muumuus

I became interested in muumuus because of how they are culturally representative (in a kitschy, clichéd kind of way) of obesity. They are what fat people have to wear when they get too big for all other fashion options. (Homer Simpson wore a lovely flower muumuu during his plan to collect disability for being morbidly obese.) The muumuu also has a history that invites symbolic interpretation: English missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s were appalled to discover that the natives were naked except for loin cloths and designed the muumuu to cover them up. In short, they taught the islanders to be conscious (ashamed) of their bodies and about the Christian virtue of modesty.

The decision to make muumuus was kind of an intuitive one on my part; I didn’t really know where the project would go, just that I felt compelled to do it. Not surprisingly, this work doesn’t feel finished to me. Instead the process of sewing has revealed a whole new set of thoughts and feelings that will feed future work (no pun intended), and for that reason this project was one worth doing.

I began by purchasing several vintage muumuu sewing patterns on ebay. They were generally from the 50’s and 60’s and I chose them because they had the classic muumuu design with the yoke collar and short sleeves. I purchased some fabric that I felt complimented the muumuu’s design and the absurd (loud and cheerful) look I was going for. (I think I was channeling John Waters during fabric selection.) Because I had never sewn a garment before I also bought some cheap gray jersey fabric to make my first muumuu. I got impatient waiting for the patterns to come and improvised this first muumuu on my own. I used the cotton print fabric to make my second one, which was more by the pattern than the first and as a result came out much nicer. (Thank you for the extensive tutoring Michelle!) I’ve never made wearable clothing before from scratch (Halloween costumes don’t count) so I’m proud of myself. As with the tomato skin quilt, once again I was reminded that I’m not a fan of actually sewing, but still I’m very interested in it as a skill set and tradition. I think once I get better at it I’ll enjoy it more.

The first observation that came as a result of this project was just how much fabric it was going to take to make a muumuu in my size. Just the process of ironing, patterning, and cutting out was humbling in terms of realizing how many resources I personally consume. So much fabric, thread, and time—not to mention food and everything else. I was really stunned by the scale of my own clothes all unfurled as they were—by the scale of my own large body represented in that fabric. It was very humbling. This idea of body scale is something I will take forward for future work.

The second observation occurred when the muumuus were complete and I tried them on and checked myself out in the mirror. I was truly surprised at how ashamed and sad I felt wearing the muumuus. It was strange to have made these items of clothing, to have labored on them and then to feel whatever pride in my work I had overshadowed by a strong dislike (even resentment) for the items. They made me look ugly, I thought, or at least feel ugly. They hid every curve of my body and reduced it to a large fabric sack. My head, legs, and arms stuck out strangely from the holes and appeared disembodied to me. It felt like an admission that I was all the things that people think fat people are. I became angry at a culture that would mentally assign this garment to people, mad that my identity (but really all identities) could be reduced to one physical feature.

But even in those very moments when I stood in front of the mirror feeling such strong self hate and anger, I also had this rational voice in my head who was surprised at my emotional reaction. It’s not like I don’t know I’m obese–and since when am I so vain anyway? And actually they are really comfortable. So then I wore them around to do small errands, only to be gawked at—which is a totally reasonable reaction to seeing someone in a muumuu; I would gawk too. When I took the muumuus off again and hung them up, I enjoyed looking at them. (NB: I grow more fond of the muumuus everytime I slip one on and more at ease with how I look in them.)

It was interesting to me that my experience of wearing the muumuus also kind of mirrors my experience of being obese; I’m pretty much cool with myself when I’m going about my life and only feel anxious or unhappy when I encounter negative external stimuli in the form of weird looks or verbal insults (usually from adolescent boys interestingly), panicky news reports, or mainstream advertisements that tell me that taste is the most important quality of food and simultaneously encourage me to eat and be thin. All of this perpetuates the anxiety and self-hate that keeps me fat. (Don’t worry y’all. I’m in therapy.)

I’ve been sitting with this experience for only a couple days and I’m not sure what to make of it just yet. Going forward this summer I’m planning to continue these explorations of obese body identity. It’s a timely topic and something I’m deeply connected to. In some sense I’m still trying to determine my perspective on the issue.

ABOUT THE PICTURES: I tried to just pose serious, but found myself striking dopey Tyra Banks poses and being silly. I’m not sure if I was just getting into the absurdity of modeling a muumuu or if it was just a defense mechanism–likely a bit of both. Originally I just thought of these photos as documentation of the muumuus, but given how the garments are transformed by the body I may have to rethink this.
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the identity of fat

"Fat People: They're Lurking"

My research for the past several weeks has revolved around questions of body identity and the body as a receptacle of prescribed/subscribed cultural norms (as well as the site of cultural resistance) specifically in regard to obesity. My perspective and motivations are personal and my research by no means comprehensively reflects the vastness or complexity of issues of fatness in our culture, which involve questions of race, class, gender, and religion to name a few. I chose to frame my research through readings that investigated or enhanced my critical understanding of my own experiences as an obese, caucasian, American woman.

I began with questions about the cultural causes of obesity in the US and a desire to catalog and explain some of the popular stereotypes of obese people. Obesity in our culture is a problem; some experts call it an epidemic, verbally categorizing it alongside contagious diseases. The charged language around obesity reflects and perpetuates a cultural fear of fat, and has created a public perception of obesity that is technically out of proportion with the reported concerns of the medical community. In short, there is a sensationalist public panic brewing about fat. (This is not to deny the harmful effects of obesity or to deny that more Americans are obese today than ever before; I am simply noting that many current media reports on the issue have alarmist tones that are in stark contrast to the calmer, factual academic writing.)

It is commonly assumed that overweight people eat for comfort or lack the self discipline to lose weight. I can’t say that this is wrong exactly but it is an ugly truncation of a phenomenon that goes back several hundred years and is embedded in (and reinforced by) some of our most deeply held cultural values.

Today in poorer countries or communities (especially agrarian ones), fatness is associated with prestige and abundance. This standard of success and beauty has existed for thousands of years in most cultures (including Anglo and Northern European—think Venus of Willendorf) and is still held in developing countries like Nigeria and to a lesser degree in a few developed countries like Mexico, Italy and Greece. Anthropologist Rebecca Popenoe writes about the Nigerian Arabs who actually force feed their pre-adolescent daughters to swell their bodies to obesity by the time they hit sexual maturity around 13 and marry. The fattest girls with the most pronounced stretch marks on their bellies, legs, and arms are the most beautiful and will marry well. Plumpness in this context means that there is plenty to eat and not too much physical exertion—the signs of a wealthy man who can provide for his family.

A still from a Hardees commercial.

America’s current beauty standard of slimness comes from a similar notion of demonstrated prestige during the Industrial Age. With the rise of industrialists a new standard of success was needed to visually separate the wealthy bosses from the stout, sturdy workers. That standard would become the slender body, one that was well maintained but useless in terms of having to perform hard (“low”) labor. In this context, a man was successful if his wife had enough servants to never have to lift a finger; she was pale from being indoors (enhanced by lead based white make up), and visibly fragile and incapacitated from lack of work. (I’m not saying thin people can’t work, just relaying the ideal of the day.)

One hundred years later the conversation around the virtue of thinness was taken to a new level by the writing of Sigmund Freud and backed by Victorian etiquette books. Freud and the Victorians saw the key to civilized culture to be mankind’s willful and resolute repression of its primal animal nature. Food and eating were coarse and deprived, and therefore had to be carefully monitored and restrained. Etiquette books of the time cautioned women especially to not eat “exciting” foods (those containing sugar or fat) that could stimulate them and invite unladylike behavior.  A lady’s virtue was directly tied to what she ate; her slenderness was indicative of her moral uprightness. (Also linked to this analysis was the sexual availability of servant women to upper class men. These women’s robustness—perpetuated by diets heavy in meat and carbohydrates and long days of physical labor—were evidence of their loose morals according to popular belief.)

Betty Crocker online ad. Give in to taste.

Today’s mainstream stereotypes about obese people are still fed by these post-industrial conclusions. Feminists like Susan Bordo study advertisements for insights on contemporary perceptions of fatness. What they observe is a continuing discussion of food as something to be wary of and something to be secretly enjoyed. The dialectics of food mirror those of sex, especially for women. According to advertisers, both food and sex are naughty, indulgent, and pleasurable; they are something to be enjoyed at home alone. There is an implied threat that one’s secret passion for this candy bar or that ice cream will be “discovered”—discovered in the sense of physical proof in the form of fat. Fat is the dreaded consequence of eating, like STDs are for sex.

I write all this background mostly to organize my thoughts and understanding of the materials I’ve been reading and also to explain that what I am interested in about obesity are the perceptions of it and the causes of those perceptions. At this point my goal is not to condemn or defend obesity but to truly comprehend it culturally. This goal is as much for me as a person as it is for my studio practice. I want to try to understand what it means to be a fat girl beyond calories and failed diets.

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american kitsch

For this installation/tableau I was interested in continuing my thinking on nostalgia, but this time creating more of  emotional contrast in the juxtaposition of elements.  I found these wonderful Darth Vader cow skull robot things (circa 1980?) at a flea market–cracked, chipped, and basically garbage. I still can’t figure out what they are or what they were intended for. (decoration I assume– but for what occassion exactly?)

American Kitsch is an observation on Americana and domesticity, playing with the icons (kitsch) we hold sacred.  It is a question of American identity and what these iconic objects mean to us now in terms of how we subjectively recall the ‘good old days’ and incorporate these false memories into a national narrative and consciousness. The cow skulls are of course evocative of the romantic/macho American Wild West, simultaneously updated and distorted by the skull’s unusual robotic details around the mouth and the fact that they and the dinette set are both made of chipped and broken plastic.  The six skulls loom (absurdly) over the table-as-icon of idealized American home life and femininity, balancing and threatening its sanctity and femaleness. The piece functions within the realm of cliché while the objects’ individual kitschiness interact to arrive at a new question/perspective of contemporary life.

there, there… opens tonight!

See you tonight at the opening of  there, there… I’m the one wearing a yellow sweater and green glasses. Come say hi!

Today I’m scrambling to put those last minute, idiosyncratic finishing touches on the installation. I had a restless night dreaming of different impossible scenarios that could (but won’t) go down tonight. It’s an just opening and I’ve done hundreds at this point, but there’s a little ineviatable jittery feeling that always settles in the morning of an opening.

Began the difficult task of really trying to document the installation in its final form yesterday. You can never really get it all in. So much of the impact is mood. Here are a couple photos of the Tobacco Babies (which totally remind me of Little Otik).

there, there: an installation (part 5)

Here are still shots from Somebody Else’s Life Flashing Before Your Eyes, part of  the There, there installation. Simply described, it is a dark room and there are dueling slide projectors on rapid fire. There is a bench to sit on right under the projectors.

It’s been a little of a challenge blogging about this work because it is so important that viewers come to the space with few expectations of what it will feel like. The fun thing about the slide performance is that no combination of slides are likely to repeat Friday night. So here are some examples:

there, there: an installation (part 4)

Loving something John Doyle said to me: “I saw that you were working with Carl’s grandparents’ slides, documenting events for which you can have no personal memory but which maybe for that reason makes them seem like something forgotten.” Yes, that’s exactly it, John. Well said. I love it when other people explain my work better than I can.

A few images from today’s studio & gallery activities:

testing, testing. come friday to see it finished!

there, there: an installation (part 3)

On a recent trip to the thrift store to pick up supplies for this installation I came across a copy of one of my favorite childhood books, Donkey-Donkey. I was pretty excited to see it again after all these years and took it home. Later, when Carl and I were reading it together we were greeted at page 4 by a drawing of  Donkey Donkey’s owner, Farmer Jones (aka: “the nicest man in the village”).  The resemblance of Carl to Farmer Jones is uncanny! Clearly I was groomed from childhood to find Carl attractive.

Creepy. Awesome.

Let the record show that Carl is making a goofy face here.

there, there: an installation (part 2)

Today I continued to clean things and transport them to Antfarm. I see the mailman just delivered my second slide projector, which is exciting! Now if only that cookie jar would show up… 

A couple quotes about old things and remembering:

Forgetting… is the great private problem of man; death as the loss of self. But what of self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus, what terrifies us about death is not the loss of future but the loss of past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present in life. (Milan Kundera)

Like a photograph, the drawer of saved objects functions as a space between life and death… Collecting these objects in the nooks and crannies of our homes keeps them and our memories and ourselves alive. Objects keep death away by helping us to remember… I am so afraid of forgetting. (Carol Mavor, Becoming)