Capturing a stranger's sneer: What happened when I put on Spandex

People told me to lose weight and clean up. So I tried self-improvement -- and photographed the critical responses

Published November 13, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

I remember when I found the idea for the new images in my "Wait Watchers" series. I was in a sports equipment store with my husband, who was buying new running shoes.  While I waited, I walked around the store. A pair of pink, shiny running shorts caught my eye.  I walked to the rack, picked up the hanger holding the shorts in front of my face and stared at the shiny fabric.

"Yeah, right," I heard someone say.

I looked up to see a young female employee smirking at me and moving her eyes up and down my body.  She then turned and walked away.

My first thought was to tell the manager what happened.  My second thought was to demand that my husband not patronize the store. But my third thought was the best:  I can take photographs.  And a new idea was born.

For the past few years, I've been developing a series I call "Wait Watchers." I set up my camera as I travel through a city, capturing strangers' reactions to me as I wear my everyday clothes and do everyday things. Last year, I ran some of these photos in a story on Salon, and in reading the voluminous response online, I noticed many of the commenters did not criticize the photographs, but the way my face, body and clothing look.

Here's one: "Men: Arm the harpoons!"

Or another: "Fat lump of lard. Stay off the donuts and go runnings. Makes me ill just looking at her."

Since so many people suggested the world would be better if I lost weight and got a makeover — I decided to put myself in a world where I was not comfortable:  shopping malls, exercise trails and beauty counters.  My goal was to show that even when I am happily engaging in how society wants me to behave in order to fit their standard, I am still surrounded by what can be considered a critical gaze.

I've long felt inadequate in these spaces. As an adult with hypothyroidism, I've come to accept my appearance, but I'm quickly reminded that others have not. Department store salespeople ignore me in the clothing sections and dive after me at makeup counters. They act surprised when I purchase nice clothing. The makeup technicians want to "save me."  Neither is enjoyable.

Exercise areas are different. I have a history of hating my body and I used to over-excercise. Gyms and media tell you to keep pushing and count calories. If I only exercise a little, it's "wasted" because I have "so much weight to lose," according to one gym membership salesperson.

But I wanted to place myself back into these areas of self-improvement. I went to the store and bought a full set of plus-size exercise clothing. Spandex, spandex and more spandex. I thought about where I could go to capture the epitome of fitness and beauty:  Venice Beach in Los Angeles.

I walked along the Boardwalk and saw people jogging, stretching, lifting weights, etc.  So I set up a camera, started stretching and shooting. In 45 minutes, I had 20 images that fit my parameters.

My process is to look at each image and see if anyone in the frame has a questioning or critical look on their face.  While I don't know what the passersby are thinking, the images depict me as an outsider who looks completely different from everyone around me.

This past summer, I took a group of students to Europe for a study abroad course. During my down time, I went shopping to pick up some clothes. I went into a very popular store and picked up a dress, which was unlike any I'd seen before.  I looked up to find my friend and came face to face with three girls.  One pointed at the dress, elbowed her friends and said, "There's no way," and they all laughed and turned their heads, dragging their eyes over my body as they walked out of the store.

I grabbed my camera, put it around my friend's neck, and we started shooting. My directions to my friend were simple: When I stop and turn toward you, hold the shutter button down. I stood next to a mannequin and held out the dress to admire it. Within 20 seconds, I saw a man look back at me shaking his head. It was time to go.

When I looked at the images later, I did not capture the man's gaze, but instead I caught a woman who was walking past me. I chose the image because there is a slight angle in her face that reminds me of the look clothing salespeople give me.  I don't know what the woman in my photograph is looking at, thinking or reacting to, but seeing the image takes me to a place of discomfort. I was thrilled I could capture a gaze that is so fleeting and quick.

Many people ask me if doing this project makes me angry, and my answer is "no."  I treat the photography process like an experiment, and because I don't actually know what the people in my pictures are thinking, the project is almost clinical.

On the other hand, the anonymous commenters who criticize every inch of my physical appearance make me laugh. I mean, laugh hard. There are blogs dedicated to how ugly I am and how much weight I would lose if I would stop wasting time taking photographs.  It cracks me up to think those people think I would care what they say.  I don't care what anyone thinks about my body and the way I look; especially people who waste their time writing comments to feed other commenters. I love the way I look and reading the critical comments fuels me to take more photos. Don't those people realize? They're just bolstering my project.

Haley Morris-Cafiero is currently compiling a book of her images from the "Wait Watchers" series. To contribute to the Kickstarter fund, click here

By Haley Morris-Cafiero

Haley Morris-Cafiero is a photographer who lives in Memphis Tennessee. She is an Assistant Professor and Head of Photography at the Memphis College of Art.

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