A college photography professor has embarked on a unique project – to record society’s reactions to her looks.

Haley Morris-Cafiero is a big woman. In an article she wrote recently for Salon, she says that she is used to strangers taking digs at her size. Haley, a photographer and a college professor, is so far beyond the self-doubt and angst, that she’s decided to use her size and her photography skills to conduct a social experiment.

Enter ‘Wait watchers’

For about a year now, Haley has been travelling the world, stationing her tripod in different public spaces, and taking hundreds of photos of herself in these public spaces. She calls this project ‘Wait Watchers’.

The idea is to record how people react to her unabashed fatness.

Sounds a little absurd, right? Surely we’ve arrived at a day and age when society has better things to do than get a kick out of mocking a person because of their body shape!

Apparently not. If Haley’s collection of photographs is anything to go by, we are an incredibly juvenile lot.

In one of the pictures (posted here with permission), a pair of policemen walking behind her seems to be having some fun at Haley’s expense. In another one, a teenager watches Haley eat ice-cream with apparent distaste (the teenager, not Haley).

What does this all mean?

Interestingly, all the people captured in Haley’s shots had full view of the camera in front of them. The cameras were never hidden, or anything. “Even though they are in front of a camera, they feel they have anonymity because they are crossing behind me,” she observed in Salon.

She also observed that the reactions tended to be much more pronounced when she is “doing something” – like eating ice cream. It’s as if strangers were silently admonishing her for being so irresponsible and eating ice cream when they have decided she is too fat to do so.

One could argue that this is being too harsh on these passers-by. We’ve all indulged in some harmless judgementalism at some point in our lives, haven’t we? Some of Haley’s mockers are visibly young and probably far too naive to be branded as unfeeling, shallow individuals.

But then again, that’s the great thing about Haley’s experiment; at least what of it she has shared on the internet. The experiment is not asking for sympathy, it’s not aiming for any form of revenge or to be some kind of exposé.

In the Wait Watchers website, Haley does not even mention her hypothyroidism, a condition that messes with your metabolism and causes you to gain weight.

Wait Watchers does not explicitly draw out any inferences. But the observations itself are pretty fascinating. In Haley Morris-Cafiero’s own words, “I’m just trying to start a conversation.”

(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at nandita.j@thehindu.co.in. You can also tweet her @nandita_j )


This article was modified on May 2, 2013. The affliction in question is 'hypothyroidism', not 'hyperthyroidism' as was written.