Obese, Female, & Nude: Epistemological Satire or Sociological Critique?

By Catrise P. Noel
2010, Vol. 2 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

Historically, female models in photographic art have depicted an ideological construction of the female body which women, regardless of stature, ethnicity or class, must conform to. John Berger (1972, p. 46) notes that ‘to be born a woman has been to be born… into the keeping of men’. However, it could be argued that the image presented in this essay dissipates such notions. Leonard Nimoy’s image is compelling; it seems to expulse an aura which embodies feminine nonchalance whilst simultaneously disregarding patriarchal ideology which dictates stereotypical criteria for the socially acceptable woman (Ramazanoğlu, 1989).

Leonard Nimoy’s Matisse Circle image, which is part of the ‘Full Body Project’ (2007) shows six, considerably overweight, naked women who are constricting their movement to within the circle they have formed by holding hands. The colour gradation is restricted to black, white and grey tones and the background is plain floor tiling. One will consider the significant elements which presented in this image, concluding by considering the contextual influences which define the image’s meaning.

Nimoy’s work does not appear to correspond to the definition of commercial which is to promote goods to increase sales (Petley, 2002; Jefkins & Yadin, 2000). However, it is arguable that this image advertises ‘women…proudly wearing their own skins’ (Nimoy, 2007), echoing a rebellion against the ‘current social consensus of what is "beautiful"’ (ibid). It seems to epitomise the true concept of freedom from the psychological bodily constraints rife in a contemporary society despite pervasive female representation solely consisting of size zero women, devoid of any diversity (Ellis, 2007; Gauntlett, 2008).

Nimoy describes his work as illustrative of a theme, to convey that the ideals of beauty are not universal but vary according to time and place (Nimoy, 2007). Elements that portray ‘the theme’ can be ascertained by dissecting the image via semiology. Within semiotics, denotation is commonly understood as the empirical meaning, absent of cultural influences (Panofsky, 1955). Thus, one may assume that Nimoy’s image denotes six naked women with joyous facial expressions, holding hands in a circle.

However, photography allows denotation and connotation to unite, causing a mergence of the signifier and the signified (Barthes, 1980), producing a sign which seems to have surpassed cultural boundaries thus creating a meaning which seems natural (Barthes, 1977; Fiske, 1982; Chandler, 1996). Brownell, Potter & Michelow (1984) even tested whether denotation and connotation are dissociable in brain damaged patients. Henceforth, one gathers that the juxtaposition of women who are socially maligned in modern with archaic photographic techniques simultaneously denotes and connotes a need for regained liberation from the parochial societies which have suppressed freedom of the feminine body.

Arguably, ones cultural orientation and understanding of female representation determine the perspective from which one comprehends this image. Feminist epistemology perpetrates one possible reception. Whilst Chris Beasley (1999, p.9) labels as a ‘troublesome term’ avoiding definition, Watkins (2000, p.1) succinctly defines feminism as ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.’ The characteristics which define the female sex are genetically bound, however, it is how the concept of gender is represented in visual constructs which differs (Lupton, 1992), and is therefore of importance. Categories of gender are formed in society leading to psychological consequences pertaining to the understanding of such imagery (Rigsby, 1992).

Within various cultures there are notions of what it is to be feminine. These differ historically according to class, race and age (Andrews, 1997). Arguably, a female’s body shape is also particularly poignant. Watkins (2000) argues that altering the perception that a woman’s value is determined by her appearance to men was one the most powerful movements of contemporary feminism. One could consider Nimoy’s work to be reflective of the momentous which allowed for ‘women stripping their bodies of…restrictive clothing [embodying] a ritualistic, radical reclaiming of…the female body’ (ibid, p. 31). Nimoy’s models provide an antithesis to the ubiquitous representation of feminine beauty merely consisting of slim, flawless women.

Watkins (2000) labels the absence of larger women, unable to ‘express their feelings…without guilt or anxiety’ (Sloane, 2002, p.170), as a facet of the media which undermines progress gained by feminist intervention. This argument, however, is only valid if ones expectations of acceptable gender representation correlate with the society in which they are formed.

One may interpret Nimoy’s image as a conspicuous request for the extinction of the bindings which exist between appearance, femininity and freedom. Rather, he opts for an ‘emancipatory strategy [to] aim toward the redefinition of the body…beyond such rigid categories’ (McNay, 1992, p.194) fabricated in modernistic society.

However, Jean Baudrillard (2001, p. 212) argues that ‘we should agree neither with those who praise the beneficial use of the media, nor with those who scream about manipulation’. Henceforth, whilst Nimoy’s intention was to depict women who desire to be accepted irrespective of their body shape (Nimoy, 2007), society itself is rigorously andocentric (LeMoncheck, 1997). One may argue that ‘women are indoctrinated in a male defined value system and conduct their lives accordingly’ (Learner, 1975, p.5), and therefore by default, women’s consciousnesses can only allow for acceptance to be measured against societies criteria and thus by male defined standards.

Paul Hartman (1996) argues that ‘it is futile to try and know what an author meant by what is written, but what you Can [sic] know is what you interpret…That becomes the true meaning’. This suggests that the photo has no real intrinsic inference but rather an intended meaning, not necessarily recognisable across cultural, contextual and psychologically boundaries. In a post-modernist context, which Nimoy’s picture was created, a construct is ultimately self contradictory (Hartman, 1996); objective representation or interpretation is unlikely as subjective influences occur on the creation and the creator (van Dijk, 2009), therefore the ‘actual meaning is to be found in the reader, not in the author’ (Hartman, 1996). This would suggest that in the absence of contemporary postmodernist culture, and from reader to reader, meaning would differ as connotative elements decipherable from this image are dependent on culture and surroundings.

However, this does not render the meaning ambiguous, but rather amorphous or transitional, thus refuting the notion that one definitive, immovable meaning can be extricated from Leonard Nimoy’s Mattise circle. Notwithstanding Hartman’s argument, one may apply context to in such away that the purpose and the meaning unite to examine the effects of andocentric paradigms which have seemingly transgressed into contemporary representations of women, thus presenting an ideological model of society which should cease to categorise women on the basis of their appearance.


Andrews, M. (1997) The acceptable face of feminism: the women’s institute as a social movement. London: Lawrence & Wishart

Angier, N., Nimoy, L. & Tucker, A.W. (2007) The Full Body Project: Photographs by Leonard Nimoy. New York: Five Ties Publishing

Barthes, R.(1977): Image-Music-Text. Translated by: Heath, S. (1977) New York: Hill and Wang

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography. Translated by: Howard, R. (1981) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.

Baudrillard, J. (2001) Poster, M. ed. Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Beasley, C. What is feminism? An introduction to feminist theory. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Brownell, H., Potter, H., & Michelow, D. (1984) Sensitivity to lexical denotation and connotation in brain-damaged patients: A double dissociation? Brain and . Vol. 22, (2), pp. 253-265.

Chandler, D. (1994) Semiotics for Beginners [Internet] Available form: [Accessed: 27th November 2009]

Ellis, A. (2007) Girth and nudity, a pictorial mission. New York Times. 13th May. [Internet] Available from: [Accessed: 13th December 2009]

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies (Studies in culture & communication). London: Routledge

Gauntlett, D. (2008) Media, gender and identity: an introduction. Abingdon: Routeledge

Hartman, P. (1996) What is "Postmodernism"?. [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 26th December 2009]

Jefkins, F. & Yadin, D. (2000) Advertising. 4th ed..Harlow: Pearson Ltd

LeMonchek, L. (1997) Loose women, lecherous men: a feminist philosophy of sex. New York: Oxford University Press. (page 76)

Lerner, G. (1975) Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges. Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, (2), pp. 5-14

Lupton, G. (1992) Approaching Sociology. In: In: Lupton, G., Short, P., Whip, R. Society and Gender: an introduction to sociology. pp. 1-25. Melbourne: Macmillian Education Australia PTY LTD

Mcnay, L. (1992) Foucault and feminism: , gender and the self. Oxford: Polity Press

Nimoy, L. (2007) Artist Statement: The Full Body Project. [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 21st November 2009]

Nimoy, L. (2007) The Full Body Project. [Online Image]. Available at: [Accessed 2nd November]

Panofsky, E. (1955) Meaning in the visual arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Petley, J. (2002) Advertising. London: Hodder Wayland

Ramazanoğlu, C (1989) Feminism and the contradictions of oppression. London: Routeledge

Rigsby, B. (1992) Sex and Gender, Biology and Culture. In: Lupton, G., Short, P., Whip, R. Society and Gender: an introduction to sociology. pp. 26 - 37. Melbourne: Macmillian Education Australia PTY LTD

Sloane, E. (2002) Biology of women. 4th ed. New York: Delmar

Van Dijk, T.A. (2009) Society and discourse: How social context influence text and talk. [Internet] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available from: [Accessed 1st January 2010]

Watkins, G. (2000) Feminism is for everybody: passionate . London: Pluto Press

Suggested Reading from StudentPulse

Statistics show that it is reasonable to argue that an increasing number of people worldwide are convinced of the importance of gender equality, in other words the idea that women and men should have equal rights and receive... MORE»
The purpose of this research is to identify trends and themes that reflect feminist values in American women’s magazines throughout history. The goal is to show that feminism was an frequently discussed topic in American... MORE»
Since the early 20th century, the feminist movement has made enormous strides to improve the status of female athletes. Prior to the movement’s achievements, female athletes had to play in much poorer facilities, under different rules, and with stricter dress codes than male athletes. Society also largely ignored and discriminated... MORE»
The prevailing issue of fin-de-siècle France was the increasing autonomy of women. Independence for women threatened traditional social and gender roles, and consequently men’s civil power. Margaret and Frances Macdonald embodied this “new woman” with their status and education as professional artists and... MORE»
nsequences. Kingdom varies significantly from one election to the next, be that in a general election or in local elections.1 We originally wanted to discover the reasons as to why the public choose to vote or not. Having... MORE»
Submit to Student Pulse, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Student Pulse provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Student Pulse's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP