to show this vulnerability, a vulnerability I had always avoided because it is only by my strength that I’ve been able to survive. Her choice to demonstrate it so unabashedly seemed, itself, overwhelmingly strong. I never did resolve these reads with each other, not quite.
I kept reading the New York Times piece, and abruptly learned that Jen Davis had a lap-band -- a variety of weight-loss surgery in which an inflatable silicone donut is fitted around the topmost portion of the stomach, thereby restricting the patient’s ability to eat -- installed last year. And I felt crushed. Gutted, in a most egregiously and humiliatingly selfish way.
It’s not that I want anyone to live in a body that makes them unhappy or uncomfortable. I don’t. I want everyone to have choices, free and clear and without pressure, force, guilt, or sadness. I want everyone to feel confident and strong, and to live their lives without having to worry about anyone telling them their body isn’t right, no matter if they are slender, fat, or somewhere in between. I want no one to feel badly about themselves simply because someone else has told them they don’t look the way a person is supposed to look.
Back at the MFA, I saw Jen Davis’ portrait and I felt recognized. In a culture where I do not feel that way very often, I treasured the sensation. Seeing it, I felt less alone.
It’s true that much of her work has had an overarching sadness to it, a sadness that has always made me uneasy. She acknowledges as much in the NYT interview, and I know she is right. But there is so much sadness heaped on our bodies already, I tried to read calm moments into her images.
Years ago, giving a lecture to a group of college students, I showed an image of a nude fat woman from Laurie Toby Edison’s book Women En Large -- the subject in the black-and-white portrait was lying on a bed in sharply angled sunlight, her face turned toward the window, her midsection illuminated, her arm raised over her head, resting carelessly on the pillow.
I read the image as calm, thoughtful, untroubled. I did not tell my students this, however, and instead asked for their impressions.
“She looks embarrassed.”
“She can’t even face the camera.”
While I expected a variety of reactions, I was not prepared for the response to be so uniformly negative. Why did I see quiet contemplation where everyone else saw misery and desperation? Was it because I saw myself in that woman, and was thus projecting my own feelings onto her? Which of us was right?
Jen Davis is a remarkable photographer, an artist of immense courage and talent. She owes me nothing. Jen Davis doesn’t owe me and my sad selfish disappointment a single moment of her time. Her body is not my body, no matter how I might have once identified with it. Her choices are not my choices. If I am to expect others to respect my decisions about how I live, I must respect theirs in return.
My reaction to Jen Davis’ lap-band only happened because I have to look so hard for bodies like mine in the public gaze, because they just aren’t there. So when I find them, I sometimes feel a perverse feeling of ownership over them. This is unfair; I definitely wouldn’t like it if anyone did it to me.
And I genuinely hope that Jen Davis’ lap band works out for her, that she feels happier, stronger, more comfortable as a result of it. I want her to feel good about herself -- that is all I want for anyone.
And yet, if I am honest I also felt a twinge, a shattering, a tiny aching cracking. I felt it because I had put things on Jen Davis -- my own things. There was such a bluntness to her gaze -- I thought she had to be like me. I had identified with her. I had, to an extent, trusted her with my identification.
That’s nothing she asked for, and it’s nothing for which she bears any responsibility. She never even knew I did it. I do not resent her, and I do not begrudge her the autonomy to make the best decisions for herself.
Nevertheless, it hurts. It hurts because every time this happens, every time someone who looks like me has some kind of surgical intervention to make them not look like me anymore, it feels like a strange and impersonal sort of rejection.
And I think, my god, is this really so impossible? Is it simply a matter of time? Will I wake up one day so bone-weary of fighting for equal respect and dignity and self-worth, no matter what I look like, that I will just collapse, call my doctor and say, "Take my stomach, take it all, I don’t care anymore, nothing else matters but just fitting in, fitting in, fitting in."
People will read this and think, Yes, Lesley, yes. It is only a matter of time. People will comment and say, Yes, Lesley, yes, just do it, give up now, and you can stop thinking and talking about these ceaseless circular body politics all of the time. People will throw their hands up and slam fists onto desks saying, Yes, Lesley, yes, stop trying to change things, will you, just stop.
No. Should that day eventually arrive, I know it will not be today, and it will not be tomorrow, and no matter if it comes or goes, whether it is merely an instant of doubt passing silently in the night, none of it will negate what I have said here: No one should be punished for living in a body that fails to meet certain cultural standards, and no one should be rewarded for living in a body that does.
We are more than the sum of our parts; we are more than our hip-to-waist-ratio; we are more than our cellulite, our BMI, our back fat, our thick ankles, our eating habits, our surgically altered insides, our self-doubt, our turquoise nightgowns, our sidelong glances pretending not to know that anyone is looking.
We are individuals. We make our own decisions. We deserve autonomy, self-awareness, free will. We need to willingly occupy grey areas in between, instead of sharply opposing teams. My fight is and has always been against that feeling of being alone -- against the isolation that our reluctance to speak honestly about ourselves and our bodies cultivates in us all. I speak up so that others don’t go on believing they are the only one to feel this way, that no one else understands.
So I have decided that Jen Davis can have a lap band, and I can stubbornly remain as I am, and we can still know and recognize one another. The same is true of you and I, no matter your decisions, whether you are dieting, not dieting, radically self-accepting, fervently self-loathing, unsure, unhappy, content, apathetic, or ashamed -- none of us is alone, so long as we don’t allow ourselves to be divided, so long as we keep reaching for one another, and trying to listen, and trying to understand.