Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Make You Watched, but Not Seen

There is a world of difference between being seen and being watched. Many people live in the space of this difference, especially those whose very bodies are seen as a threat. A simple example is of a teenager walking into a 7-11 and being under the scrutiny of the cashier, who is waiting for them to shoplift, which is totally different from being acknowledged (seen) as a valued customer. We’ve spoken a lot about invisibility in the two weeks or so, but the flip side of hypervisibility can have incredibly negative impacts as well.

Hypervisibility is a type of scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance. Often, this deviance becomes a focal point for outside attention and comes to symbolize or represent a hypervisible person, group or place. When you become overly visible, you’re often constantly under the gaze of others. You are being looked at, sure, but you are being watched and judged, so it’s not kind of visibility that people tend to seek if given a choice.

There are probably times in your life when you’ve felt hypervisible. When have you felt like you were under scrutiny because you were the “odd one out”? When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I sometimes feel like my woman-ness stands out and puts more critical eyes on me, making me hesitant to speak. It’s at these moments that my emotions, appearance, gender, intelligence or feminism are mostly likely to garner dismissive or harsh comments. If I come across as ‘too much’ of woman, I can lose credibility and respect to some degree. These are daily moments that can highlight the discomfort of being made more visible based on difference or deviance.

Hypervisibility is experienced by many groups, but I think two clear examples in a North American context are Black women and Muslim people. These two groups are both frequently the object of media attention without being offered many opportunities to genuinely shape how they are represented or allowed space to become active subjects of media coverage by driving the story based on their own perspective. This often boils down to, on a basic level, seeing a lot of footage of these groups without hearing from them. They are highly visible within mainstream culture, but the coverage is based on reaffirming their difference and leans heavily on stereotypes to establish their deviance.

Hypervisible as Hypersexualized

In the United States, Black women have historically been stereotyped and depicted as hypersexualized and constantly available, particularly to white men. Unfortunately, that image of the sexualized Black woman is hypervisible. This means that the stereotype of the hypersexual, hyper-available Black woman is incredibly pervasive because this idea is repeated (re-presented) over and over.

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[Image depicts a Black woman with a large afro with her back to the viewer. She is only wearing very short booty shorts and has turned half way back towards the viewer so that some of her breast is revealed. She uses one hand to shield herself. She is winking and the the text behind her says, “Free Ride.”]

This is no new phenomenon, although with media available to access 24/7 hypervisibility has been taken to a whole new level. For generations, Black women were seen in the West as constantly sexually available and deviant compared to the supposed ‘modesty’ of respectable white women. Treva Lindsey, a Women’s and Gender Studies professor, has a really interesting talk available on YouTube speaking to the history of hypervisible and hypersexualized Black women in the United States. She also discusses the challenges of trying to negotiate  a powerful erotic space in the face of hypervisible hypersexualized imagery that haunts women of colour and Black women in particular. Making room for the kind of sexual performance that can be empowering rather than exploitative can be challenging when so many people insist on seeing (and depicting) your body as negatively sexualized and objectified.

Heads, I win. Tails, you lose

Managing visibility is arguably a critical, challenging and frustratingly necessary skill for those who are vulnerable to both invisibility and hypervisibility. If hypervisibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny while invisibility enforces silence and erasure, marginalized groups are left in a precarious position. Visibility therefore becomes a double edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Is it worth trying to be seen if it really just opens me up to be judged?

Managing visibility is very difficult in this position, as you’re likely to get burned in either direction without the benefit of truly being seen and acknowledged. On a day to day basis, it can require the choice of a) speaking up for yourself/others and being ridiculed/threatened, or b) staying silent and your interests being ignored/invisible. I don’t know if the decision of what to do in this situation gets any less stressful over time, but I think practice makes it easier if you do choose to speak up. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the moment when you are asked to risk hypervisibility or invisibility? Have you been successful in making yourself visible and heard in that situation?

Making Everyone’s “Watch List”

Muslims and Arabs in the West, but particularly in the United States, are experiencing an awful type of hypervisibility. After 9/11, there has been a significant number of people who perceive Muslim people negatively, even stereotyping them as terrorists merely for practicing their faith.  Sadly, there were 157 reported) hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in 2011;the numbers don’t appear to have settled even over a decade after 9/11. The wrongful and harmful representation of Muslim and Arab people in the media has left many people extremely uninformed about the realities of those groups. This has hardly increased cross-cultural understanding. In the wake of a national tragedy, there has been a rush to ‘secure,’ surveil and detain, but Muslim and Arab people have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on being a hypervisible “threat.” Muslims and Arabs across North America are being profiled,* judged, jailed, denied entry, stereotyped, threatened and even killed for how their bodies are seen.

In fact, even those who can be mistaken for Muslim, like people who are Sikh or look Arab, are feeling the negative spillover effects of this hypervisibility as well.  And when I say “negative spillover effects,” I mean that people have been killed because they were mistaken for being Muslim, as we saw in 2001 when a gas station owner was murdered for the mistake and, in August of last year, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was the target of an assault that ending in 6 people dead and more injured.

It can be dangerous to be hypervisible. It may mean that when people see you, they see red. There are real, horrifying consequences to your body – your race, your religious expression, your nationality, your sexuality – being deemed a threat. (Perceived) deviance seems dangerous to some and often falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see individuals but a monolithic risk or inferior group. Unseen and  unacknowledged but always under scrutiny, hypervisible groups may find that invisibility is actually preferable. If being hypervisibility puts you at risk of violence, judgment, exclusion, or even a hate crime, there’s little surprise that people surround themselves in their community, whatever that may be.

In fact, hypervisibility really is just another way to deny people recognition and the right to be truly seen. It is the trial by fire version of invisibility; instead of freezing you out, we’ll put you on the hot seat. It’s still not a place at the table. The ability to be recognized is so often constructed as privilege reserved for lucky few whose bodies and identities are accepted by default. As a white, generally abled, cis woman and Canadian citizen, I often have the privilege to blend in when I need to and be heard when I’d like. My taste of hypervisibility comes mostly by way of gender, but my other privileges often soften the scrutiny I might otherwise feel if I ‘overstep.’ In some cases, I am more likely to find people like me in the room who can act as allies when I feel the eyes of others on me.

This privilege requires me to try to act as an ally for those who don’t benefit from this kind of easy visibility. It is my responsibility to try to soften the gaze on those who are constantly under the microscope in the media, constantly being asked to explain and justify and erase their difference. Maybe at first this just looks like recognizing my own contribution and refusing to judge. Maybe it is working to challenge policies that target hypervisible groups or petitioning media to offer better representation. Speaking to peers, friends and family about stereotypes and challenging their assumptions about people can be difficult, but as you question the judgment of others, it also opens you up to question judgment of yourself. Scrutiny of difference, labelling that as deviance and punishing it, benefits no one. Visibility can be about recognizing and welcoming, rather than exploiting and rejecting – if we are looking at it the right way.

*More general profiling information here, for example, as it is a clear consequence of being seen as a hypervisible threat and it applies to many groups.

Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink: When the Media Covers Fat Bodies

Media coverage does not always equate to being seen. The representation of fat people in media is an unfortunate example of poor representation resulting in more invisibility than visibility. When the media relies on stereotypes and clichés, it is not creating space for new voices. Instead, it continues to empower those who already set narrow limits on who can be seen or heard in public forums.

Stereotypes about fat people are so common that many people don’t realize they’re stereotypes at all. Too many believe that fat people actually are all unhealthy, gluttonous, lazy, sick, undisciplined, stupid (ugh)… and the negative representation by the media must take some share of blame for insuring the strength and prominence of these stereotypes. The mainstream media too often gives airtime to negative depictions of fat people and effectively supports the sizism that costs people jobs, promotions, relationships, health care service, self-esteem and more. However, for me, one of the most striking aspects of fat representation in the media is the literal portrayal of fat bodies in news coverage. How are fat people and their bodies typically shown?

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[Image: fat man seated at a picnic table eating take away and drinking Coke. His face was excluded from the photo.]

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[Image: A man sits on a bench. The camera focuses on his round stomach and his face has not been included.]image

[Image: Two people featured next to a garbage can, clearly caught in a candid photo. Their heads have been cropped out.]

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[Image: Fat person seated in an outdoor chair. Again, their face is not pictured]

Faceless people are splashed across newspapers and television screens on a regular basis as reporters emphasize the ‘obesity epidemic,’ and I have to wonder how much easier it is to uphold sizism/weight discrimination when you don’t put the name to a face. Fat activist Charlotte Cooper called this phenomenon the “Headless Fatty” and it is incredibly pervasive. Cooper writes,

“As Headless Fatties, the body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions. Instead we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether.”

There is something intensely dehumanizing about the number of faceless photos and videos of fat people that are constantly being distributed. The subjects of these photos are never given the benefit of an identity, having it stripped from them along with their facial features, and they are never given the opportunity to gaze back at all those who will be looking at them and scrutinizing. The media coverage is silencing and erasing, not representing or creating space.

Coverage of ‘obesity’ leans so heavily on these faceless photos and I wonder, is it that much easier to fall back on stereotypes and shallow judgments when you don’t feel like you’re describing the bodies of actual people? Does the media portrayal encourage people to dehumanize the people around them? What could be the impact of radically unapologetic and human depictions of fat people in our media?

Critically, how can the audience be expected to relate and connect to subjects of a news story without being able to see their face and recognize shared humanity? This question just reveals that stories about fat people aren’t typically asking the audience to relate to those they see on screen – justreact. Scorn or shame or fear or reject as a “part of the problem” instead of part of the community. Fat people aren’t the subject of these news stories, really; they’re the object of those stories.

Sometimes I wonder if the news team thinks that they’re doing people a favour by not identifying anyone in particular in the pictures that play over newscasts that announce the new obesity figures for America. Who wants to be the face of an epidemic? Plus, the idea that there is so much shame to fatness that you would not want to be recorded while fat is depressingly common. Of course, this fat phobic rationale is hardly a good excuse for dehumanizing fat people.

The fact is, removing heads from bodies doesn’t eliminate the fact that those cropped and cut bodies are still people, still pictures of bodies that belong to real, breathing people. Only now, those people are faceless, nameless… just a walking stereotype. Charlotte Cooper writes of“Headless Fatties” in the news,

“…these are real people who look as though they’ve been photographed without their knowledge, consent, or payment of any kind, for commercial photographs that are then marketed and sold by photographers and agencies. I wonder what it must feel like to open the paper one morning, or click onto a news site, and see a headless version of yourself there, against a headline decrying people who look like you.”

As for the audience, we are left nothing else to go on as viewers butstereotypes. We are shown footage of crowds where people’s faces are omitted and their voices are rarely heard. The camera focuses in on stomachs and bums, as if they were separate from who they are attached to. The scrutiny is so focused on weight that the photographer can’t be bothered to include any other feature of their subjects. The gaze is so intense and yet fails to see so completely. It is ridiculous how invisible this type of ‘visibility’ can make you.

Most of the footage and pictures and coverage of fat people in America isn’t doing anyone any good as a representation of fat people. It is not offering complex stories or new voices. It is just the same dominant voice speaking over footage of crowds, warning us over and over that you too could becomefaceless I mean, fat. This is the definition of invisibility through visibility. Just because your body (or bodies like yours) is in public space it doesn’t mean that you have been acknowledged, accepted or empowered. Just because you appear on the nightly news doesn’t mean your story is being told. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

References:

  1. Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Available:http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07
  2. Fat Studies Reader
  3. Special thanks to Marilyn Wann for help with this piece. Check her out at http://fatso.com/

Seeing is Believing: Why Media Representation Matters

[I spent this evening chatting about women and media representation at Eastside Yoga, so I thought it was time to share this post, which was featured on The Body is Not an Apology in August. Take a look at the next few posts to get my series of posts on media, visibility, invisibility and some of the consequences of (mis)representation. You can find all of them under the tag or category (In)visibility or Representation.]

Seeing is Believing

In North America today, we are exposed to media on a nearly constant basis. The average teenager now spends over 7 hours a day consuming media and so it’s hard to argue that it’s not having any impact on how we experience the world. For much of the day, we’re living in the media landscape through the internet, cellphones, television, advertisements, magazines, and movies. Unfortunately, the world of the media sometimes proves to be a strange parallel universe that excludes the reality of many, many people.

If you step back and take a look at the media, who you see? Better yet, who don’t you see? The answer may be: You. Your friends. Your family. Even if we forget for a moment about wanting accurate or positive portrayals, some groups can’t even seem to get time on the screen, even if you spend 7 hours staring at one!

When you turn on the television, who is reporting your news? And who is deciding what’s newsworthy? Who is on the cover of the book you’re reading? Whose stories are told? Who is in on the cover of magazines?

[Photo of Vanity Fair’s 2010 Young Hollywood issue featuring 9 young actresses, from left to right: Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick.]

There has been significant frustration with the whiteness of magazine covers, for example, but this phenomenon is just another aspect of the whiteness of media in general. In 2010, Fearless Magazine noticed a rather ridiculous lack of any visible women of colour in the photo spread above from Vanity Fair for their Young Hollywood 2010 issue and Fearless decided they wanted to do a different version.

[Photo of Fearless Magazine’s Class of 2010, featuring Lauren London, Monique Coleman, Tia Mowry, Tiffany Hines, Naturi Naughton, Kyla Pratt, Jennifer Freeman, and Chyna Layne]

Magazine covers are hardly the be all, end all when it comes to the media, but not letting Vanity Fair’s cover go unanswered is an important challenge to media norms. The covers of popular publications give us a sense of who major media producers think will get attention (i.e. sell more copies). More importantly, they also set up who they think belongs in the public eye and whose body gets to be seen – and being seen matters.

The media helps to shape who and what we see as important, as well as outlining the range of visible options for what is collectively seen as possible. Who can be a politician? Who can be celebrated? Who is part of the community and who is Other, the outsider? Who is seen to live happy, healthy lives, and whose lives are invisible? If you see yourself, or someone like you, portrayed positively in the media, it can offer a sense of belonging and opportunity, but the opposite is also true.

For example, the It Gets Better campaign is an attempt (not without its own problems) to create media that offers representations that the mainstream media and culture do not: real, (generally) happy stories of LGBT folks overcoming challenges and achieving their dreams. With all of the negative representations of the queer community in the media, many people felt that it was critical to offer a different version of the story, particularly in response to high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among LGBT youth.

The media is one of our tools for interpreting our reality, but when our reality is absent from the media, we may feel like our role has been written out. We may feel ignored, rejected, or erased.

Miss Representation is a documentary that seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, myself included. Although the movie itself is hardly a perfect example of representation, it did get a lot of people’s attention focused on the issue of how women are (under/mis)represented in the mediaand the important impact that this has on the world. In the film, Marie Wilson quotes Marian Wright Edelman, saying:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This quote really hit me hard. How do you dream from scratch, with no role models to be found? If you can’t see yourself reflected out there, how do you believe you belong? How do you visualize your future?

Still, I would like to revise the notion a little, because many people never do see examples of the people that they hope to become – and they do it anyway. It is too often a privilege to be able to look around and find examples of dreamers who look like you. Obama had to believe that he could be the President of the United States, regardless of what history and the media told him. Hillary Clinton had to believe it too. On a more daily level, many people have been able to imagine lives for themselves that they didn’t see reflected around them by peers or the media.

It’s not impossible to be a trail blazer by any stretch, but it’s an up hill climb when you’re the only one you know who can see your vision of your future (or even your present). It’s tough to keep the faith when everyone else is busy convincing you that you’re just dreaming – or just plain “crazy.” Often, it’s a whole lot easier not to defy everyone else’s expectations. In fact, in a way, the problem at hand isn’t about what you see necessarily, but that people can’t see you. People don’t recognize you or your dreams. To them, you’re invisible, and maybe even “impossible.”

Fortunately, there are more and more people working to create media that offers inclusive representations and positive portrayals. Making media that makes space for everyone is a powerful step towards accepting and celebrating everyone. We should all feel welcome and reflected in our media and in our communities.

BvsB: Blog 2.0

It has been a while. I haven’t been a consistent blogger since I left high school and as I now have a degree, let’s just say that it has been a while, hmm? In light of the last four years, I would like to shift this blog from a focus on my book to a focus on my more general interests. However, there is significant overlap! Topics to be covered will include:

  • The Body (body positivity, fat acceptance, sizism, fatphobia, disordered eating, self-acceptance, ability, wellness, embodiment…)
  • Beauty (beauty standards, Western norms, standardized beauty, normativity, white washing, media representation, pop culture, body policing, heteronormativity…)
  • Social Justice and Intersectional Feminism (sex, gender, anti-racist feminism, trans* rights, sexuality, reproductive rights, classism, equity, inequality, representation, activism, identity…)
  • Media (critique, production, literacy, critical fandom, deconstruction, celebration…)

And more!

You may have noticed that most of the sub-categories could fit in many of the major categories. My interests are wide but are usually all part of the same venn diagram. If you like what you’re seeing above, I politely suggest you subscribe. I will be attempting to post at least once a week in future. 

Second announcement: I am writing for thebodyisnotanapology.tumblr.com as a current Content Intern, so I will be cross posting most of the work that I do there to this blog. I started posting early in the summer, so I have a backlog of content. Get ready for much, much more frequent posts!
So come along for the ride and let me know what you think in the comments.