Nocturnal Animals & the metaphor of fat women.
Dear Mr. Ford,
I saw your latest film, Nocturnal Animals, this week. I love thrillers, especially stylized noirs. In the midst of holiday buildup, I found myself looking forward to disappearing into another world— somewhere beautiful, a painted place full of swelling strings.
I arrived late at the theater, taking my seat just as the lights dimmed, ready for an escape. The opening credits were anything but.
Fat, older women danced on screen in slow motion, completely nude. They looked joyful, but the slow-motion playback and turbulent score made them somehow menacing — more freak show than fandom, more spectacle than celebration. Their bellies, thighs and breasts swayed in a cloud of glitter, some puckered, others scarred. Their bodies moved the way mine does. They looked like me.
Despite the insistence that fat bodies are unattractive and unlovable, through years of work, I have come to embrace mine. I have learned to find beauty there, in the rolling expanse of my belly, the softness of my thighs, the pale pink stretch marks blooming like chrysanthemums on my tender skin. I have found that beauty, too, in my partners, many of whom have also been fat women. Ill-equipped by the world around us, we forged tools to build new meanings for our bodies. We created new languages for loving each other. They are extraordinary women; any one of us would be lucky to know them.
My fellow moviegoers weren’t thinking such romantic thoughts. As they watched bodies like mine, projected forty feet high, a wave of snickers swept through the audience. A man behind me groaned noisily, then coughed up a “disgusting.”
I held out hope for some redemption in the world of the film — some small thread appreciating these exuberant women. As the footage zoomed out, though, it was part of a gallery show. The vibrant videos of fat women dancing were juxtaposed with their still bodies. Flesh-and-blood, still naked, these women lay motionless in front of their dancing selves. They were laid on slabs, like corpses. Thin patrons milled about the gallery scene, looking over naked, fat bodies, sipping champagne.
My body became a statement, a political critique, as it so often is. Bodies like mine are never simply bodies. I felt the revulsion in the cool, dark theater. My heart sunk and my skin steeled. This is the life of a fat woman: often hurt, always hardened.
When I left the theater, I looked for interviews with you, searching for some greater artistic vision, some kernel of an understanding of my humanity. I didn’t think I’d be so disappointed to find it.
You said that you wanted to show these women as witches, calling the viewer into the story. You said that, while you’d grown up with Farrah Fawcett images of America, that you wanted bodies to represent America as it is now: “gluttonous, sad, aging, overfed, tired.” And although you’d been charmed by the joyfulness of the fat women you cast, you carried on with a concept that made a mockery of them, designed to elicit discomfort, disgust and pity in your audience.
I do not know if you expected someone who looks like me to see your movie. If you did, I wonder how you expected me to feel. I suspect you never imagined me in your theater.
What I want you to know is that these are not new comparisons for fat people. We’re constantly told our size makes us sinister. In books, political cartoons, films and TV shows, fat bodies make up the failings of America, of capitalism, beauty standards, excess and consumerism. Fat bodies represent at once the poorest of the poor and the pinnacle of unchecked power; consumption and decay; stupidity and ruthless cunning. We are everything and nothing, a bogeyman malleable enough to reflect any critique. Our bodies have borne the blame for so much.
But in art, literature and culture, bodies like mine are never just bodies. Bodies like mine never hold lives, livelihoods, experience, struggle, love, pain, aspiration, or anything human. Bodies like mine are used to elicit disgust, laughter, fear. Whole artistic worlds are built on the premise that bodies like mine are monstrous, fearsome, and worst of all, contagious.
Jean Baudrillard compared fat people to the darker sides of America, saying that both had “lost the formula for stopping.” I read that passage as a fat nineteen-year-old, hungry for deeper understandings of the world around me, and my place in it. It was neither the first nor the last time an artist or intellectual I loved expressed their disdain for me. All because of the body I have. All because of the way I look.
I wonder if they ever imagined me reading or viewing their work. I wonder if they thought of lecturing me on the dangers of the body I have, or if they stop short, surmising that I might have heard that before.
I wonder if they know fat people, or if they’ve come to love any of us. We are, after all, 67% of Americans. I wonder if they assertively explain why they compare fat bodies to the failings of politicians, or if they nervously sidestep words like “bloated” and “gluttonous.” I wonder if they meet the eyes of the fat people they know.
I wonder if they have ever thought about the cascade of times that fat people are faced with our own bodies as shorthand for disgust, and our own deaths as cautionary tales. I wonder if they think of all the times they’ve seen fat bodies used as glyphs, stenciled markers of greed, gluttony, capitalism, political power run amok. I wonder if they know what it feels like to hear others laugh at their deaths, or groan with disgust when faced with the cruel fate of a body like theirs.
I wonder how they want fat people to react in those moments, when they find such cruel caricatures of themselves in their art. I wonder if they expect to be reminded that fat people are not fairytale creatures or shadowy monsters. I wonder if they ever expect us to defend our bodies against the unforgiving backdrops they paint. I wonder what they think the right tone is; when the right moment might be.
I wonder if they have spent as much time imagining my life as I have thinking of theirs.
Mr. Ford, I have so many questions for you.
What becomes of my body, when it is warped by metaphor? How do your hands shape me? How would you make sense of me, outside the funhouse mirror you reflect me in?
Would you make eye contact with me on the street? What story would you tell yourself about how my body came to be? Would you hear my story, as I tell it, or would you push it aside, favoring what you’d already decided about me? Would you think of me with the depth and complexity that you think of characters in your films, or would you greet me as set dressing, some provocative object?
Have you ever seen your own death used as a metaphor, time and time again, or as a fitting one? I am a queer woman who came out when our deaths were more commonplace, often considered retribution for a deviant lifestyle or a sad truth of some imagined choice we made. That’s just the way things are. Have you been told to accept your own early death as an inevitability or poetic justice? What did you do?
Do you know fat people? Have you told them how you see them — aging, sad, gluttonous, overfed, tired? Does it make you uncomfortable to think of telling them so, face-to-face? How would you explain your artistic statement to them? How would you tell them that their death was your art?
More than that, what is your vision for the world we ought to live in? Does it include people like me? Am I permitted to stay? How does your art serve that vision?
I will tell you my vision.
My vision is of a connected, interdependent world, driven by loving curiosity about one another. It is a vibrant place, full of joyful cacophony, defined by an ethic of magnanimity and rigorous generosity. It is a values-driven world, where we all stretch ourselves to do better by one another. Where we take on the hard work of forgiveness and the discipline of love.
You are an important part of the world I envision. In that world, artists can create freely — so freely that you can also adapt your art based on what you learn about its subjects. When you meet fat women who bowl you over with their jubilance and free spiritedness, you take that in, and make art that reflects that joyful surprise. It is a world in which you do not envision my body or my death as a flat statement, but as something living and warm, tender and soft. You understand my body not as an effigy, my death not as a moral, but as fragmented pictures of a beautiful and whole person that you have come to embrace in her humanity.
My vision is of a world where each of us comes to know and love more and more people, and more and more kinds of people. A world in which each of us are vulnerable enough to be changed by one another.
You are welcome in my future. I hope that I am welcome in yours.
Your Fat Friend