The Shame of Human Nature in Words and Images

Human nature can be noble and it can be shameful. But how do you counter the shame of human nature that expresses itself in weight bias and stigma? Some very smart people (Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center comes to mind) have gone after it with academic rigor. Social activists and the internet named it “fat shaming” – so everyone could call it out.

But Professor Haley Morris-Cafiero at the Memphis College of Art is bolder. She uses images and words from the shamers themselves to make us confront these shameful – and often implicit – attitudes. And she does it with a quirky sense of humor. She recently told Refinery29:

I use humour to de-weaponise the aspects of an image that have potential to hurt other people. I have learned that my ability to laugh at hateful reactions is true and deep – it’s not just a mindset that I tried to position for myself. If you think that someone will attack you, you like to believe you would be able to defend yourself, but until it happens, you never really know for sure. Now I know. I can handle it and respond to it all in a witty and insightful way.

Wait Watchers

Morris-Cafiero is a fine arts photographer who began her Wait Watchers project in 2010 when she was working on a series of self-portraits in public places. In one of her images, she noticed a man in the background sneering at her. So she started capturing totally candid images of people in public spaces reacting to her appearance. The expressions tell a story of mockery, disgust, and disapproval – ugly dimensions of human nature.

When she published those images in 2013 on Lenscratch, they quickly went viral. That led to a book – The Watchers – along with a chorus of hateful commentary online. Morris-Cafiero responds with brilliance, using the ugly words of would-be antagonists to expose and silence them.

It’s a work in progress. She promises to do more with the words and deeds of online bullies in her next project, the Bully Pulpit.

Policy Options

At the grass roots, activists like Morris-Cafiero clear the way for top-down policy strategies to address weight stigma. Discrimination and bullying in the workplace and education, healthcare bias, and stereotypical media themes are all good targets, says Rebecca Pearl. But without activists building awareness, progress would be impossible.

We admire the fearless work of Morris-Cafiero.

Click here for more from Refinery29, here for more from ESPN, and here for more on policy options. Also, we recommend you check out Morris-Cafiero’s book here. You might even want to buy a copy.

Cops, photograph © Haley Morris-Cafiero

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April 27, 2018

3 Responses to “The Shame of Human Nature in Words and Images”

  1. April 27, 2018 at 9:01 am, Allen Browne said:

    Oops – it Rebecca Puhl – not Pearl. (3rd line under Policy Options)

    Otherwise – good post.


    • April 27, 2018 at 9:27 am, Ted said:

      Actually, Allen, I really was referring to Rebecca Pearl and this article she wrote:

      Having two talented Rebecca’s working on the same issue gets confusing. But we’re lucky to enjoy the works of both these fine scholars.

  2. April 28, 2018 at 9:17 am, Allen Browne said:

    My oops! I have wondered how often they get confused and I did it. Two talented women with similar last names. Oh well, have a good day.