Of Bodies, Beauty, and Deviance

The Full Body Project. Photographs by Leonard Nimoy.
The Full Body Project. Photographs by Leonard Nimoy.

Let me back up. Way up, because while it’s new to me, Leonard Nimoy actually completed this set of photographs (published as The Full Body Project) in 2007. I came across his work in the context of Melissa McEwan’s recent post about speaking to a photography class about the Beauty Standard. (She was second in the series following Nimoy.)

(To back even further up: did other folks already know that Nimoy is an accomplished photographer, who started his work in the early ’70s?? News to me!)

In his artist statement about the project, Nimoy describes it as a departure from his previous work:

For a number of years, I have been producing images using the female figure. I have worked with numerous models who were professional people earning their living by posing, acting, dancing, or any combination thereof. But, as has been pointed out to me in discussions at exhibitions of my work, the people in these pictures always fell under the umbrella of a certain body type. I’ll call it a “classic” look. Always within range of the current social consensus of what is “beautiful.” In fact, that was the adjective I most often heard when my work was exhibited. The women as they appeared in my images were allotted no individual identity. They were hired and directed to help me express an idea—sometimes about sexuality, sometimes about spirituality—and usually about feminine power. But the pictures were not about them. They were illustrating a theme, a story I hoped to convey.

The women whose pictures appear in “The Full Body Project” were members of a burlesque troupe called “Fat Bottom Revue,” who brought their own stories, perspectives, and interest in “fat liberation” to the shoots. While Nimoy describes initially staging them to recreate certain iconic images (such as Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” Matisse’s “The Dance,” and photography by Herb Ritts), he makes clear that the image these women project is “their own.”

Matisse Circle
Matisse Circle

Through this joint endeavor, Nimoy and these women bring to the surface different ideas and interrogations of beauty:

With these new images, I am now hearing different words. Sometimes “beautiful,” but with a different sub-text. I hear comments, which lead to questions. The questions lead to discussions—about beauty, social acceptability, plastic surgery, our culture and health. In these pictures these women are proudly wearing their own skin. They respect themselves and I hope that my images convey that to others.

Conveying respect. Challenging conventions. Raising questions. I’m all for these things.

Which is why I was so disappointed with the conventional, disrespectful, prurient question presumed–and answered–by the New York Times article that accompanied some of the first showings of these photographs.

Shorter NY Times: “Don’t worry! Whatever these pictures seem to say, Mr. Spock is in fact NOT a chubby chaser!”

It starts off with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge question: “BEFORE we begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, Leonard Nimoy is more than happy to do it [“do it” = sex? nope! not yet–first we’re going geeky] —the Vulcan salute, the gesture that launched a thousand spaceships.”

Nudes Descending a Stairway #2
Nudes Descending a Stairway #2

But while the article mostly conveys the ideas Nimoy presents in his artist’s statement, its author, Abby Ellin, also wants to acknowledge the mixture of “joy and horror” that viewers experience. And then prompts the gallery owner to bring up the topic of fat fetishism:

“We do overhear some reductive ‘Is Nimoy into fat chicks’ comments when the gallery room is first entered,” [Richard Michelson] continued, “but in fact the fun nature of the work and the quality seem to shut people up by the time they leave. I’ve had a few crank e-mails with snide remarks, but not a one from gallery visitors.”

But it’s a question Ellin herself won’t let go of. And she ends the article by posing it not once but repeatedly, despite Nimoy’s apparent efforts to bring the focus back to a broader interrogation of “beauty”:

He expects his second book [“The Full Body Project”] to provoke an equally strong reaction, though he hopes the audience will gain a new perspective on the issue and learn something.

As for whether people will think he has a fetish, he said he can’t help that. “I just have no way of dealing with that,” he said with a laugh. “People will think what they’re going to think. I understand that.”

And what of his own attitude toward fat women?

“I do think they’re beautiful,” he said. “They’re full-bodied, full-blooded human beings.”

He doesn’t necessarily find them sexually attractive. “But I do think they’re beautiful.”

*sigh*

I’m just…so tired of cultural narratives that simultaneously desexualize fat women’s (naked) bodies and hypersexualize (fat) women’s naked bodies. Of the Othering that assigns a grotesqueness to these nude models explicable only if the photographer is actually just indulging his own private perversion.*

I’m so. over. it.

So instead I’m just going to look at some more of the Fat Bottom Revue being awesome:

Three Graces
Three Graces

As well as some awesome dudes who also found themselves inspired by Herb Ritts:

(source unknown)
(source unknown)

[*I’m not dissing anyone’s private proclivities here. I’m saying it’s a desire that the article invokes only to then render perverse.]

6 thoughts on “Of Bodies, Beauty, and Deviance

  1. It’s so great that Leonard Nimoy was able to get outside our cultural box and develop an appreciation for a body type that isn’t normally appreciated in our culture. Thanks so much for posting on this and making us aware of it — helping to get us outside of our own boxes.

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  2. Great analysis. I was not aware of his photography or this project and I am hoping that NYT’s remarks were in the past when such categorizations were “tolerated” more because I doubt statements like that would fly now. I will miss Mr. Nemoy in the next Star Trek film.

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    1. As will I. It was wonderful in so many ways that he reprised the original Spock in the rebooted movie series. I try to stay really clear about not having expectations of real people based on the characters they play — too much in modern celebrity culture encourages a blurring of those lines — still, everything I have learned about Leonard Nemoy points to him having been a truly excellent human.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on coffee and a blank page and commented:

    As we remember Leonard Nimoy for creating the joy forever that is Mr. Spock, I also want to honor his other artistic work. His photography, for instance, and his exploration of what “beauty” truly means.

    Thank you, Leonard. LLAP.

    Like

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