“Have you lost weight?” “You look so skinny!” “These jeans make my ass look fat.” These are some of the things we as women say to one another…and to ourselves. Our discourse may revolve around weight but we don’t share how much we weigh. Declaring your weight can be a radical act. Exposing and exploring the taboo of weight spurred the creation of the book How Much Do You Weigh?
Erin Nieto created the photobook How Much Do You Weigh? with photography by Sheila Daniels, featuring images of “24 women of diverse backgrounds, ages and shapes, pictured along with the number that is their weight.”
Nieto told me her inspiration for her ground-breaking book:
“In a culture in which taboos have dropped left and right over the last fifty years, I found it curious that one in particular seemed to be bulletproof: publicly stating one’s weight. Or, more specifically, a woman publicly stating her weight.
“Why was this so? What is it about that simple number assignment that makes our ownership of it such a terrifying prospect? The taboo seemed to hold firm for women of all sizes: none of us seemed to be able to shake the weight anxiety, no matter what the scale read.”
In the introduction, Nieto writes how offensive and embarrassing it is to American women to be asked their weight. Weight is a solitary knowledge as we step on the scale alone. We’re not supposed to discuss it. So we don’t know what anyone else weighs. Yet we’re supposed to feel bad about whatever that number on the scale reads. We constantly feel inadequate – too fat, too skinny, too this, too that. Never just right. Never enough.
Our society is obsessed with controlling women’s bodies. The media emphasizes women’s looks, reducing us to our appearances. We’re supposed to wax and tweeze body hair, diet and exercise curves into submission. Between diet books, exercise DVDs, weight loss shakes, low-fat foods – the dieting industry is a money-making juggernaut. And it’s geared towards women. On the flip side, the media chastises women for being too bony or thin. Women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized, critiqued and policed.
The pictures in the book feature each woman with the number of her weight. I wanted to know more about these women and their lives. How did they feel about their bodies? Proud? As they met each model for the book, Nieto and photographer Daniels felt “a larger story unfolded…a collective story” about our bodies, shame and silence.
Our view of what women’s bodies “should” look like is wildly skewed, out of whack from our toxic culture. The media’s sexist images fuse with society’s warped beauty standards. Women obsess over their bodies because they see unhealthy and unrealistic depictions of women in film, TV, magazines and on billboards. Photoshopped faces and bodies saturate the media, creating unattainable images of beauty. With their rigorous exercise regimes and meticulous (sometimes dangerous) diets, if magazines and ads airbrush celebs and models to the point of artificial perfection, what hope do the rest of us have?
We’re teaching future generations to wage war with their bodies. Nearly half of all 3- to 6-year-old girls worry about being fat and “eating disorders having risen steadily in children and teens over the last few decades.” The vast majority “of those who have eating disorders (95%) are between the ages of 12 and 25” and “over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.” According to the documentary Miss Representation, the average age of plastic surgery is 17 years old. Children grow up thinking they must change their bodies in order to achieve acceptance and happiness.
Nieto hopes her thought-provoking book challenges the taboo and shame of weight:
“The aim of the ‘How Much Do You Weigh?’ project was to shoot an arrow right at that taboo, because its continued existence not only doesn’t serve women; the private shame of it makes us vulnerable to the multitude of pitches we get from the diet and beauty industries that disconnect ourselves from our own bodies.
“It is my greatest hope that the book can act as a catalyst for exploration of this taboo; that the refusal of the women who volunteered for the project to be shamed by their number is the tack that we all might be able to take, and help to raise the veil of shame between women and their own bodies.”
Nieto has created a vital project tackling a thorny issue. We need to dialogue about weight, beauty and sexism in the media. Maybe then we can de-stigmatize our weight and foster positive body images. Women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes. As someone who’s gained weight, I know it’s so much easier said than done. But we must stop feeling shame about a number on a scale. Our weight doesn’t define us.