Even if you don’t totally recognize the name Nancy Upton, you have seen her pictures everywhere. For the last two weeks, news outlets and blogs have been abuzz about the woman who entered American Apparel’s Next Big Thing Contest by sending in pictures of herself bathed in ranch dressing, eating in a pool, and covering her lady regions with a cherry pie. For those in the know, it was clear that her intent was to skewer the way American Apparel and other fashion industry giants seem to view plus-sized women. But she never imagined that she’d win the contest in a landslide nor cause an international media stir. So I was particularly thrilled to be able to break into her very busy interviewing schedule to have a chat about fashion, sizeism, body image and more!
Nancy first heard about the contest when she read about it on Jezebel. When she checked out the contest, she found it really condescending. “I’ve always found [their advertising] to be a little pornographic and obviously really objectifying of women but also portraying women in a submissive, kind of negative, role.” She said that normally she would notice that and just go about her day, but this time, she couldn’t get the idea of the contest out of her mind. “I just got this image of these people sitting around a conference table, being like, ‘Oh, these fat girls eating food and blah blah blah.’ And I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I gave them”¦ what I imagine they’re thinking about.” She also wanted there to be a nod to the bizarre high fashion imagery that we see on shows like America’s Next Top Model.
So she got together with her friend, photographer Shannon Skloss, and they shot the now well-known images of Nancy. But when she submitted the photos, she had no idea of the impact it would have. “I was doing this interview with Jeanne Moos today who is on the Wolf Blitzer show,” she told me. “This woman, who has probably interviewed Hilary Clinton, who’s talked to diplomats… talked about the financial crisis, is interviewing me to put me on CNN to talk about me getting in a tub of ranch dressing. ” On a personal level, putting together this project has given Nancy the opportunity to begin to find her voice as an artist. Nancy had always admired musician/performance artist/ author Amanda Palmer and the way she uses different media to express herself. She told me, “I had a lot of strong opinions and I had a lot of strong ideas but I could never think of how to express them. And I would get ideas to do things and I would think, ‘That’s dumb; nobody wants to see that.'”¦So to do it, when I’m almost not even realizing I’m doing it, has been the most amazing gift.”
I asked Nancy about her own experience with body image, and not surprisingly, her story mirrors many of the ones we often hear. “I used to hate my body,” she told me, “I used to be extremely depressed about my body.” Even at her most athletic, when she was running 7 or 8 minute miles, she would “torture herself about” love handles and cellulite. “If I liked a guy and he didn’t like me, I would think it was because of my weight. If I was auditioning for a role and I didn’t get, I would think it was because of my weight.” Nancy credits therapy and the realization that there were things she could change and things she couldn’t change about her body that she grew to accept it.
For Nancy, taking these photos and putting them out there also represented another level of healing for her. All of the photos she submitted (except one) were completely un-photoshopped, because she wanted her body to look as it looks in real life. But it was still hard for her to look at the proofs. “My immediate reaction to them was to be a bit scared”¦ if I hadn’t told people I was going to do it, I might have chickened out.” Now she’s so glad that she posted them. “Since I put those up and had the response I had and it started a dialogue – I don’t think I’ve ever felt so comfortable with my body. It really has been kind of a powerful thing.”
Going forward, Nancy’s considering doing more in the area of body image and fashion. “Right now, I have what very few people get in their lives, and that’s a platform”¦ I feel like it would be a missed opportunity if I couldn’t bring more light onto this subject.”
Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. Go to http://www.bodylovewellness.com/free to get your free download – Golda’s Top Ten Tips For Divine Dining!