The name Adolphe Quételet is not instantly recognisable. However, the Belgian royal astronomer came up with a statistical analysis that was to have disastrous consequences. In 1832, the scholar shifted his attention away from the stars to present a paper on “Man’s weight at different ages” to the Belgian Science Academy. For the first time ever, weight was analysed quantitatively. The normalisation of the body, that was already underway in industry and the army, now had an extra tool. Quételet’s index, that was to become the BMI (body mass index), became the norm. He was obsessed with the operating concept of mean values and came up with a reference model of the “average man”. Since then, the western world has aspired to normality, attempting to impose these criteria on everyone. The body became a morally measurable object, providing the foundation for the authority of the onlooker.
While the index allows doctors, nutritionists, dieticians and psychologists to prescribe treatments, we must ask ourselves the same question as Haley Morris Cafiero: what is behind this normalisation? The answer is the terrorism of statistical abstraction and value-based judgement. The fear of the gaze of others. Between the others and Haley herself, this gaze is an index of rejection. We exist through the gaze and judgement of others and her body concentrates all of contemporary society’s anxiety – a fact of which she is fully aware.
Haley Morris-Cafiero is an ex-anorexic with a high BMI and for this, she is subject to jokes and hate speech. She collects them. On social media from Times Square to Paris, other peoples’ good taste is very obvious. It oscillates between revulsion and fascination. The general consensus demands that Haley Morris-Cafiero conform to accepted standards of beauty. Her non-conformist body attracts and crystallises stigmatisations as a concept, subject and provocation all in one. Her work is set up so that she only discovers the multitude of judgements and acts that brand her after the fact. “Wait Watchers” forces us to confront our reliance on models of temperance as guides and our own capacity to exclude. Social media has unleashed itself against Haley Morris-Cafiero. She doesn’t care and in “The Bully Pulpit”, she faces cyber-bullying head-on, parodying its animosity. She imitates her detractors, flaunting their insults and, in doing so, turns their hatred around.
Haley Morris-Cafiero’s work is now recognised worldwide. We should celebrate the dignity of her performance and its apparent lightness, as hers is an approach where the “I” is not a “refusal of the self”, on the contrary, it is the affirmation of an individual, social and artistic stance.