eliza berkon is a features writer and musician based in washington d.c. 

‘Fat Girl’ Exhibit Aims Lens at Body Image

Dafna Steinberg can’t count the number of times she’s been mocked for her weight.

On a rainy Friday morning at a coffee shop in Arlington, the affable and refreshingly blunt multimedia artistwith bubble-gum hair, blue glasses and a leopard-print top seems tired of defending her body, as well as her right to be confident in it. Yet, she is self-assured, and not in spite of her full-figured frame, but because of it.

“There’s this idea of ‘fat women aren’t sexy.’ And it’s not true, in the same way that sexiness can be about objectification just as much as it can be about self-empowerment,” she says.

From May 26-June 30, Metro Micro Gallery presents Steinberg’s solo exhibit “Diary of a Self-Important Fat Girl,” which references a term once lobbed at Steinberg in a Tinder conversation.

The 24/7 gallery, launched in 2016 by local painter Barbara Januszkiewicz, repurposes a closet-sized entryway to a Virginia Square condo building as a miniature art space, with exhibits that are viewable from the street through its large windows.

Steinberg, an adjunct art professor at Northern Virginia Community College, grew up in D.C. in a family of artists and engineers. At age 7, she received a camera from her mother, a photographer, and rendered many images from her height-challenged perspective with inadvertently cut-off heads.

“What’s really funny is that I still photograph like that,” she says. “It’s a little more planned now, but I kind of like to focus on things in fragments.”

Printed on lined notebook paper, the exhibit’s pieces pair images culled from her Instagram feed with remnants of text messages and personal notes on relationships, regrets and desires. The resultant works are sort of Danny-Wilcox-Frazier-meets-Jenny-Holzer, effective in their ability to elicit both empathy and curiosity.

At times, the text-to-image juxtaposition benefits from its incongruousness; at others, the relationship is more literal. One striking piece shows the artist naked and seated on a bed with her back to the camera and her face in partial profile. The foreground text reads: “My body is not perfect. But like my body, I am not perfect either. That’s what makes me beautiful.”

It’s a theme that comes up again and again in Steinberg’s work, not only in “Diary,” but also in a 2013 video she made on emotional eating, and, more explicitly, in her current solo show, “And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt,” at D.C.’s Vivid Solutions Gallery.

“Fat” is a word Steinberg fully owns, stripping it of its power to humiliate. Yet her confidence is somewhat newly found; she says she has viewed herself as a “person” for only the past decade. Complete strangers have come up to her at restaurants and recommended she ease off whatever unhealthy food she might be eating. Others have questioned her for dressing up, wearing colorful makeup and adorning herself with jewelry.

“They’re not really asking, ‘Why are you so confident?’ They’re asking me, ‘Why [do] you have the audacity to be the way you are?’” she says.

But for all of her internal and interpersonal struggles that surround being “overweight”—a label applied to more than two-thirds of the American population—perhaps the most arresting piece in Diary does not reference weight at all. It’s an image of a solitary window at the side of a home, illuminated in red light from within.

“Tell me you love me,” it reads.

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