Alice Zoo is a photographer we’ve championed before for her ability to capture sensitive and contemplative portraiture and social documentary photography. Whereas before her lens was poised to capture the shivering swimmers at Hampstead Heath and the day-to-day lives of performers in a travelling circus, her latest series – which was originally commissioned by the BBC – takes on a whole new sense of gravity, championing a cause close to her heart.
The majority of the UK’s population – 62% – is classified as obese or overweight, yet public opinion surrounding those who fall into that demographic remains inherently negative. There are people who are trying to invert stigmas and stereotypes, however, and they call themselves fat activists. It’s this group who feature in Alice’s recent series, accompanied by quotes taken from conversations between Alice and her subjects before their portraits were taken.
“There is so much discrimination towards fat people today and I no longer wanted to participate by remaining silent,” Alice tells It’s Nice That on why this felt like a topic she wanted to get behind. “It’s a complicated kind of discrimination because so much of it is disguised as concern for health, whilst actually ignoring the incredibly complex sociopolitical reasons that somebody may be fat, or unable to lose weight despite many efforts.”
“Aside from the obvious prejudice, there are major structural sanctions that come with being fat, including wage disparity and discrimination in the workplace, healthcare, and legal system. I feel that the more this subject is discussed with openness, and fat people are given platforms to speak about their experience, and even just exist publicly without being shamed, the closer we’ll come to more people understanding why and how this kind of discrimination is violent and unacceptable.”
Like many young women in the West, Alice has had her own struggles with food and body image, which is why she became invested in learning about body positivity and fat activism in the first place. “I wanted to examine the subject and to speak to the women who are truly the vanguard of driving change,” she continues. In order to do so, she scoured Instagram using specific hashtags over a number of weeks. Not everyone was comfortable with the idea of being included in the series, but eventually, Alice found six women who now make up the empowering and beautiful series of portraits.
On why she decided to include quotes from each of the women in the series alongside their portraits, Alice says: “It felt really important to me that I wasn’t speaking for the community, but rather presenting them and their work accompanied by their own voices. Much of this project is an attempt to counter the prevailing narrative about fatness in media: the ways that fat bodies are often presented with their heads cut out of the frame, or as feet standing on scales. It’s a deliberately dehumanising approach. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t projecting my own opinions onto the women featured, but rather giving them the space to describe their work and experiences from their perspective as directly as possible.”
The inclusion of quotes is what solidifies the project and its intention, making it an honest and authentic representation of the cause. One subject, Sharon from London, says: “Fat activism is about liberating fat people from social norms and the discrimination and negativity that comes with that. And trying to change society to accept fat people as human beings whose worth is not defined by their weight or their appearance or their health.” Meanwhile, another subject Mercedez, originally from Chicago, shares: “I know that my body is some people’s greatest fear, and to confront that is uncomfortable. To confront me being happy and living life and feeling healthy – whatever that means – threatens people’s desires to fit into a beauty norm. I think it scares people that you can exist in a way that you haven’t been told that you can exist.” In turn, their words help to directly confront those who harbour prejudices against them, forcing them to reconsider their values or opinions.
That said, Alice’s visual choices help to remind viewers that while, yes, these women are fat and speaking out about this is a major part of who they are, it’s not all they are. She explains: “I was very conscious of the visual approaches I was working against: anything that was sensationalising about fatness or flesh, or overly focussed on the body. I ended up taking a lot of headshots that excluded the body completely for exactly that reason.”
Looking forward, the photographer aims to continue the project with these notions in mind. “I’ve started researching a project about fatness in the context of relationships. Something that I kept hearing when I researched my original project was how much imagery of fatness only relates to the fact of the body itself, rather than just as images of fat individuals living their lives and having experiences unrelated to their bodies. To counter that, I’m planning to create a series of images of fat people with their partners (whether fat or straight-size).” Because, ultimately, as Alice points out: “Love is something everyone experiences, irrespective of size!”
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