THE BLOG

Gregory Drew Confronts Obesity And Himself In This Stunningly Candid Biographical Photo Essay

05/14/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

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All Photographs (c) Gregory Drew, Courtesy of Gregory Drew

At first blush we might be quick to dismiss Gregory Drew's work as just another artist trying to exploit the shock and horror of obesity. However, when we learn that his lens is turned on himself, we focus in a little more carefully. After a thoughtful reading of both the photography and the accompanying text, we come to realize that we have stumbled upon something truly special.

This isn't just another fat man photo; this isn't just another teen angst essay; this isn't a midlife crisis MFA dissertation. This work is a man laying his soul bare for the world to view, judge, and even criticize - and all this after a lifetime of self-proclaimed humiliation already.

I believe some of the most beautiful people (inside and out) emerge in those souls that have had to seriously confront themselves - to really look inside and question who they are in a pure, simple, and profound way. I admire Gregory Drew (and I say that sincerely, despite the knowledge that it will sound trite to many readers). I hope this work can bring him some form of personal metamorphosis and, I also hope it can bring something to those who view and read it also. Understanding and hopefully empathizing with those unlike ourselves is one of the most difficult, but most promising, projects in the human experience.

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Here is Gregory Drew in his own words:

Somewhere, between ages three and five, I got fat. Not real fat, just "husky". My first inkling that this was socially unacceptable came on the first day of school, when the teacher called the roll. When my name was called and I answered "present", she looked over the top of her glasses at me and gave me a friendly smile, but the unspoken message was "Wow! You're a big fellow, aren't you?".

Kids were not truly unkind to me until fifth grade, when I went to a much larger urban school. Teachers and students were generally not as friendly as I was used to, and I soon went from feeling normal to feeling marginalized as my peers made it known that I was not acceptable to them. Some very unfortunate and very public events made a bad situation worse, and I became a laughing stock. I went from feeling safe, secure, and outgoing to vulnerable, insecure, and withdrawn. Food became my comfort and my friend.

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Things went from bad to worse in seventh grade and the onset of puberty. I was shy and awkward, and people didn't try to hide their mocking. Physical education was required, and since I was terrible at sports no one wanted me on their team. The gym teachers couldn't seem to come up with any way to differentiate between teams other than to have one team keep their shirts on ("shirts") and one team take them off ("skins"). Of course I always seemed to be on the team without the shirts (those teachers really were sadistic). And, in those days, we were required to take showers after class. My life was a living hell. That's when poor body image--and feeling inadequate and less masculine--took root.

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During the summer between eighth and ninth grade I had a growth spurt. That, coupled with a diet and an exercise regimen, resulted in significant weight loss. By the time school started I looked very different. I did find a degree of social acceptance that I did not enjoy before, but essentially the social and emotional damage was already done and I never fully recovered. As well, the weight loss was not permanent, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I was six feet tall and close to three hundred pounds.

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This cycle of weight loss and weight gain has continued through my adult life. Now that I am well into middle age I realize that I no longer have the advantage of youth. At four hundred pounds I am morbidly obese; for all intents and purposes, I am slowly committing suicide. Even if I do manage to live into old age, I am bound to have health problems that will affect not only me, but my family or caretakers. But despite this, and knowing that I should seek to avoid it, I fear that if I lose weight again I'll only end up gaining it all back plus more--the cycle that has repeated itself throughout my life. I don't know if I can take that risk. It's easy for someone who has never been in this situation to judge, but as the saying goes, until you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes...

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I call this project "two by four", a phrase lifted from the rhyme "fatty, fatty, two by four, can't get through the kitchen door", a rhyme that is often used to insult someone. As an adult and a man, I am not ostracized like I was as a boy, but I do occasionally pick up on tacit signals from others that my size is not acceptable. Thankfully, one of the gifts of aging is to not care as much about what others think of you. However, I still feel compelled to start telling my story, if for no other reason than to come to terms with it, and to try and begin the process of reinventing myself. Such public self-examination is still very hard because it is so intensely vulnerable and personal. Low self-esteem, poor body image, and issues related to abuse, have all been very much examined in the public discourse, but it seems it is done so in the context of being feminine. According to the common wisdom, men don't have these problems. Besides, even if we did, the unwritten rules of masculinity demand that we don't talk about it because it is antithetical to male stoicism. But art has a long and vigorous tradition of challenging the status quo, and, through this ongoing series, I seek to disrupt the notion that to reveal our frailties and vulnerabilities is to effectively surrender our man card.

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Note: I'd like to thank photographer and friend, Olivier Duong, for bringing this great project to my attention.