Fashion Photography and the Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust
Why do photos of plus-size models incite such passion and disgust?
Posted Sep 20, 2016
As fashion historian Sandra Miller has written, ever since their emergence in the 17th century, fashion magazines have functioned as “truthful mirrors of their time,” and should therefore be taken seriously rather than derided as pure sensationalism or spectacle. Indeed, by looking at and analyzing fashion photographs—as well as the discourses that envelop them—it is possible to glimpse the ideologies that undergird contemporary aesthetics, anxieties and even prejudices.
Thus, in this blog, I will occasionally return to and analyze historical and contemporary fashion photographs that have sparked outrage and controversy, as well as those that have inspired delight—all the while asking why and how the fashion image triggers such passionate responses in us. The point in doing so is to demonstrate how the fashion image may function as a fertile starting point from which we can begin to explore and problematize our fraught relationship with visual culture, as well as to demonstrate how fashion touches all of us, both literally and figuratively.
One of my personal favorite fashion spreads from recent memory was a 2010 series entitled “Festin” that appeared in Vogue Paris, and which was shot by the ever-controversial Terry Richardson. Featuring the then-plus-size model Crystal Renn, the eight-page spread depicts the model losing all control, voraciously digging into fine Italian delicacies not ordinarily eaten in such large quantities and with such reckless abandon. With marinara sauce dribbling down her chin, deep red au jus trickling down her forearms and plum-colored grape juice oozing from between clenched fists, Renn’s untethered joy flies in the face of the refined cable knits and heirloom jewelry she’s jeopardizing with her gluttony.
Unsurprisingly, the online reaction to the images was swift and harsh as professional and armchair cultural critics sought to contribute their collective two cents to the generations-old debates about the model body and female sexuality. In one prominent critique from New York Magazine online (September 29, 2010), the author wrote,
The mammoth [90th anniversary issue of French Vogue] is already riding on plenty of hype, and these images have just the kind of shock value that will aid in that effort. You know, look at the plus-size model eating! Ew yuck food BLEH! ...The mini-explosion of plus-size models in fashion magazines over the past year, fashion still seems to be having a hard time not gawking at them.
As if prophesying the fashion community’s collective dry heave, the author’s brief commentary is but one example of the general repulsion people had to these images. Yet, based on the volume of comments that proliferated on these fashion forums—comments that indicated that people tended to completely ignore the fashion featured in the spread and were instead honing in on Renn’s body and what she was consuming—it seemed that people could not stop looking in spite of their disgust. As the author wrote, Renn’s not-so-appealing images were there for the “world’s gawking pleasure,” and gawk people did.
According to Susan Bordo, this reaction may actually be the consequence of a much larger phenomenon that exceeds any one fashion spread. As she discusses in her text, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (1995), Western women have been hardwired to engage in an ambivalent relationship with food and to outwardly behave as if food were “merely ordinary.” She explains that “control” is a trope that is used widely in Western advertising as women are most often depicted feigning nonchalance or taking delight in nibbling at small bits of chocolate or sugar-free candies because “women are permitted such gratification from food only in measured doses.” This tableau has become so commonplace, so engrained in our visual vocabulary that, as Bordo explains, images of women “indulging as freely, as salaciously” as men “would violate deeply sedimented expectations, would be experienced by many as disgusting and transgressive.”
The difficulty of Terry Richardson’s photographs exceeds the surface aesthetics, and nuances Bordo’s explanation of the average woman’s relationship to food. What is not said outright, but is glaringly apparent to the knowing Vogue audience, is the fact that Crystal Renn was at the time the unofficial spokeswoman of the plus-size modeling industry. After publishing her wildly popular autobiography entitled Hungry (2009), which chronicles her struggles with weight and her eventual acquiescence to her “naturally” plus size frame, Renn’s visibility and habitus as plus-size became public knowledge as she was valorized for undermining the sample-size standard. Thus, these images are not just “gross” because the surface aesthetics are displeasing and because the clothing and jewelry is in danger of being ruined—they are gross because Renn is “fat” by fashion’s standards (her reputation as fat preceding her) and she’s subversively reveling in those decadent calories that made her so—an act that speaks to the deeply-sedimented societal perception that fatness is linked with an individual’s agency and lack of control.
Moreover, in four out of the seven images, Renn makes direct eye contact with the Vogue reader. Like a sideshow fat lady who presents her body for public consumption and criticism, Renn’s returned gaze challenges the viewer to impart judgment and to gawk at the fat girl eating. Yet, while Renn appears to be an active agent in the spread—in effect “owning” her fatness—she’s also quite literally “feeding” into society’s issues with the fat body by allowing herself to be depicted in such a grotesque fashion.
The photoshoot has an analog in the controversial work of the British painter, Jenny Saville, who is known for her grotesque and lifelike monumental paintings of billowing and puckered mounds of flesh belonging to obese individuals. Michelle Meagher’s discussion of Saville’s work and what she refers to as a “feminist aesthetics of disgust” (2003) is particularly fruitful in explaining why Western audiences are simultaneously so appalled and so enrapt by images of the shamelessly fat body. Like Bordo, Meagher argues that we live in a society that is inundated by images depicting a socially fabricated standard of beauty. However, Jenny Saville paints provocative bodies that are “difficult” to look at in their unadulterated truth, creating an emergent aesthetic of disgust—an aesthetic Meagher argues addresses the problem of “experiencing oneself as disgusting.”
Indeed, the argument here is that when confronted with images that so fully embrace the aesthetics of disgust, the viewer has a tendency to confront her own bodily existence, essentially inserting herself into the disgusting, and in this case fat, body she is viewing whether she herself is fat or not. In this instance, one’s interaction with the fashion image exceeds the simple act of looking or gawking and enters into the larger societal dialogue regarding weight. Far from celebrating or even justifying fatness, Saville’s paintings and Richardson’s photos of Crystal Renn, quite simply, confront the viewer with the issue of fatness in no uncertain terms. In short, they speak to our very deep and very real fears of becoming fat.
Bordo, Susan. 1995. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Meagher, Michelle. 2003. “Jenny Saville and a Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust.” Hypatia (18.4): 23-41.
Miller, Sandra. 2013. “Taste, Fashion and the French Fashion Magazine.” In Fashion Media: Past and Present, eds. Djurdja Bartlett, Shaun Cole and Agnès Rocamora, 14-21. London: Bloomsbury.