We probably wouldn’t admit it out loud, but most of us genuinely care about what other people think. Whether it’s about our appearance, intelligence or our popularity, we’ve all, at one point or another, tried to avoid the judgmental stare of a stranger or random passersby.
Artist, professor, and photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero, however, isn’t afraid to be herself-–judgmental stares or not. In fact, she encourages us to take a long, hard look at how people perceive each other.
In 2010, Morris-Cafiero introduced the world to “Wait Watchers“–a photo series of self-portraits that jump-started a conversation about fat-shaming.
Unlike most self-portraits, these images focus on the reactions of the strangers who are standing in the background.
Morris-Cafiero says the idea for the project came to her when she noticed a stranger smirking behind her in a photo she took in Times Square.
Her work wasn’t truly discovered until three years later when her images appeared on Lenscratch, Then she went viral. Even Anderson Cooper’s producers and Good Morning America were interested in meeting the artist behind (I guess, in this case, we can say the artist in) the photos.
But there was just one problem: The comment section of the publications that ran her story was filled with the exact type of hate she was trying to prevent.
“I don’t know if I was naïve,” Morris-Cafiero told Slate. “I was expecting that people would criticize the photographs, but they just started attacking me: how I look, how I’m going to die of diabetes, all of these things you could never tell from someone just by looking at them.”
Sadly, the remarks didn’t stop there.
She also received hateful emails.
Trolls and other people who had nothing better to do with their lives attempted to contact Morris-Cafiero via email through accounts with usernames like “Ihateyou@gmail.com.”
To make matters worse, those who weren’t worried about hiding their identity reached out via their personal/professional email to tell her things like: I’m not fat-shaming you, but if you leave the house looking like that you should get hit.”
A hoard of cyberbullies, just hiding behind their keyboards.
“It’s getting to the point where the craziest thing you can say in the room gets you the most attention,” Morris-Cafiero tells Slate. “When you have anonymous profiles you can just delete when things get heated.”
In an effort to really make an impact, Morris-Cafiero decided to turn her photo project into a book titled “The Watchers.”
To do it, she raised funds through a Kickstarter campaign.
“In addition to critical emails and comments, I have received hundreds of emails from supportive people who have found inspiration in my photographs,” Morris-Cafiero writes on her Kickstarter page.
Some fans even thanked her for giving them the power to love their body again.
“Some say ‘thank you’ and others tell stories of my images helping them love their body, overcome bullying or not commit suicide. Most of these people will not see my work in a gallery or museum. They need the images to hold in the hands and access them whenever they desire. The only way to achieve this is through publishing a book.”
Before her book was published, Morris-Cafiero decided to go out and do what society wanted her to do–”exercise and get a makeover.”
She even traveled to the land of Kale and Pilates (AKA Los Angeles) to do it.
“By attempting to ‘improve’ myself, I am engaging in the conversation of body acceptance and idealized beauty standards that unrealistic and unwanted by many people,” she told ATTN. “I love my body and these unsolicited criticisms fueled me to make new images.”
According to an essay Morris-Cafiero wrote for Salon, her struggle with her body image started shortly after her high school graduation.
When she entered college, the soccer stopped and her weight jumped from a size seven to a size 14 in just a few weeks.
“I played soccer my whole life, sometimes three teams at one time. I never thought about ‘exercising,'” she wrote. “I just ran around, knocked people over and kicked the ball hard.”
Before long, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid is unable to produce the necessary hormones to keep the body running normally.
“Though I did go through phases of food restriction and over-exercise, I came to realize that I shouldn’t punish myself for something I can’t control,” she wrote.
“Self-criticism is a waste of time. I look worse with tons of makeup and products in my hair. I am happy when I am not stressed–so I don’t stress.”
The book, which was published by The Magenta Foundation in 2015, is available in three versions.
There’s a Regular Trade Edition, a Boxed Special Edition, and a Deluxe Special Edition complete with special edition print.
With 615 backers, “The Watchers” received more than $24,000 in its Kickstarter campaign. What’s more? Morris-Cafiero promised backers who donated $10 or more a shout-out in the acknowledgment section of the book.
Now Morris-Cafiero is working on a new project called The Bully Pulpit.
And she’s using her haters as inspiration.
After Morris-Cafiero published her book, she decided to start a project called The Bully Pulpit where she uses the comments of her anti-fans to recreate the profile photos of the bullies who made fun of her.
Not only does she use their actual comments, but she dresses up in a costume, you know, to really get her point across.
“I resolved the challenge in early 2018 when I realized that an image cannot be removed from the internet, and if it includes text in the image then it could not be deleted,” she tells the British Journal of Photography.
“I decided to costume myself like the photos of my bullies that I found on their public profiles. I then inserted their bullying comment into the photograph.”
The Bully Project focuses on commenters’ behavior rather than her body or her work.
For Morris-Cafiero, a commenter’s need to speak out says more about them than it ever could about her.
“If they had more productive outlets, I am sure that they would be using their efforts for those purposes,” she continues.
“Some of these people truly believe that they are trying to help me–which is what is the saddest part, that they think someone needs their help in this way.”
According to Healthline, body-shaming actually causes people to eat more.
The fact that people actually think they’re helping her is beyond us.
Morris-Cafiero says she chose her bullies for this project based on whose profile photo inspired her the most visually. If the commenter used a fake or cartoon profile photo, a quick Google search gave her what she was looking for.
She even found one guy’s mugshot.
Looks like the internet isn’t so “private” after all.
“I found where he was arrested and within two hours I had his mugshot,” Morris-Cafiero adds.
“Through this, I also want to challenge what we believe as public versus what is private.”
But anonymity wasn’t the only thing fueling her haters.
While some commenters preferred hiding behind a fake profile photo or cartoon illustration, others trolled in crowds. (So, if one troll commented, another would follow.)
And according to Morris-Cafiero, some of these bullies were even “celebrated” and “egged on” by other internet users in the thread.
By using their hateful words in this project, Morris-Cafiero is allowing their awful behavior to speak for itself.
While in her costumes, she allows herself a bit of irony.
The outfits Morris-Cafiero constructed for The Bully Project are borderline grotesque as she’s trying to allude to “the false sense of protection that the internet provides these and other bullies.”
Morris-Cafiero gives her bully’s comments a tangible or, I guess you could say visual, ugliness.
“As I am interested in addressing difficult subjects in my work, I use humor to neutralize some of that negativity,” Morris-Cafiero says.
“For Bully Pulpit, I wanted humor to be present in the photos because I always laugh when I receive or read one of these comments. I think it is such a waste of their time and electricity to write a comment that they think will hurt me or make me stop what I am doing.”
Body-shaming isn’t just a mean thing people do on the internet to pass time.
It’s actually harmful to the victim’s health.
The harmful effects of body-shaming go far beyond increased weight gain. It can lead to eating disorders, depression, reduced self-esteem, and, in some cases, suicide.