The Photographer Who Captures Fat-Shaming on Camera

Photo: Haley Morris Cafiero

This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.

Haley Morris-Cafiero — a photographer and associate professor at the Memphis College of Art — came up with the idea for a photo series called “Wait Watchers” while shooting a self-portrait in Times Square in 2010. At the time, she was working on a collection of images of herself in places where she felt particularly self-conscious about her weight, like restaurants and pools. (Morris-Cafiero says she has struggled with her weight since she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in college.) When reviewing images she took on the Times Square bleachers, she noticed that her camera had caught a man standing behind her, sneering. “Even though he was being photographed, he was looking at me,” Morris-Cafiero told the Cut. “It wasn’t just a quick little glance — I have several photographs of it. He was doing it for a while.”

Until then, Morris-Cafiero always assumed it would be impossible to capture strangers’ reactions to her body on film; now, she sets out to do it purposefully. With the help of an assistant or tripod, she photographs herself in highly trafficked areas — midtown New York, or La Rambla in Barcelona. She shoots for about five minutes (“I don’t want to become a spectacle,” she explains) and then, later, reviews the images, selecting moments where the people around her are observing her body and, often, visually reacting to her appearance. “Wait Watchers” includes images of NYPD officers mocking her as she talks on the phone on the sidewalk, groups of teenagers smirking, and tourists gawking as she eats gelato.

The frequency with which Morris-Cafiero succeeds at documenting passersby’s visible disdain for her body seems pretty depressing, yet she says she finds it empowering to turn the camera back on her viewers. Last year, “Wait Watchers” went viral, and the reactions inspired Morris-Cafiero to start a new series, tentatively titled “Self Improvement.” “I got so many comments that were like, ‘You need to lose weight and get a makeover,’” she explains. For her new series, she photographed herself doing just that — exercising, shopping for clothes, trying on makeup — along with the reactions her appearance and behavior elicit from strangers. Now through December 5, she’s raising money on Kickstarter to fund the publication of a book of her photos.

The Cut spoke with Morris-Cafiero about her new series, the reactions she’s gotten to her work over the years, and the kinds of of judgments people make about her based on her appearance.

How do you decide where to shoot?
It’s rarely planned. Mostly they’re just taken as I’m walking to a destination. A lot of the foreign ones are taken when I’m on class trips during the summer. Like, you’re walking to the Champs-Élysées and you just feel it. In Barcelona, I noticed a lot of people looking at me, and I saw somebody in a reflection making hand gestures about my weight. Sometimes I’ll just set a camera up on the stool, or ask a student traveling with me to take some shots. The camera isn’t hidden, but whether other people see it is not in my control.

Are you conscious of how you are posing in the photographs?
Not so much. I’m trying to do exactly what everyone else is doing, so if it’s hot I’ll eat ice cream … Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want to make sure that it fits the scene, so it’s not like, Of course they’re staring at you because you’re naked in the middle of the street. I don’t wear costumes — I’m just wearing what I would wear that day. It’s genuinely me going out in the world, and just taking a moment to take some shots.

Has looking at the photographs changed your awareness of how people perceive you?
Not really. My hypothesis in this project is that me not being the social norm is going to get some kind of visual reaction, so I’m not surprised when people react. I expect that they’re going to.

You first started to gain a lot of weight in college, right? How did that change the way that you felt about yourself?
Yeah, it wasn’t the freshman 40 — it was like the freshman 80, or 100. It was instant. In high school, I was battling an undiagnosed eating disorder, and it got to the point where I was playing soccer on three teams and I wouldn’t eat. I just drank milk instead. I wasn’t the stereotypical image of anorexic — you know, bony. I was so muscular that I don’t think anyone ever knew. It got to a point where I just felt bad. I think there was just a point where it was like, If this is what it takes to get like this, I just can’t take it anymore. I felt like my veins were full of water. I felt dumber, and slower — and just tired all the time. So I stopped doing that around the same time all the soccer stopped, and the weight packed on. I jumped from like a size 7 to a 12. It turned out that part of it was hypothyroidism, but that still doesn’t make it easier to lose [weight].

What sorts of assumptions do you find that people make about you because of your weight?
That I eat constantly. I had a studio-art professor that would put healthy chips on my shelf — like, You should eat these instead of the doughnuts or whatever the heck you’re eating. I felt like I was discriminated against in college because people have the idea that if you’re fat, you’re slow. It was okay, though, because I loved myself more [once I stopped dieting]. I had hated myself for so many years. I was scared of dieting because I was afraid I would get back into that obsessive nature of anorexia.

What’s it like for you to look at the photographs? Is it draining or upsetting?
No, no. Not at all. It’s invigorating. It’s empowering. The work isn’t draining, because I don’t let it be. The taxing things were emails and comments from people.

When your “Wait Watchers” series went viral last year, what kinds of reactions did you get?
Well, it was twofold. One was like, This has never been done before, this is amazing, this is great, thank you, thank you. There was a whole fat-activist movement that I had no idea existed that reached out to me. And then at the same time, there were people making anonymous email addresses to email me that I should never go outside. The comments on the articles were like, “They’re not looking at you because you’re fat, they’re looking at you because you’re ugly.” Or, “If I were there, not only would I look at you, I’d hit you.” I got a Google alert that a blog existed called, like, “Fatty Fat Ass Takes Pictures of Her Fat Ass and Calls it Art,” and it talked about how I needed to put down the camera and exercise and lose weight.  All the comments were horrible, like “I bet that fatty c*** is unemployed” — how can you look at someone and assume that they’re unemployed? And, “My tax dollars go to care for her when she becomes too fat to care for herself, all because of her lifestyle choices.” Or, “Fat lump of lard, stay off the doughnuts and go running. It makes me ill, just looking at her.”

What inspired you to start working on your “Self-Improvement” series?
A lot of the comments were basically like, “You need to lose weight and get a makeover.” Here’s a specific one: “If she would clean up, wear attractive feminine clothing, wash and style her hair, and smile at people, she would find a whole different world opening up to her.” So that sort of got the ball rolling. I also remember going into an athletic store with my husband. I was just looking around, and I picked up a pair of bright-pink shorts to look at them. The sales person said, “Yeah, right,” and walked away.

The new series has been motivated both by the critical comments and emails but also the supportive ones. One that touched me the most was a man who said, “I never understood how my wife felt, and why she can never go to the gym. I built her a pool in the backyard, but the boys behind us make fun of her so she won’t go in the pool. I never understood what she was talking about until I saw your images, so I went out today and built her an eight-foot fence.” It just makes me so grateful that I could help someone.

What has your experience working on the new series been like?
Very productive. For these, I’m going outside of what I would normally do. I got some plus-size workout clothes and decided to go to L.A. and Venice Beach. In the series, I’m running and exercising and stretching, and I’m also going inside and looking at clothing and trying on makeup. I’ll probably also have images where I’m going to the gym — anything that people say will make you better looking. In the photos, I’ve been getting a lot more laughs. The goal is to show that even when women engage in what society expects you to do in order to fit the physical ideal — like lose weight, get a makeover, get certain clothes — you’re still met with criticism and mockery. I’m just a stand-in for anyone who feels like an other.

Click through the slideshow for a look at images from both Morris-Cafiero’s “Self-Improvement” and “Wait Watchers.”

A Photographer Who Captures Fat-Shaming on Film