The F Word
by: Vanessa Fairfax-Woods , June 25, 2022
by: Vanessa Fairfax-Woods , June 25, 2022
Girls of all ages get the message that they must be flawlessly beautiful and, above all these days, they must be thin. Even more destructively, they get the message that this is possible, that, with enough effort and self sacrifice, they can achieve this ideal. Thus many girls spend enormous amounts of time and energy attempting to achieve something that is not only trivial but also completely unattainable. (Kilbourne 1999: 132)
How, in an age that seeks to empower women’s standing, has the female image become honored mainly in its diminution? (Merkin 2010: 3)
Fat. It’s a dirty word, apparently. A word that is almost stage-whispered when people say it. I’m fat and I’m OK with it, but when other people allude to my size, they hesitate over the word ‘fat’ in an attempt to find a ‘kinder’ euphemism. Why, in Western society is fat considered so obscene?
The F Word aims to challenge the impossible beauty ideals that are pressed onto women. We are consistently told by fashion and the media that we are not good enough, and this has a profoundly negative effect on self-esteem. If we are fat, we have failed: ‘[n]ot only does it defy contemporary beauty standards but it also reads as a failure to perform successfully the daily and incessant work on the body that one is required to undertake in … society in order to be a good subject’ (Granata 2017: 153).
In May 2020, the British Beauty Council published its first Diversity and Inclusion Report: a positive step towards these industries taking inclusivity seriously. However, at no point in its 16-page report did it mention body size. What kind of message does this give fat women?
The inclusion of one plus-size model in Victoria’s Secret’s 2019 campaign is an example of inclusion without sincerity, after they received public backlash for stating that there was ‘no interest’ in seeing plus-size models (Alexander 2018). Token diversity will not change society. Varied representation is paramount to eroding the long-standing culture of women gauging their worth against their body size. If we continue to represent only a tiny slice of women in fashion, then we will keep bringing up girls to believe that there is only one acceptable body shape.
With The F Word, I wanted to challenge these narrow body ideals by creating a couture outfit from images of my untamed flesh. By turning myself into a garment, it felt like I could talk about body image on several levels: the taming of flesh, the absurdity of ‘correct flesh,’ and our relationship with food.
Zing Tsjeng makes a good point that, ‘[w]hen we finally put aside ideas of what females’ bodies should be—hidden or exposed, sources of embarrassment and censure—we can actually begin the task of looking’ (Jansen 2017: 7).
I wanted to confront the ownership people think they have over women’s bodies. I wanted to expose my flesh in order to expose the audacity of these judgments.
The photographs I shot for the fabric highlighted the lumps, bumps, and folds in my body. Then, with costumier Nicholas Immaculate, we created a dress that became an absurd, grotesque image of woman, bursting out of the mould of ‘correct’ proportions. A bustle and an enormous breast mock the obsession with womanly curves (the only flesh that is acceptable). A leg corset challenges why we constrain certain areas and not others.
One of the reasons that grotesque appealed is that ‘it exaggerates and caricatures the negative, the inappropriate’ (Bakhtin 1984: 306). This seems apt. Artists such as Jenny Saville and Michaela Stark play with the grotesque by accentuating bulges and being confrontational in their unashamed femininity—their bodies are not neat or tamed. Saville’s work ‘interrogates assumptions about beauty by depicting bodies that are not at all beautiful in any conventional sense’ (Meagher 2003: 23). My intent echoes hers.
My hair and make-up have been specifically designed to heighten the grotesque, in particular the mouth. Bakhtin (1984: 316) remarks that the ‘nose and mouth play the most important part of the grotesque body.’ The mouth in my performance focuses on two main elements: the first is the mouth’s ability to gorge, feast, and vomit. This is the entrance and exit for our body hang ups: if we eat too much and get fat, we are told we are not good enough. If we eat too little, we are applauded for losing weight. Then there is vomiting: gorging and purging—a dangerous ritual.
The other reason for a focus on the mouth is the current trend for ‘tweakments:’ fillers in the face that can help people who are unhealthily thin look plumper in the ‘right’ places. Instead of their faces becoming gaunt from unhealthy eating, they can fake having plump lips and cheeks whilst maintaining a skeletal frame.
I also want to challenge the notion that ‘[w]omen are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.’ (Berger 1972: 55)
Jame Gumb, the character in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) who attempts to create a woman’s body suit from his victims, provides a key source of inspiration (the costume is his namesake). His obsession with trying to create the perfect woman links in with the themes in The F Word—the impossible pursuit for feminine perfection. Since creating the costume, questions about our being seen as objects has nestled themselves in the front of my mind. I question what is really my body—what is owned by me, and what is owned by others. The Jame Gumb dress is literally me: it’s created from my image, but it’s also a creation by Immaculate. Who takes ownership of my image and my flesh? Does this change between when I am wearing it and when I’m not? What happens if someone else wears it?
The construction of the Jame Gumb became ritualistic. The fittings became part of the performance, a lot like an actor getting into character. Standing in Immaculate’s work room being measured, tucked, and tethered, gave me an insight into the life of a model. It was dehumanising, yet it also felt like an important part of this ‘becoming.’ It re-iterated how we construct ourselves, how we build our armour, truss ourselves up ready for the public.
Shooting the Jame Gumb took on its own challenges. The costume is so complex that it tended to get lost amongst intricate tableaux, yet ‘tableaux’ is my go-to style. I attempted several scenes that didn’t work because there was too much going on: the impact was lost. My interpretation of the Bullingdon Club gets lost with the complexity of the scene. The strongest images are the plainer shots, where the Jame Gumb is left to sit with the viewer. These were inspired by Pinar Yolcan’s 2002 portraits of people wearing her fleshy creations. It’s a sharp contrast to much of my work: simpler, less implicit. But that’s because the symbolism is already in the image in the guise of the costume.
Deconstructing the Jame Gumb felt like a natural next step. The ritual of taking it apart became a private performance. The undoing, an intrinsic part of trying to unpick the system that damages so many women’s self-esteem.
I had experimented with stretching and distorting shapewear previously, subverting its intent to constrain our bodies. The images worked independently but didn’t flow with the direction of the project.
Taking on that theme, I took the Jame Gumb and flayed and stretched it on a rack, alluding to our worshipping of the ‘right,’ and flagellation of the ‘wrong,’ flesh. The scene is intrinsically linked to these impossible ideals of beauty and the lengths to which we will go to achieve this.
In Francis Bacon’s sketches of the crucifixion, we see skin stretched and distorted, creating a disturbed icon. I see the stretched skins in my sculpture as a symbol of both the worship and the torture of our own bodies.
The videos in The F Word have been a collaboration with sound artist Ant Dickinson. For ‘Karl & Anna,’ Dickinson wove interviews from women in my family into a droning piece of music. The interview was a series of questions on their notions of beauty. The voices overlap, one sometimes popping to the surface and then dropping back down into the rabble, echoing the often-negative internal dialogue that we have with ourselves about our bodies.
‘Gorge’💋 is about the relentless cycle that we put ourselves through in the search for perfection. The shame of eating and the quick fixes. The soundtrack is a disturbed search for approval on a loop.
My hope for The F Word is that it will get people to question our embedded fear of fat. I want people to think about the ways in which we talk to ourselves and others about our bodies. I want ‘fat’ to stop being a dirty word. People don’t need to say it in hushed tones in order not to offend. Because being fat isn’t offensive.
Alexander, Ella (2018), ‘Why Victoria’s Secret still refuses to include plus-size women in its shows’, Harper’s Bazaar, 9 November 2018, https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/fashion/fashion-news/a24874811/victorias-secret-still-refuses-to-include-plus-size-women-in-its-shows/ (last accessed 30 March 2021).
Bakhtin, Michael (1984), Rabelais and His World, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Berger, John (1972), Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books.
British Beauty Council (2020), British Beauty Council Diversity Report, https://britishbeautycouncil.com/mp-files/diversity-and-inclusivity-report.pdf/ (last accessed 18 April 2021).
Granata, Francesca (2017), Experimental Fashion: Performance art, carnival and grotesque body, London and New York: I.B.Taurus & Co Ltd.
Jansen, Charlotte (2017), Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, London: Laurence King Publishing.
Kilbourne, Jean (1999), Deadly Persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising, New York: Free Press.
Meagher, Michelle (2003), ‘Jenny Saville and a Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust’, Hypatia, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 23-41.
Merkin, Daphne (2010), ‘The F Word’, New York Times, 11 August 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/t-magazine/22face-merkin-t.html (last accessed 8 March 2022).
The Silence of the Lambs (1991), dir. Jonathan Demme.
WHO SUPPORTS US
The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.
However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:
Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers
Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey