Leonard Nimoy: Fat Rights Activist

Update: I almost forgot to give a shout out to Big Fat Blog, which got a mention in the article. 

The New York Times featured a story on Leonard Nimoy’s fat nudes exhibit in Northhampton, MA.  Here is an extended quote from the article:

He knows that he is an unlikely champion for the size-acceptance movement; body image is a topic he never really thought about before. But for the last eight years, Mr. Nimoy, who is 76 and an established photographer, has been snapping pictures of plus-size women in all their naked glory.

He has a show of photographs of obese women on view at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass., through June; a larger show at the gallery is scheduled to coincide with the November publication of his book on the subject, “The Full Body Project,” from Five Ties Publishing. The Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in Los Angeles and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston have acquired a few images from the project. A few hang at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York. (Their explicitness prevents the images from being reprinted here.)

These women are not hiding beneath muumuus or waving from the bottom of the Grand Canyon à la Carnie Wilson in early Wilson Phillips videos. They are fleshy and proud, celebrating their girth, reveling in it. It is, Mr. Nimoy says, a direct response to the pressure women face to conform to a Size 2.

“The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25 percent more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold,” Mr. Nimoy said, his breathing slightly labored by allergies and a mild case of emphysema. “So, most women will not be able to look like those models. But they’re being presented with clothes, cosmetics, surgery, diet pills, diet programs, therapy, with the idea that they can aspire to look like those people. It’s a big, big industry. Billions of dollars. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.’ ”

If you want to read the whole piece go here.

On a personal note, I have been thinking about generational differences (or in sociology speak cohort effects) in attitudes towards fatness.  While I remember my grandparents making comments about how fat people were, I don’t remember the ire associated with it that you see for so many younger people.  It also seemed to me that their definition of fatness was different. 

I started thinking about this after reading this piece because I’m not so surprised that this is coming from an older man of my grandparents generation.  I would have been much more surprised to see a younger male actor or artists come out for fat acceptance/rights. 

I’m just speculating, but what do you think about this?  Do you think there are generational differences around attitudes toward fatness?  If so, what do you think they are?

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21 Responses to Leonard Nimoy: Fat Rights Activist

  1. 1
    Eva says:

    Huh. This is really interesting. Leonard Nimoy was already high in my esteem, but now he’s even higher.

    Here’s one answer to the question about generational differences in fat acceptance. My grandmother is 90 this year, and is very conscious, and judgemental, of fat people, including herself (even though in my memory and from any photos I’ve ever seen of her, she is not and never has been even close to the clinical definition of fat). My three other grandparents, who would also be in their 90’s or older if they were still living, were judgemental of fat people, and vocally so. I think it was a lot of pre-emptive fear and judgement, though, as two of the four of them were immigrants, and had diabetes.
    My parents both have had lifelong struggles with weight issues, and both have been in the clinically fat category off and on, adopted the fear/judgement from their parents, and passed it on to us kids. My late mother had diabetes, and was first generation American, so it was, for her too, health and appearance (assimilation).
    Both my parents experienced a lot of pain related to the rejection they perceived in society about being fat, and told us kids to do everything we could to avoid this. In my case it didn’t really work, one of the problems was that they gave me the old do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do shtick, but also, I don’t respond well to that kind of external pressure to conform!

    On the other hand, I think there were some relatives who weren’t so judgemental, but they were (from my grandparents’ generation) cousins I hardly knew and rarely saw, the most notable one the owner of a candy store who also sold his own handmade chocolates, Great Uncle Izzy.

  2. 2
    Melissa McEwan says:

    One of the most interesting parts of the article for me was Nimoy’s distinction between beauty and sexual attraction at its very end. It’s so rare to hear a man in the MSM make that distinction regarding women of any size, no less with regard to fat women in particular.

    The whole “she’s pretty”/”I’d fuck her” and corresponding “I wouldn’t fuck her”/”she’s ugly” associations are so axiomatic that it actually shocked me to see them extricated from one another so casually like that.

  3. 3
    Pat Kight says:

    I’m in my 50s, and I don’t remember ever hearing my grandparents — or my parents, for that matter – say a word about fat people, negative or otherwise. And I don’t think it was unusual politeness (my father, for instance, never missed an opportunity to make a racist remark).

    Part of this may have been due to family genetics. I have photos of my paternal grandmother and her sisters in their 50s and 60s, and to a woman they share the build that was once called “matronly” – broad of bosom, thick around the middle, with big, round bottoms. Most of them spent their lives doing the hard physical work required of farm and ranch women, and I remember them as indomitable. If anyone had made a smart remark about her girth to aunt Maryedith, she’d very likely have slapped them upside the head.

    But these were also people who grew up during the Depression; I got the sense that a certain level of fat was something to aspire to, because it meant you weren’t poor any more.

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    “But these were also people who grew up during the Depression; I got the sense that a certain level of fat was something to aspire to, because it meant you weren’t poor any more.”

    My grandparents who grew up during the depression didn’t miss a chance for fat shaming. When my mother was at the low end of normal, they sent her to the doctor to be put on a special diet to lose weight.

  5. 5
    Rosemary Grace says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a big class difference as well as a generational difference, and the class differences likely vary over time. I have anecdotally noticed that older working class men in the UK (the fathers/grandfathers of some of my friends) have made admiring comments about my figure, either to my face, or referring to me as “your friend with the nice arse”, and I’m a pear-shaped size 16. Tall and skinny or delicate and petite seem to be more important to the more upper class families. In more posh circles I was offered polite sympathy, and assumptions that it must be dreadfully hard to dress well.

    This is all very unscientific observation on my part, more a general feeling of a trend than anything else. I think of it somewhat along the lines of the hearty milkmaid ideal of beauty (strong, capable, “something to grab hold of”) versus the delicate lady ideal (willowy and fragile). Betty Grable versus Audrey Hepburn.

  6. 6
    Adrian says:

    Melissa, I think making the distinction between beautiful and sexually attractive is more common in artistic context than in pop culture. A lot of people find it very important to say, “This beauty has nothing to do with sexiness. This art has nothing to do with porn. Interest in it is high-minded, not connected to tawdry physical desires.” It’s a way for people who love art to defend it, and I’m sure Nimoy is familiar with the argument in that context. It’s all too common for that argument to go further, and suggest that physical desire and sexual attraction *are* tawdry or evil, but Nimoy didn’t do that.

  7. 7
    Em says:

    I love it. I saw some of the photos a while back but I’m glad it’s getting more attention.

    I grew up in a rather large family who are almost all on the thinner side and there was a (mostly) silent pressure to fit that standard. My mom didn’t, and as a kid I loved that my mom was softer and more huggable than my aunts or other peoples moms. Everybody’s body image was still pretty warped anyway and I was no exception. It hasn’t been till recently that I have come to love the size I am, which is sad considering I am 60 lbs heavier than when I hated my body.

    Anyway, I think attitudes around fat have gotten worse, or rather the standard for how much you should weigh has gotten higher. You see models and actresses that have gotten skinnier and skinnier yet they are still air brushing more off them. It’s hard to escape the constant barrage of tiny little people. Dove’s campaign for real beauty ads are a start, with slightly more normal sized women, but I think it’s still not good enough.

  8. 8
    hanna jörgel says:

    My father (born 1914) is really wretched around fat people. He points. He stares. He is quite obvious about it all. He gets angry if you dare tell him to cut it out or to mind his own business. And when fat and race collide, you have now hit the motherlode!

    He is also a medical doctor who works for the local office that decides who gets to go on SS disability. “Oh, you should have seen the one that came in today…” is a common phrase when he gets home from work. If I say anything in defense of these patients, he gets horribly nasty with me and I get a lecture about how “these people” are driving up medical costs for everyone. And I get called intolerant.

    And he will not be ignored! We went to a local Brazilian restaurant for Mother’s Day and they have this amazing Churrasco sampler + buffet that most of the patrons of the restaurant were enjoying. But when a large man came in, he says, “Oh, he’s going to put the place out of business.” When mom and I tried ignore him, he kept repeating it louder and louder until we acknowledged him just to get him to shut up.

    This is not an effect of age since I have clear memories of such behavior from 30 years ago when I was a small child. Back then he liked to take pictures of the fat people, usually women, we would see at tourist sites (often with no attempt to hide what he was doing).

    Nimoy is much younger than my father and I imagine his art influences his sensibilities . And he clearly does not view fat as a moral issue, as my father most definitely does.

  9. 9
    Lu says:

    I wonder if the class difference in fat acceptance might be somewhat like the change from trying very hard to keep skin untanned and unfreckled (when most people worked outside) to trying to get a good tan (when most people worked inside). The state that requires more leisure time and/or money to achieve is the desirable one. These days many if not most jobs are sedentary, so it’s harder to work at staying thin. Now that I come to think of it, I wonder if the hyperfocus on weight is related to the rise in awareness that sun exposure is bad for you, so it’s no longer used (much) as a class marker. (Of course it was used that way almost exclusively by white people.)

  10. 10
    Kevin T. Keith says:

    Nimoy is really an extraordinary photographer. I’ve been impressed with his work for some time. Body size is not his only artistic interest, but he does great work in all respects.

    You can find a lot of his images, including from the “Full Body Project”, at his Web site, here.

  11. 11
    Robert says:

    The state that requires more leisure time and/or money to achieve is the desirable one.


    A large portion of the driving energy behind setting up these kind of cultural markers has to do with mate selection and sorting. We seem to be very fond of the time- and attention-saving shortcuts and proxies that tell us about a potential mate – the exact signifiers of the proxies vary widely from culture to culture and from time to time, but the existence of the proxies remains a constant.

  12. 12
    Tapetum says:

    I remember a large, well-proportioned friend in college commenting that everyone’s grandparents thought she had a beautiful figure, while our generation just thought she was fat. I can’t comment myself as the last time my figure type was in style was apparently in Greek statuary.

  13. 13
    Sailorman says:

    Melissa, what’s “MSM”?

  14. 14
    Lizzie says:

    MSM = Main stream media

  15. 15
    Eva Key says:

    As much as I admire Nimoy and others who make a point of showing the beauty in individuals whom society has deemed ugly for various ignorant reasons, I still have a bone to pick …

    It’s true that we’re surrounded by images of incredibly thin women, but there is also a significant backlash of models/artists/designers who take things to the opposite extreme by showcasing much heavier models. These so-called “plus-size” models are generally size 12 or larger.

    The thing is, “regular” models are typically size 0 or 2. So here we have a LOT of models who are a size 0 or 2, then a small number of “plus-size” models who are a size 12 or larger, and what happens to the women in between? Models who are sizes 4-10?

    I wish models would more accurately represent what women look like. I’m frustrated by people who ridicule skinny models as “fake,” and put forward plus-size models as “real” women. The truth is, REAL women are all sizes, and models should more accurately reflect that. There should be fat models, and there should be skinny models, and there should be enough models in between to accurately reflect the complete range of body types that women represent.

    I don’t mean this as a diatribe against Nimoy; I think his idea is great, and I don’t expect to hold him to any standard, but speaking about the entire art/fashion/media world, something needs to change.

  16. 16
    Roberta says:

    I don’t think it’s generational. This opinion is pure instinct, but I stand by it.

    I certainly think that as men get older, some of them allow themselves to find more/different body types attractive, but that’s not the same as generational.

    I think that what is generational is the definition of thin/pretty/acceptable. You always hear that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14. There were more curvaceous and voluptuous movie stars back in the day, but I don’t think they were considered fat. Just curvy and voluptuous. Today they would be considered fat and therefore unacceptable. We all know the kind of negative attention an actress gets for carrying a bit of extra weight (Alicia Silverstone; Kate Winslet).

    But by the standards of yesterday, there were still no fat movie stars. Because fat, then and now, synonymous with unacceptable.

    I hope my little rant was organized enough to make sense… it all works out in my head.

  17. 17
    TheKiti says:

    Oddly enough, if you want to see models sized from 6-10, the place to look is a plus-sized women’s catalog. That’s the typical size of most of the models in there. Most plus-sized clothing is modeled on women not large enough to wear it IRL; special garments have to be made for them to do the modeling. As a fat woman, I hate this with a purple passion, just as women who are size 10 or 12 should hate seeing “their” clothes modeled only on size 0 or 2. I am NOT going to be fooled into thinking that ugly muumuu OR that cute pair of jeans is going to make me look like I’m 6 feet tall and 130 pounds.

  18. 18
    Gary Herold says:

    The hate/disaproval of “fat” is definitely increasing. I have always been larger than the norm and not happy about it, but not enough to change everything about myself. My twelve year old nephew has inherited the same stocky body type and will never be thin. I see so much more pressure on him than I encountered.

  19. 19
    Rachel S. says:

    I personally feel like there are some cohort effects that are working on two levels. First, as many have pointed out it seems the definition of fat has changed. Someone like myself would not likely have been called fat in my grandparents era (I wear about a 14-16 just to put it in perspective). The one fat person I do remember my grandparents berating was this guy Tom who must have weighed over 300 lbs., and it was interesting because he had diabetes and that was often part of the discussion about why he needed to lose weight. It’s funny because my grandfather was also a big person, but he realy didn’t seem to qualify as fat (He was probably about 220 and 5’10”.)

    The second change seems to be the fact that looks and appearance were not as important in that era. Sure people cared about how they looked, but I think the popular culture was less obsessed with that.

    On a final note, I agree also that class and race play a big part in how fatness is defined in this country–someone mentioned class upthread. I have a funny antecdote about that. My father’s grandmother grew up really poor because her alcoholic father abandoned their mother. She was very thin partly because she didn’t eat well as a child. So when my father brought my mother to meet, his grandma. The first thing out of her mouth was–“My you have a nice big one here.” Then she patted my mother on the butt. My mom was really embarassed, but my great grandmother was trying to give her a compliment.

  20. 20
    Amber says:

    When my grandmother grew up the hourglass figure was popular and she was expected to wear girdles and the like to cinch in her waist to fit the style. I’m more of a straight-up-and-down sort of person and of course we don’t wear those for everyday now. I still cringe over her reaction to finding out that even at 98 pounds in high school, I didn’t have a 24 inch waist (not quite disgust, but almost). She’s bulked up a bit over the years but her husband brags about staying the same size for 40+ years. Not exactly fat-friendly.

  21. 21
    Crys T says:

    Can I just point out that the differences in attitudes towards fatness are related not only to generation, but also culture and class?

    For example, I know it’s been pointed out that working-class attitudes in the UK towards fatness are somewhat different than middle-class ones. And those differences are also shifting with time.

    And attitudes towards overweight married women in Franco’s Spain was very different than it was towards overweight single women, and very, very different to ANY overweight women in Spain today.