Substantia Jones's Body-Positive Photos of 'Fat' People

Jones's photography is "part fat, part feminism, part 'fuck you,'" and aims to counter the popular media's narrow representations of body types.

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Mar 3 2015, 5:50pm

In 2007, photographer and self-described "Uppity Fatty" Substantia Jones started the Adipositivity project, which "aims to promote the acceptance of benign human size variation and encourage discussion of body politics," by publishing images of women, men, and couples of larger proportions. The idea is described on her website as "part fat, part feminism, part 'fuck you.'"

I recently talked to Substantia about body positivity and the ins and outs of her photographic practice.

VICE : How do you find your models?
Substantia Jones: I'll occasionally ask someone if they're interested in dropping through for my camera, but mostly people contact me, asking me to photograph them. Model search isn't really a part of the equation.

How do you approach them?
Not every fat person is an "out" fat person—unapologetic and openly accepting of the place their body occupies on the spectrum of benign human variation. Many experience body shame, often hoping and/or attempting to alter their bodies to conform to a narrow beauty ideal.

The word fat is a morally neutral descriptor, while overweight is a term of judgment, and obese pathologizes that which is naturally occurring. So approaching a stranger with a pronouncement about their body—any pronouncement about their body—is likely to be unwelcome. And being naked on the internet is a big decision. I don't want to talk anybody out of their pants. As with many things in life, "willingly" is best. "Enthusiastically," even better.

Do you generally find it easy to get people to pose for you?
I get more requests than I can comfortably handle, but getting subjects to relax during a shoot is another matter. I mean, would you be relaxed if you were standing naked with a person you'd just met ten minutes ago aiming a camera at you, with the promise of putting your bare ass on worldwide blast? I invite Adiposers to use whatever might be helpful during a shoot. Music. A cocktail. But more than anything, I think laughter calms folks in this situation. There's always plenty of that. Laughter and nudity are a well-suited pair.

What do you think posing for you brings people? Do some take it as a sort of "revenge" over all the magazines that show only very thin, "perfect" bodies?
I'm not sure "revenge" is on anyone's mind. But, subversion? Certainly. Photography is a tool commonly used and manipulated to convince people—particularly women—that they're unworthy in their natural state; that they need to swallow what the $66 billion a year US weight loss industry is feeding them. The Adipositivity project is about taking that concept and subverting it, using photographs to promote self-love and ask people to embrace their natural state.

How did the idea for this project come about? What do you want to express with it?
I discovered, anecdotally, that what we find visually displeasing, particularly when that displeasure has been media-manufactured, can be altered through repeated positive exposure to it. I likewise observed that we usually assign more validity to that which we find aesthetically pleasing. There's nothing better than to challenge nature, no matter how problematic it may seem.

My aim is to encourage people to become informed about body politics, to follow the money, to seek out science that's not been manipulated by the diet industry. I want them to love their bodies, and allow others to love their own.

Do you ever pose for pictures yourself?
I do. Especially in the beginning, when few people knew about the project, and folks were naturally reluctant to meet a stranger in a private place to make naked photos that'll be posted on the internet forever. Admittedly, not an appealing proposition. Many of the early images are of me and a few friends. I find I get the same pleasure from it that other Adiposers do. Lots of empowerment and "fuckyouism."

Obviously, it's brilliant that you are countering the portrayal of unrealistic body ideals in the media, but—to play the devil's advocate—do you think there is a risk that these pictures in any way glorify a lifestyle that is, by some, considered unhealthy?
There are indeed many lifestyle practices which have been found to have a causal relationship with ill health and early death. Do fat people engage in these practices? Sometimes. Just as thin people do. But being fat isn't a lifestyle. If my photographs promote any lifestyle, it's that of body acceptance, happiness, and well-being, romantic love, and gettin' your yoga on. I do not promote choosing your size, which has been proven to be a wildly unsuccessful task. No, it's the diet industry that does that. I'd love to see this question presented to them. "Dear Diet Industry: Do you think there is a risk that these pictures may glorify a lifestyle that, medically, is considered unhealthy?" I'd be your best friend forever if you do that interview.

That question is an understandable one, and one often asked of me. I understand this may seem counterintuitive to many, but consider non-corporate-sponsored medical science on the subject. There have been several JAMA-published studies establishing that weight is a poor indicator of one's health, as well as an American Heart Journal study and a couple of others suggesting that a focus on weight rather than health can actually be harmful. Factor in that the failure rate for dieters is alarmingly high. According to a 2007 Medicare study, roughly 95 percent of dieters regain the lost weight, sometimes more, within three years of the loss. This study also showed that practitioners of Health at Every Size achieved the same health benefits as dieters in the short term, yet after three years, most of the dieters studied had lost their health improvements, while the HAES group maintained their improved health, never having lost any weight.

There's also an enlightening study in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine from a couple of years ago, following groups of different weights but similar health. That study found that six years later the fat participants, even those considered "severely obese," had similar or even lower death rates than those of "normal weight." ('Normal' being their word, not mine.)

So no, I have no problem justifying a project which promotes well-being by helping people love and care for the body they have today, rather than jeopardizing their health trying to attain the unattainable. I sleep like a drunk baby, in fact.

Which locations do you usually choose for the shootings?
I shoot wherever I can. I prefer using the apartments of my subjects, but most of them aren't local, so it's usually rental studios, hotel rooms, back yards, city streets, parks, or apartments of friends. More unusually, I've also shot in front of a police precinct as the cops all emptied out of the building and stood around watching us. I've also used several public restrooms, and the bed of a Buddhist monk.

Have you ever had problems during shoots in public spaces?
Most onlookers are quite lovely. Others, not so much. I've been screamed at, shooed away, shut down, threatened with arrest, threatened with worse than arrest, kicked off an island, and accused of disrespecting the legacy of George Washington. It's not uncommon for a model to hear me say, "OK, here they come. Let me do the talking."

You've photographed many couples. Were both partners usually both of a larger body size? Does that say anything about the fact that people find it easier to be with someone that resembles them in some way?
Similarities in personality, ambition, tastes, and lifestyle certainly have a bearing on whether a pairing will be successful, but I don't find that to be the case when it comes to body size. Not everyone has a physical "type" to which they're sexually attracted, but of those who do, their "type" is not determined by their own body. I'm flummoxed by the number of people who believe fat folks are, or should be, exclusively coupled with other fat folks, or thin people with thin. I see evidence to the contrary every day. Happy, thriving evidence.

Although a couple I photographed for the Valentine Series earlier this month told me the Adipositivity Project factored into their meeting one another. She posed for the project a few years ago—though not nude—and later used the photo on a dating website. He told me when he saw the photo, he thought she must be awfully cool to have done such a thing. Today the two are researching venues and caterers for their upcoming wedding. I should expect an invitation to that one, right?

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Check out more of Substantia's work here.

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