Monday, February 2, 2009

Leonard Nimoy's Full Body Project Revisited

This is another great article that I found on the "" site (It's a plus themed site that I have bookmarked because it's really well put together....) I found an old NY Times article on Leonard Nimoy and his "Full Body Project" Exhibit that debuted back in 2007 (this one obviously got past me, cuz I'd never heard of it before now.)

BEFORE we begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, Leonard Nimoy is more than happy to do it — the Vulcan salute, the gesture that launched a thousand spaceships. He does so easily, effortlessly: palm outward, fingers extended, the index and middle finger smashed together, the ring finger and pinky touching, the thumb sticking out on its own.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Leonard Nimoy’s “Full Body Project”
features nude obese women.

“People ask me all the time,” Mr. Nimoy said, carrying saucers of coffee and tea into his art-filled living room off Central Park West. He placed them next to galleys of his forthcoming photography book, which sat near a copy of “Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West,” by Margaret R. Miles, and a folder of news clippings on obesity.

“You see what I have here, about the health guidelines for models?” he asked, pointing a long, tapered finger toward the file.

The basso profundo voice was unmistakable, his words occasionally clipped with his native Boston accent. “They now have to have at least a certain weight to qualify,” Mr. Nimoy added. He looked pleased. This is a subject that speaks to him.

He knows that he is an unlikely champion for the size-acceptance movement; body image is a topic he never really thought about before. But for the last eight years, Mr. Nimoy, who is 76 and an established photographer, has been snapping pictures of plus-size women in all their naked glory.

He has a show of photographs of obese women on view at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass., through June; a larger show at the gallery is scheduled to coincide with the November publication of his book on the subject, “The Full Body Project,” from Five Ties Publishing. The Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in Los Angeles and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston have acquired a few images from the project. A few hang at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York. (Their explicitness prevents the images from being reprinted here.)

These women are not hiding beneath muumuus or waving from the bottom of the Grand Canyon à la Carnie Wilson in early Wilson Phillips videos. They are fleshy and proud, celebrating their girth, reveling in it. It is, Mr. Nimoy says, a direct response to the pressure women face to conform to a Size 2.

“The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25 percent more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold,” Mr. Nimoy said, his breathing slightly labored by allergies and a mild case of emphysema. “So, most women will not be able to look like those models. But they’re being presented with clothes, cosmetics, surgery, diet pills, diet programs, therapy, with the idea that they can aspire to look like those people. It’s a big, big industry. Billions of dollars. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.’ ”

Mr. Nimoy, who divides his time among homes in New York and Los Angeles and on Lake Tahoe, in California, admits that before he began this project, it had never occurred to him that beauty might be culture driven, that a fat body in Africa is treated quite differently from one in the United States. “In some cultures their weight is a sign of affluence: their husbands can afford to feed them well,” he noted.

His enlightenment came about eight years ago, when he had been showing pictures from his Shekhina series — sensual, provocative images of naked women in religious Jewish wear — at a lecture in Nevada. Afterward, a 250-pound woman approached him and asked if he wanted to take pictures of her, a different body type. He agreed, and she came to the studio at his Tahoe house. She arrived with all sorts of clothes and props, “as if she were playing a farmer’s wife in a butter commercial,” he said.

His wife, Susan, who was assisting him, said, “No, we want to shoot nude.” So the model removed her clothing and lay down on the table. At first Mr. Nimoy was very nervous, he said.

“The nudity wasn’t the problem,” he said, “but I’d never worked with that kind of a figure before. I didn’t quite know how to treat her. I didn’t want to do her some kind of injustice. I was concerned that I would present this person within the envelope of an art form.”

But soon he relaxed into it, lulled by the clicking of the camera and the woman’s comfort with her body. He placed some of the shots in various exhibitions, and they invariably garnered the most attention. “People always wanted to know: ‘Who is she? How did you come to shoot her? Why? Where? What was it all about?’ ”

He decided to pursue the subject further and was led to Heather MacAllister, the founder and artistic director of Big Burlesque and the Fat Bottom Revue, a troupe of plus-size female performers in San Francisco. Ms. MacAllister died in February of ovarian cancer, but something she said to Mr. Nimoy in one of their first meetings struck a chord. “ ‘Any time a fat person gets on a stage to perform and is not the butt of a joke — that’s a political statement,’ ” he recalled. “I thought that was profound.”

Initially, he was interested in replicating Herb Ritts’s popular image of a group of nude supermodels clustered together on the floor, and a Helmut Newton diptych of women clothed and then unclothed in the identical pose. Ms. MacAllister and some of her friends agreed to be his subjects. He then posed the women to simulate Matisse’s “Dance” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”

The responses have ranged from joy to horror. One formerly obese woman said the photos terrified her; she said they recalled a picture she kept in her wallet as a reminder of her former self. Other women have thanked Richard Michelson, the Northampton gallery owner, for displaying the images, and even asked if Mr. Nimoy wanted to photograph them.

“I am actually amazed at how little negative reaction there has been,” said Mr. Michelson. “I attribute this in part to the gallery setting, and the fact that Northampton, Massachusetts, is perhaps the most liberal city in the most liberal state in the nation.”

“We do overhear some reductive ‘Is Nimoy into fat chicks’ comments when the gallery room is first entered,” he continued, “but in fact the fun nature of the work and the quality seem to shut people up by the time they leave. I’ve had a few crank e-mails with snide remarks, but not a one from gallery visitors.”

The Big Fat Blog, a Web site devoted to fat acceptance, wrote about Mr. Nimoy’s photographs in 2005. A woman calling herself Nellicat wrote in response: “I’m 5’5" and weigh between 130 and 135. But I don’t feel as comfortable in my own skin as I should. I look at those women strutting, posing, laughing, and I feel real envy towards them. There they are, posing for a man (!) knowing that the whole world will be able to see them naked (!!) and they are LOVING it. Oh, to be that free! To be that comfortable and beautiful in your body — I truly envy them.”

Though most people think of performers as naturally more unabashed than the rest of us, Ms. MacAllister said it is sometimes difficult for them, too. “We get scared and struggle w/self-acceptance and self-love just like you,” she posted on the blog at the time. “Just want you to know that ‘freedom is not free’; the freedom you see us enjoying is the result of constant hard work and eternal vigilance against the ‘tyranny of slenderness.’ ”

Mr. Nimoy was born in Boston to Russian Jews; he speaks and reads Yiddish. He began acting at 8, but his big break came at 17, when he was cast as Ralphie in a Boston production of Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing.” In 1966, he landed a gig on a little television show called “Star Trek,” which ran for only three seasons but would resonate for decades. He spent two seasons on “Mission Impossible” and in 1971 went to U.C.L.A. to study photography. He didn’t graduate, but he has a master’s in education and an honorary doctorate from Antioch College. He hasn’t acted since 1990, choosing to devote himself to art collecting, voiceover work and various philanthropic endeavors, including an artists’ foundation he and his wife run.

Most people know him as Mr. Spock, the terminally rational Vulcan with the famous hand signal. (The signal, which he said was his design, is actually rooted in Judaism. It represents the Hebrew letter “shin,” the first letter in the word Shaddai, which means God.)

In 2002, he published a book of photographs entitled “The Shekhina Project.” Shekhina is the feminine aspect of God; the photographs are sensual, erotic images of women draped in phylacteries, religious garments typically worn by Jewish males. The pictures were very controversial within the Jewish community: some people objected to the nudity, while others were offended by women in traditionally male garb. On the latter point, Mr. Nimoy said that he was not the first to put forth the idea. “There are historical writings of famous Jewish women, daughters of rabbis, who have done that,” he said.

He expects his second book to provoke an equally strong reaction, though he hopes the audience will gain a new perspective on the issue and learn something.

As for whether people will think he has a fetish, he said he can’t help that. “I just have no way of dealing with that,” he said with a laugh. “People will think what they’re going to think. I understand that.”

And what of his own attitude toward fat women?

“I do think they’re beautiful,” he said. “They’re full-bodied, full-blooded human beings.”

He doesn’t necessarily find them sexually attractive. “But I do think they’re beautiful.”

Go Leonard!!! Anybody know who the models were in these photographs and where they are now?

To view the Full Body exhibit in its entirety:

"I never liked photography. Not for the sake of photography. I like the object. I like the photographs when you hold them in your hand."

- Robert Mapplethorpe


Pamweezie said...

Hey Sharon. I found this article on the Mr. Nimoy's project. I saw this when it first came out. I thought it was awesome. Here is a link to the article and talks about the women in the project.

Kelli Dunham said...

Hey there:

It IS a lovely article isn't it? Have you heard the NPR interview with Nimoy? He handles the person really really well, they ask some pretty ridiculous questions.

Anyway, the original troupe that most of these women were involved in (Big Burlesque/The Fat Bottom Review) has disbanded because of Heather MacAllister's death. Heather was my partner, I am doing a one woman show about her which has a staged reading this Friday. I was doing a google search to see what's been written about her lately.

The other women are all involved in performing burlesque in some way or another. Lady Monster (not sure if she uses her real name in public forums or not) lives in the Bay Area and has toured with Margaret Cho's body show. Jukie Sunshine also performs solo burlesque. There is another woman named Ronnie who was a model (the redhead), she doesn't have a website but Lady Monster probably knows where everyone is and what they are doing.

So here's the info:

Lady Monster:

The Big Burlesque site:

Heather's site (now maintained by Sossity, her heart sister)

I also have some stuff about Heather on my site for the show

Although Heather did die of ovarian cancer, she fought like hell and was a very enlightened, bold, empowered patient. It made a big difference in the amount of time she got after diagnosis as well as what her death was like. Her size activism was--I believe-- partly what gave her these skills. In her keynote speech to nolose a few months before she died,(final notes available online at Heather said "Let me end by showing by example. I want to publicly thank my own body, my body that has suffered so much hatred and pain from inside and out, even before the cancer. My body that is fat enough to withstand TWO YEARS of unremitting chemotherapy—that's right folks, if I had started out this journey as a skinny girl I'd likely be dead by now. My body that has brought me at least my fair share of pleasure and joy and is still allowing me to have the fantastic experience of life in a carnal body. Thank you, body, and thank you, NOLOSE, for your HUGE part in helping me become a person that can stand up in a roomful of people and love and thank her body. May you all have that and so much more" As Heather used to say "my fat ass saved my fat ass."

Okay I think that's probably much more information than you were looking for, but what can I say, I love(d) that woman.

Best to you, enjoying your blog so much!

Kelli Dunham

Lady Monster said...

Thanks Kelli.
Leonard has given me exclusive permission to create a MySpace page to promote the book, and provide a means to get to know the models in the book.

There are autographed copies of the book available too (with Leonard's autograph or the models' autographs). The links are on the MySpace page.

Leonard and I have been interviewed on The Insider and EXTRA about this project. Some clips are under the MyVideos section on the page. Leonard has also appeared on The Colbert Report and William Shatner's RAW Nerve (wearing a Full Body Project t-shirt!), among several other programs to promote the Full Body Project.

Thanks so much for your interest and spreading the good word!!
I continue to perform burlesque and am now a fire tassel twirler!