An Interview with Julia Kozerski
Julia Kozerski is an artist and photographer whose raw documentation of her own weight loss journey touched a nerve and spread like wildfire. I decided to interview her about her work and how it relates to body image, nudity, and censorship in American culture. Check out the rest of Half, Tag, and other works on her website and read the interview below to learn more!
What inspired you to document your weight loss journey through self-portraiture?
I never planned on photographing myself. In fact, I probably hadn’t been in front of a camera for 10 years before starting these works. In essence, I started utilizing myself as my own muse because I had lot of questions about what I was going through and what was happening to my body. I found solace in the one-on-one interaction I had with my vulnerable self in front of the lens. I couldn’t hide anything (nor did I want to). I wasn’t making images for anyone but myself (and at the time no one saw them but me). I liked that, when the images were captured, I could remove myself from them and look at them like I do with any other photograph, objectively. The act of photographing also helped me stop time. Losing over 160 pounds in a year is fast. I was living in my body the entire time so the transition was “normal” to me, but looking at the still images taken throughout, I can better understand just how not normal it was.
What made you decide to be completely naked in the photos in Half and Tag?
“Half” was shot during the same time as I shot “Changing Room.” My main motivation for beginning my weight loss was in direct reflection to my ideas about how other women looked. I saw 338 pounds on the scale and my first thought was “models are 100 pounds … I am 3 people!” “Changing Room” was more about the fantasy of playing “dress up” with my new body. In the dressing rooms I could be a Barbie, I could see how my physical efforts played out for others to see. “Half” was the truth about the emotional toll that the physical transformation had taken. My experience was not superficial, it was raw, it was real … I needed the images to bare it all and I knew that the truth lay beneath the layers of clothing. My series “Tag” was created in reflection to creating both “Half” and “Changing Room.” It combined the superficial nature of media portrayals of women with the reality of my nude form. “Tag” is the epitome of what I was initially attempting to accomplish with starting my transformation; fitting into these idealized ideals of the body in a futile effort.
There seems to be a major disconnect between your weight loss experience and what’s portrayed on TV and in magazines.. The media seems to promise happiness and confidence from losing weight while your images show something very different.. What is all the emotion behind such a physical transformation? Is it really a depressing, disheartening experience?
You know, this weight-loss experience has been a roller-coaster. There are times of extreme happiness and pride, mixed in with despair and depression. What I understand now (for myself at least) is that I needed to experience the full range, as it helped me better understand myself. With having gone through all of this, I am better in-tune with my mental and physical being. I can better predict how certain choices will result. Before this journey, I wasn’t living, I was just alive (inside an unhealthy, morbidly obese shell at that). I NEVER regret making these changing. Yes, there were tears but now there is nothing but pride in those tears. They are real, they are raw, we all have them (whether you struggle with weight or not, we all wrestle with our own demons/insecurities). My experience taught me what it means to be human.
How did the changes on the outside affect the inside?
When I first began my transformation, it was purely on the basis of aesthetics. I wanted to look like a model. Well … when I began to slowly realize that that wasn’t going to happen, my self-esteem dropped. I wanted to throw in the towel. Luckily, I’d been taking all of these photographs and that is when I started really looking at myself (through the lens) to see what I’d done to myself. The photos were key. In them I saw things that I wasn’t able to grasp/understand in that I was living in myself the entire time. In pausing those moments I could see the positive, even in the negative. I gained a better understanding that what was unfolding was truly real. It was humanity at its best – goals, struggle, pain, love, triumph over evil. While I was disheartened to not see a Vogue model, I was honored to see a nude form which referenced more so to the models seen posing in art historic paintings (what some now call “real women.”) Like anyone else, I still have difficult emotional periods but they are more balanced now. I am still self-critical but who isn’t. My inside (and outside) just feel more “me” (for lack of a better word) than ever. The changes on the outside helped me understand who was on the inside. The images I took of my outside also helped to understand the emotional places I was in and helped me better cope with my changing emotions. The photographs I took of myself played a huge role. I made them for myself and I never meant to show them to anyone else. They were therapeutic in a way, helping me look objectively at the woman in the image. Sharing the images publicly was a giant step, one that I will be forever grateful for. The discussions elicited from my work have been outstanding! I love that my photographs have transcended self (myself) and have become icons for humanity. They have shown me that I/we are not alone in our feelings and emotions and that it is okay to talk about these issues – without embarrassment. (Of course, I have received quite a few negative comments but I’ve come to understand that they stem from the reviewers own insecurities and that what I am doing physically and artistically is right for me.)
Just out of curiosity, what have been some of the negative comments? (Other than thoughtless remarks of “that sucks”, etc)
I have received a variety of negative comments. Most times people say accuse me of lying about my experience (they truly believe I had surgery), other times people comment that I am ugly or that I looked better when I was at my heaviest. Most recently though, I have gotten a few responses that the nudity was unnecessary and offensive. I’m gotten comments (most notably on the images where my husband was included) that I should have covered his penis. “Indecent” is the word they use, and they often write that I should be embarrassed of myself for exposing my most private and personal self in such a public way.
My (unspoken) response to those people … I guess you don’t get it (my message and/or my “art” in general).
So taking nude photos and even sharing them in a hugely public way has helped you accept yourself and your body. Would you recommend this to other people who are trying to lose weight or who are trying to simply accept their bodies?
It’s so interesting that you’ve asked this. You know, I’ve encouraged several people to photograph themselves nude. (Now, I want to preface that with saying that I made it clear that I don’t think it is necessary for everyone to picture themselves naked and share them publicly, as I did.) We live in our bodies 24/7 and we look in the mirror and we see ourselves … it is much different when you hold an image or see a photo of yourself on the computer screen. It’s similar to the reason we all cringe when someone wants to take our picture. The photograph doesn’t lie, it shows us what is really there – whether we like it or not. It allows us to to look objectively at what is shown. My nude images helped me accept myself as I was. In the portraits I saw things that I wanted to work towards changing but I also saw things about myself that made me happy, even proud. It’s easy to hit “delete” or to shred an image so that it would never be seen again. Whether you are losing weight or not, seeing yourself in the “raw” might offer you new insight into yourself and your life.
I agree with you when you say on your website that people are being fed images of unattainable beauty and now more so than ever with the Internet. The result is many other women (and men too) who think they are supposed to, or should, or need to look like a model. What’s the solution… How can they ignore it or look past it?
I still look at the models and I’m still bombarded by the images of unattainable beauty; I’m not sure we will ever be able to avoid it. But, this is where my nude photographs helped me the most. From those images, I understood that I wasn’t a model (and I admitted that I didn’t really want to become one either). My images helped me understand who I was and what I wanted. All along I said to myself “I want to look like the models,” and I was wrong. All I wanted was to look in the mirror once in awhile and to be confident in the person (inside and out) I saw in the reflection. I wanted to love myself. It’s true, I still judge people to this day. I see people as “skinny,” “pretty,” “fat,” etc. (Of course, I would never voice such opinions.) I believe that these terms and classifications have been embedded in us by these media-sourced images. When I find myself in one of these instances, I think about the context of my internal conversation. “Ok, I think that person is ‘skinny?’ … What/who am I comparing them to?” Usually I find that the generalizations I make about others are in comparison to myself. Yes, in size, she may have been thinner than me … but she wasn’t me. She hasn’t gone through what I have, she doesn’t live my lifestyle, she doesn’t have my same genetic make-up or family history, most likely she doesn’t have the same goals and aspirations as I do. She is not me. So why bother comparing? My advice on how to ignore being overwhelmed by outside sources … be selfish with yourself. Think of yourself, of who you are, of who you want to be. What makes you comfortable? What makes you happy? Be yourself and celebrate that. If you are unhappy with how you feel (which is perfectly normal) make change to improve that … but do so on your own terms. Learn to love yourself.
Have you had any problems with censorship because of the nudity in your work?
The short answer, “yes.” People are very sensitive about nudity – a lot of my online presence has been flagged with “NSFW” warnings/labels. Many venues will not exhibit my work because it is seen as too “graphic.” Some places feel as though they would alienate a certain audience if they were to show these images. Several print publications have turned down use of my imagery and, instead, gone with text-only reporting of my story. I’ve had modifications (blurring, cropping, etc.) done to my photographs in order for them to be “useable” for some press. My series “Changing Room” actually surpassed my other photographic series “Half” in popularity because people could not “handle” the nudity (which is a shame because I believe “Half” to be a much stronger and more important body of work).
I understand censorship and I appreciate protecting people (whether it be with regard to age or personal/religious stances), but I don’t believe that we should demonize the natural, human form. What I am sharing with the world through my images is real. It is not pornographic or harboring some other hidden agenda. My nudes are documentary in nature and serve to share a story called humanity. They may be images of me, but the story is not about me – it is about love, beauty and identity, it is about struggle and perseverance … it is about the common thread that holds us all together, life. I see the images as an artistic catalyst for open and honest conversation and discussion about these issues. I am proud of these works and feel honored to have had the opportunity to share them thus far. I can only hope that others may soon look past the mere sight of skin and look deeper to find the real meaning of the work.
One last question – the venues that rejected your images – were those art galleries?
The places that typically stay away from my work have been more public arenas (major tv, websites, etc.) but I have been turned away from a number of galleries. It’s just because my images do not depict the “idealized” nude. (You know, they wouldn’t make any money because no one wants one of my nudes hanging over their fireplace.) *roll-eyes*
Images used with permission.
About the Author (Author Profile)I'm Felicity, author of Felicity's Blog and co-founder of Young Naturists America. I write about nudism and naturism in today's world along with issues like top-freedom and body acceptance, and various naked topics. Enjoy, and leave a comment when you've got something to say! :)
An important, richly perceptive article. The only thing missing (which may be off topic) is noting how clueless, crass American censorship contributes to the body image problems she and you mention. Most censorship doesn't protect people, because it is used to manipulate them into accepting both bad body politics and bad politics altogether. If you can make people afraid of their bodies or sexuality, as the worst governments and religious "leaders" often do with reckless glee, you have an easier way to wield any kind of power over them and others.
As someone who was 400 lbs at one point and who finally worked hard to drop the final 100lbs to get myself down to 220, I fully understand where she is coming from
As someone who is in the process of losing weight (I'm down over 40 pounds now- yahoo!), I found this article very interesting. I can totally relate to the mixed feelings and change in intention that Julia has experience. Thank you, Julia, for sharing your story and providing inspiration to the many of us who are on this journey with you!