Is Obesity the New Obscenity?


Leonard Nimoy and Raphael
Leonard Nimoy’s photo and the Raphael inspiration


Facebook has decided that I post offensive material, and I have been warned to desist.

On Saturday morning, I logged into Facebook, expecting to spend a few minutes checking what my friends were up to, reposting some of their more interesting comments, pictures and links, and responding to messages. I also had links that I wanted to post about art, writing, grants and creativity – plus the usual humorous, heartwarming or meaningful pictures or videos I thought folks would enjoy. In other words, I planned a routine social visit on Facebook, before logging off to work on my current novel in progress.

But Facebook had other plans for me.

Instead of taking me directly to my FB page, a rather intimidating message popped up. It stated in no uncertain terms that I had posted an offensive nude photograph, which Facebook had excised from my page and feed (i.e. censored). Then I was shown my online albums, was commanded to remove any other pictures of naked people, and I had to confirm by checkmark that I had no such pictures left on Facebook. I didn’t think they were referring to the various Renoirs, Matisses, Goyas, Picassos and such that I’ve posted over the years. So I clicked the Agree button, and I was allowed to enter Facebook’s supposedly squeaky clean domain.

Of course, I knew immediately which photograph Facebook had found so offensive, and I’m convinced it wasn’t because it was of nude women, but because it was of obese nude women.

In fact, it was a picture from The Full Body Project, a book of photographs by Leonard Nimoy, which is Amazon’s number one best seller in Women’s Studies. What’s more, my posting wasn’t just of the photograph, but a link to a lovely tribute to Mr. Nimoy in the New York Observer My Friend Leonard Nimoy was a Fervent Feminist by Abby Ellin.


Like many millions of others, my fascination with Leonard Nimoy began with a young girl’s crush on Mr. Spock. But it was only as I learned more about the man behind the actor, that I began to admire him – as a thinker, author, artist and philanthropist. And then there was the phone call.

When the phone rang, it was far too early. I was still in bed, in the tiny one-room New York City apartment where I had moved soon after college.

“Hello, this is Leonard Nimoy.”

I was suddenly quite wide awake.

The night before, a friend of my aunt’s mentioned that Mr. Nimoy was going to be on her early morning radio show. I told her (I hope I didn’t gush) how much I admired him and wished I could have the same opportunity to chat with him. Now he was on the other end of the phone line.

I wish I could recall everything he said; it was so many years ago. But I do remember a lengthy chat about writing and literature and the essence of storytelling. I said something about how few novels, especially science fiction, were written by women. (There were even fewer female authors recognized back then.) He said, “What about Ursula K. LeGuin?” But then he acknowledged that she was an exception to the rule.

It could have ended there. Instead Mr. Nimoy asked me about the books I wanted to write. He appeared to like my stories’ feminist/humanist foundation. He asked questions, challenging me to think and consider connections beyond the obvious. Before signing off, he encouraged me to never stop trying, to keep writing.

I’m still amazed that not only did my aunt’s friend give Leonard Nimoy my phone number but that he bothered to call, and how generous he was with his time, his encouragement and his advice. It meant a lot to me at the time and resonates to this day. He was the first established professional to talk with me as a creative equal. I can draw a line from that half hour years ago to the publication of my novel The Winter Boy a few months ago. Of course, it wasn’t a straight line. I experienced a lot of stops, false starts and detours along the way. But his encouragement and probing questions gave me a great initial push.

I have learned since then that, while the one phone call was a pivotal and unique moment for me, it was life-as-usual for Leonard Nimoy. I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next few weeks, in the wake of his passing, that many others will come forward with similar stories about his open-handed kindness.

What’s more, I believe that same life-affirming generosity of spirit and mind was behind Mr. Nimoy’s superb photography.


If I’m honest with myself, I must admit that I had a moment’s hesitation before posting Leonard Nimoy’s photograph of naked obese women on Facebook. That was precisely why I wanted to post it. Because it made me uncomfortable, and that in turn made me question myself and my preconceptions.

Intellectually I may rail against how society, media and pop culture have created a distorted, unrealistic view of what women should look like if we want to be accepted and respected. Yet I am upset that I’ve gained ten pounds over the past few months, and I struggle daily with my diet, unhappy with what I see in the mirror and berating myself for failing to lose the excess as quickly as I gained it.

In her piece for the New York Observer, Abby Ellin quoted Leonard Nimoy as saying, “The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25 percent more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold…. Most women will not be able to look like those models…. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.'”

Ms. Ellin added, “Some people wondered if Nimoy had a ‘fat fetish.’ Hardly. He was intentionally trying to affect change, and he made it his mission. ‘Any time a fat person gets on a stage to perform and is not the butt of a joke — that’s a political statement,’ he said.”

So let’s look at his photograph of three naked fat women, the one that Facebook said was so offensive. The first thing any of us sees is the fat. But look closer, at their confidence, their sense of grace and comportment. The picture is a celebration of their full, rich humanity. It is also an homage to another work of art: The Three Graces by the great Renaissance painter Rafael.

Go ahead, post The Three Graces on your Facebook page. I did. Facebook had no problem with it. So clearly, it isn’t the nudity in the picture that they objected to but the flagrant obesity. Not only that, these women — and Mr. Nimoy — are joyous, delighting in who they are, ignoring your and my discomfort with their size, their flesh that bulges and pockmarks. They dare to flaunt who they are, and not just what we would want them to be, and they throw our prejudices back in our faces
Thank you, Leonard Nimoy. Once again you have challenged me to see beyond the obvious, to seek new perspectives and think creatively, humanistically. To embrace life in all its joyous imperfections, and enjoy the dance.


UPDATE Sunday evening, Feb. 1: After Facebook’s takedown of Leonard Nimoy’s photo from my page, protests from friends and friends of friends were posted on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. And, I guess Facebook was listening, because the photo with my friends comments has been reinstated. However strangely, it isn’t my original link to Ms. Ellin’s article. It’s almost as though someone at Facebook recognized they made a mistake, and simply put up any link they could find with the picture.

FURTHER UPDATE: March 2nd: Facebook has just removed another of the postings. This one was of the side-by-side comparison of Mr. Nimoy’s photo and Rafael’s painting as shown on this page.

1 comment on “Is Obesity the New Obscenity?

  • Humans aren’t doing the censorship — there is way too much out there. AI is doing it. When Facebook put the picture back, it was a human intervention. Then a little later, AI took it down again. AI is still learning. If AI ever learns to discern art from pornography, we’ll have a new life form to deal with. In the meantime they need to whitelist works of art wrongly removed so the AI will give it a pass.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>