Just over a decade ago I got bored with my nice cosy life and my nice cosy job – this seems to happen every few years – and decided to do a Master’s Degree in photography. Studying photography is a license to explore places and talk to people you wouldn’t normally have the guts to approach. In my case it gave me the courage to explore the gay subculture of bears, who are, per Wikipedia, “large, hairy men who project an image of rugged masculinity.” An experience for which I, a straight skinny woman, am grateful for.
Why bears? I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, but I knew something was broken with my obsessive quest to stay lean, angular, wiry and lanky. The idea that there were people out there who somehow had permission to be big/bulky/chunky/meaty/fleshy and not only didn’t feel guilty about it but celebrated it felt utopian. Who didn’t want to be invisible. Who didn’t give a damn about what other people thought. Who felt they had the right to take up ample amounts of space.
The next couple of years I lived off the generosity of a wide variety of men all loosely affiliated with the bear tribe. I’d turn up at their doors with my camera and my lights and we’d collaborate on pictures – a leap of faith on both ends.
I loved the outlaw defiance of the bears I met, that they loved food, loved their bodies as a source of pleasure, not of guilt or shame. Their willingness to be vulnerable opened me up to being more vulnerable. I wasn’t just a reporter documenting a scene, I was a human being looking at another human being and vice versa.
I learned that the nonchalant confidence with which they enjoyed their bodies was often hard-won. Mainstream gay culture was (and is) very prescriptive about beauty norms, and bears broke every rule, often landing them in a position of being double outcasts. Being a straight woman helped; I knew about norms.
I wish I could say that this project changed how I felt about my own body. It did give me more confidence to stand my ground and to look other people straight in the eye. It changed and expanded my definition of beauty. But actually change my own size? Take up real space? I don’t know what it will take to do that.