Image-Makers in Residence: Sizing Up Gender (Ben Barry, Calla Evans, May Friedman and Mindy Stricke)

This month our Digital Theme is ‘Methodologies.’ Our Image-Makers in Residence are the research team and participants behind the ‘Sizing Up Gender’ project, based at the School of Fashion at Ryerson University, which uses arts-based methods. Follow us on Instagram at ‘thesociologicalreview’ for all the images.

How do the round curves of fat flesh enhance femininity? Can enormous rolls big up masculine identity?  How does fat act upon identity in the delicious in-between spaces of non-binary and gender non-conforming people?  And how do all of these manifestations of fat and gender spread out across other embodiments and their various intersections?

The images we are sharing this month are the result of a comprehensive research project, Sizing Up Gender: Intersectional Narratives of Fat and Gender through Fashion. The project explores the relationship between fat, gender and fashion, asking how people construct, embody and navigate their fat and gendered identities through clothing in the social world. We have approached this residency as a space to question dominant narratives around fat, gender and fashion, and to demonstrate how collaborative arts-based research is an activist tool for social change.

Using relational and arts-based methods, Sizing Up Gender uses collaboratively constructed photographs to allow for a consideration of embodied performances at the axes of weight and gender identities. We chose an arts-based approach, in part, because the evocative, sensual and affective experiences of life at the intersections of gender, fat and fashion-style-dress were simply too rich to convey through more conventional methods. Our photographs help us bring to life Loveless’ “heartmind,” moore’s “fourth space” and more layered understandings about gender, fat and embodied dressing. We equally wanted to allow participants to engage in the magic of photography, with an understanding that for people who embody non-normativity, photographic representation may be emotional and affective work.

The Sizing Up Gender project was organized in two stages. The initial stage of the project borrowed from life writing methods which provided space for participants to consider and craft their responses to six open ended questions. The second stage of the project employed an arts-informed photographic methodology, inviting participants to collaborate with the research team in constructing representative and abstract images. Working together, these two stages of the research project provided nuanced, embodied responses to the research questions as “photographs can be powerful resources for portraying what cannot be articulated linguistically” (Eisner, 2012, 4).

At each stage, participants engaged meaningfully and yet differently with the methods employed. In this way the research team strived to apply an intersectional framework to the design of the project’s methodology, affording participants as much agency over their choice to take part in the project, as well as to define what their participation would look like, within the structure of the project.

In the course of the research, we interviewed 13 self-identified thick, curvy and fat participants across the gender spectrum about their experiences with clothing. We also co-created three photographs of them of their favourite garments, including a photograph of the garment, a photograph of them in their garment and a macro-photograph (an extreme close-up that reads as abstractly) of them in their garment. The majority of the macros were taken by artist Mindy Stricke. We have selected six participants for this residency, and will be sharing the images co-produced with them, as well as quotes from the participants themselves.

Like our participants, as a research team, we came to this work with both joy and risk: An awareness of the possibilities and uncertainties that come from engaging in a new research process. While our orientations to, and experiences of, gender, fat and fashion are all personal and specific, each of us came to the research with a deep sense of investment and, as a result, a feeling of responsibility. We thought we understood why this work was important yet we found ourselves unprepared for the affective dimension of this project, for participants and researchers alike. Each session resulted in laughter and tears, intense and visceral responses that transcended usual notions of “research.”

All of the images which emerge from this project (which can be viewed at www.sizingupgender.com) allow for something more than an intersection to emerge.  Borrowing from Seremetakis, we offer that this project, and its visual outputs, create “a poesis, the making of something out of that which was previously experientially and culturally unmarked” (Seremetakis, 1994, 7). The images from this project along with the accompanying participant quotes disrupt many dominant narratives around fat bodies and fashion and introduce a joyfulness to the story of dressing fat bodies that has been sorely neglected.  It’s important that this work is accessible, and we look forward to further public engagement and responses to the project.  We also look forward to refining this technique and continuing to explore the intersectional potential of fashion and the dressed body as a site for revolutionary engagement.

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