At six years old, I learned to become self-conscious. I had developed a painful identity that did not permit me a dialogue with my body. It distanced me from who I was and only allowed me to be what others perceived me as. I was simply a fat, cross-eyed mixed-breed with an afro. This perception would follow me all of my life and would eventually become the substance of memory that I place within my work.
Although my imagery is not a linear exactness of those experiences, these scars are still apparent in its content. It can be seen in the raw nature of my past – harsh imagery of objects, the puckering of the skin, flesh tightly rolled over itself, a manipulated body in pieces. I have carried this burden with apathy until I decided to work consciously of my experiences that have controlled me for so long.
I have kept these memories close, but instead of believing all the ugly words I felt, I challenged them. As I released my hate, the work emerged and transformed me. The images became a harsh tone of a body left forgotten that coincides with the beauty I have found along the way. Here, this light draws me into the darkness and illuminates life that allows me to care for myself for what feels like the first time.
The feelings I have held for myself may be universal to some, but I speak from the only place I know. I am taking my body back – away from the manners in which it is normally used. There is more to me than a body found in the “before” photos of diet commercials, a face to all those cropped scenes of guts while the reporter speaks of the obesity epidemic. There is a spirit refusing to die amongst the millions of advertisements pushing one body down my throat, telling me I am not good enough. I create my images because of the need I feel to claim my body as my own. I can now see my body as it is and not just as I had imagined. My work gives me a chance to lift those distorted lenses of that little fat girl I wore for too long.
I am appreciative to those women who have paved the way to my own courage. The first time I viewed Laura Aguilar’s Nature Self Portrait #4 is when I found just how tainted my vision had become. I was struck down with utter horror. I could not understand why someone of size would let themselves be seen in such a manner, but it wasn’t until I started my own work that I understood. My process did not develop overnight; it was not as if any of this came easy. I had built what I thought was such a strong barricade – impenetrable and safe. I took a chance at this work bit by bit, struggling the whole way. In our culture, I learned my shame. I was born into a world that did not tolerate my size. I strive for health like any other person, but through my work, I have found that there is more to it than fitting in a chart for height and weight. I have watched countless friends and family members struggle with weight, telling themselves they would not partake in certain activities until they reached their goal – limiting their options in life based on an outer appearance. What I have found out through my imagery is that health comes from the inside out. To be able to be myself in an honest manner is the essential first step. I refuse to fight my body any longer. In order to achieve health, I must first break down the rules that say once you are “fit,” you are happy. I can always aim for the numbers of health, but self-acceptance is not a guarantee. This is the lesson my photographs have taught me.
The artist Jenny Saville has been an incredibly valuable inspiration to me, as well. Her images are powerful yet heavy in their content of worrisome body issues. She paints self portraits through a distorted eye, thickening parts of herself, over-amplifying the weight in order to challenge the viewer into delving into their own body issues. She paints boldly and on a large scale, demanding confrontation. She challenges both the commercial and art worlds on this body type. I believe, as many strong women before me, that the time has come for a change of perception. Though my own work does not demand the viewer this challenge, I feel as if the emotional nature that my images evoke is progressive in a time where people are more insecure than ever. My body type gets commonly used in manners of grotesque nature – to show what fat looks like but never what it feels like. I have felt like a piece of meat, with no care to the person inside this skin. My job and my visions are not to scream for this change but rather to create the change within myself. I persist from my experience because I feel it is important for me to speak of my story, to give my body the respect I have been lacking. I am not trying to speak for the obese but rather as my own advocate for a positive body image. I cannot grow from my work until I first accept the damage I have done to myself. This is what I strive for most within my photography and what I want known about the person inside this skin.
This is why I choose to do the work I do. I speak of my body, I speak through others’ strengths that I have been blessed enough to work with, and I speak with the only voice I now own. Over time, I can see the work developing further into what I learn of my body. Where it takes me is not exact, but the constant experiences it has given me, and the appreciation I have found in working with it, has given me the strength to write these words. It is my indicator to persist.