Monthly Archives: February 2014

Selfies, Beauty and Objectification

A big collage of my selfies!  I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

A big collage of my selfies! I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

This post was inspired by two different conversations, a facebook thread following a friend’s post of an old quote from The Reclusive Leftist and the wider conversation about feminism and selfies that’s going on across various locations at the moment.

Here’s the quote. The discussion that followed was out of context of the post it came from, but for the sake of attribution see this 2009 blog post.

“Look, if posing naked were empowering, then the rich men who run the world would be lining up for it. We would be awash in naked dick shots of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Barack Obama; magazines would be filled with male politicians and financiers and moguls with their bits hanging out. Softly lit, perhaps; head coyly tilted, bunny tail on the ass. Power.”

It’s a zingy little paragraph. I laughed out loud and nodded my head when I read it, and was deeply entertained at the mental image of powerful men acting coyly flirtatious on the covers of magazines. But even so, men in image-based industries do appear as sex symbols. Consider David Beckham in H&M underwear or “Sexiest Man Alive” articles in magazines or images like this. The difference is that apparently women’s power is diminished by being seen in this way and men’s is increased.

The reason, of course, is sexism. In a patriarchy men who follow the rules always win and women always lose, no matter how little the rules make sense. I’ve never heard a man accused of “objectifying himself” for sending dick pics, but women whose nude texts are leaked get lambasted as fools for daring to think they could trust a lover or a device with their privacy. When a man shows someone a photograph of himself naked it is an act of aggression, but when a woman does the same thing it is seen as an act of submission, and even of consenting to become less than a person. Or consenting for all women everywhere to be seen as less than people. A woman who accepts money to pose nude in a men’s magazine is setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the objectification of her own body, and theirs by extension. A woman who photographs herself and posts it on the internet where people can see it is vain and obsessed with her looks, and therefore also setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the patriarchal plot to define women by our appearance.

I agree that culture where being sexy or beautiful is the only or most important way a woman can be accepted or have power is awful, and clearly excludes some women as well as limiting all women; even the conventionally attractive are always more than just conventionally attractive. But I do think it is possible for feeling sexy or beautiful to be a positive, empowering and not objectifying experience, working within the confines of the society we live in, and I also think that looking at yourself and inviting others to look at you doesn’t have to be about beauty.

Tumblr is full of women who do not fit into the mainstream beauty paradigm – whether because of race, body shape or size, disability or gender presentation – taking selfies and posting them to a public viewership, including naked ones and sexy ones and glamorous ones. There’s even a photography challenge along these lines, the 365 Feminist Selfie Project created by Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista. The project challenges participants to take a selfie every day for a year, at least partly in rebuttal to that infamous Jezebel article about how awful women who take selfies are (no linking for that one, google it if you’re curious).

Not unexpectedly, plenty of people are upset or concerned about women photographing themselves under the banner of feminism. I think there are interesting things to be said about how an act qualifies as “feminist” as opposed to simply “not anti-feminist” – for example feminism means women can choose whether or not to shave their legs so shaving isn’t anti-feminist, but it isn’t a feminist act either – but that’s not the discussion I’ve seen happening about selfies. The discussion about selfies seems to be much more focused on vanity, and on beauty and whether or not women should care about it. Take, for example, this article from concerned father-of-girls Black Hockey Jesus:

Put simply, all I’m saying is this: I see your need to redefine beauty and raise you one need to question the female defined by her appearance. Women can be more than how they look and deserve to be. Step away from the cameras. Seek new ways to appear. As you explore new adjectives through which to be defined, you will emerge as more complicated nouns than pretty ones. This is perhaps the direction toward a feminism beyond beauty.

Now, I recognise that Black Hockey Jesus is trying to be supportive here. He worries about the future in store for his daughters and wants women to be comfortable as complex, nuanced human beings. And I agree with him, women are more than how we look and the mainstream beauty paradigm does harm us, even those women who are privileged by it. I’m not even referring to this guy’s article so I can crow “Look at the white guy shaming feminist selfies!” as he fears (poor darling) but because that quote right there demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of a bunch of people that is being repeated over and over in the handwringing over “selfie culture”.

See, if the great diversity of women who participate in internet selfie sharing like the Feminist Selfie Project “step away from the cameras” a lot of us are plunged back into a world still saturated with images of beautiful women who don’t look like us, where we are not only told that we are not beautiful, but where it’s implied by the mainstream culture most of us are immersed in that we don’t even exist. We don’t have control over that to a great extent, that is the kyriarchy at work, and the capitalist beauty industry. And living in that world where we never see our own bodies or faces reflected back at us doesn’t make it easier to let go of the idea that beauty is a woman’s most important or powerful attribute, it makes it harder. Because beauty, a very specific and limited idea of beauty, is the only attribute of womanhood that we ever get to see.

What taking selfies and sharing them does is fill our immediate environment with a far more diverse visual language of bodies than we have access to otherwise. If I turn on the TV or open a magazine I’m lucky to see one or two fat people and a scant handful of POC. Maybe one person with a disability (more likely a currently able bodied actor pretending to be disabled) or one trans person (more likely a cis actor pretending to be trans). To Black Hockey Jesus, who appears from his photo and blogging history to be a thin white cis man, it probably wouldn’t even register that this is something which happens, because people who look like him are the default template from which all other people on TV diverge. If a person who looks like him is portrayed as a villain, an idiot or a joke it doesn’t matter, because the next person over looks like him too. It’s similar but a bit more limited for thin, white, cis, able bodied women, because most of the versions of themselves they see are hollywood pretty. But for anyone who doesn’t fit that mould, representation – especially neutral-to-positive representation – is hard to come by.

Black Hockey Jesus urges women to “seek new ways to appear”, but we already are doing that when we take selfies. In selfies we simultaneously determine the method in which we will be seen by others and get used to seeing ourselves in different ways, unlike looking to popular media where we are always portrayed in the same ways. If you take the time to trawl through the #365feministselfie hashtag on Twitter, or the Feminist Selfie Project pool on Flickr, you’ll notice women appearing in a lot of different ways. Rock climbing, watching TV and pulling faces with a friend were among those at the top of the Flickr page when I wrote this. And you should see the camera roll on my phone!

Assuming the Feminist Selfie Project or any enthusiasm for selfies is just about feeling beautiful is very limited. The thing about taking a photo of oneself every day is that sticking to glamour shots gets boring and time consuming, so the participants are increasingly photographing themselves doing things, or just being themselves as is, no makeup, pyjama clad, unstyled, whatever. Maybe when you just take one selfie for your facebook profile picture you’re going to be concentrating on looking pristinely pretty, but if you do it all the time you get used to your own face and (in my experience, anyway) get a lot more relaxed about beauty and whether or not you have it. Taking self-indulgent pictures of myself had a large role to play in the fact that I can now look at unflattering photos of me that other people post on facebook and laugh my butt off instead of feeling ashamed and miserable.

Two unflattering photos of me.  In one I'm sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze.  In the other I'm making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.

Two hilariously unflattering photos of me. In one I’m sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze. In the other I’m making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.  What even is my face.

Returning to the original quote about posing naked, another issue occurs. Ultimately, it’s not appearing naked or being sexy on purpose that makes women into sex objects, because women are objectified even when they’re not doing those things. Consider my friend and fellow fat blogger Kath, who gets angry hate mail from trolls complaining “you’re ugly and I don’t get a boner when I look at you.” That’s objectification based on the premise that to exist she should appeal to the sexuality of those trolls and their boners. Gross. What about the many stories of female gamers and sci-fi geeks who get harassed at conventions and online by male geeks and gamers? Those guys are casting women in their fandoms into the role of sex object. And then there’s young female performers like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Emma Watson, who all had websites dedicated to counting down until they were 18 and “legal”, because the only consent you need to have sex with a woman is the law’s, right? In a patriarchy, women are objectified whatever they do. Blaming women for making sex objects of themselves by posting naked selfies comes dangerously close to blaming rape victims for dressing provocatively. The people responsible for the objectification of women are not the women who are objectified.

You might say that’s all well and good for fat girls, but those who are conventionally attractive and take pictures of themselves or pose for sexy shots are just adding to the flood of images that I lamented earlier in this article! How can that be ok?  Well, I know plenty of women who I would expect to be serenely confident in how well they fit the mainstream beauty paradigm who actually have poor self esteem (up to and including eating disorders and other mental illnesses) because the approval of the patriarchy is fickle and impossible to live up to.  If it’s ok for fat women – or other women who’ve been excluded from the mainstream beauty paradigm – to feel powerful by controlling the image of themselves, which I think it’s pretty clear I believe, can we really say it’s not ok for women who are conventionally attractive to do the same thing? Who gets to decide which women fall on which side of the line? Patriarchy certainly doesn’t agree. It comes down to the leg shaving argument for me, in the end. While the act of appearing nude, sexy, beautified is not necessarily inherently feminist in every context, individual women have a right to make themselves feel good in the ways that are available to them.

For me, taking and sharing selfies reminds me that I can challenge the received narrative of beauty my culture has given me and either place myself in it – which I’m not supposed to be allowed to do – or discard it completely as the situation warrants. If I look at my collection of selfies I certainly don’t think I look beautiful in all of them, and that’s frequently deliberate. Being able to look in a mirror or at a photograph of myself – even an ugly or unflattering one – and like the person I see there after a lifetime of being literally afraid to see my own reflection, that feels very powerful.

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Behind the Scenes

An old and slightly overexposed photo of me with short black hair.  I'm standing outside in a leafy environment, wearing an orange and green floral dress and a mint green leather jacket, smiling down at the skirt I am holding out to either side.  I'm wearing glasses and orange lipstick too.

A slightly overexposed photo of me with short black hair. I’m standing outside in a leafy environment, wearing an orange and green floral dress and a mint green leather jacket, smiling down at the skirt I am holding out to either side. I’m wearing glasses and orange lipstick too.

It’s Fatshion February! A month where the fat blogosphere focuses on clothes, not just pretty photos (although there are lots of those and they are delightful) but thoughtful discussions about beauty culture, clothing access and other social justice issues that relate to fat people clothing ourselves. I freaking love it.

A quote from Melissa McEwan’s recent Shakesville post on fat fashion has been making the rounds of tumblr and it’s had me nodding my head every time I see it go past. I recommend you go read the whole post (and the one about high heels linked therein that the quote actually comes from!) but here’s a teaser:

For fat women, being stylish isn’t a luxury. It’s often a necessity to get hired, to get access to healthcare, to get treated like a human being.

Fat women have all kinds of narratives about sloppiness, laziness, dirtiness to overcome. Sometimes heels are a crucial part of looking “put together” in a way that sufficiently convinces people that we care about ourselves, that manages to counteract pervasive cultural narratives that fat people don’t care about ourselves. That we have “let ourselves go.”

Being “put together” is part of the way many of us convey to a judgmental world that we are worth caring about.

It’s undoubtedly true that all women are expected to put more effort into their appearance than men in order to be taken seriously (and that submitting to these cultural requirements is ALSO used against us as evidence that we are superficial and obsessed with appearances). But I feel the pressure to look “put together” very keenly as a fat woman, and it’s different as a very fat woman than it was when I was smaller. I don’t always feel compelled to dress up, but I do have a far less casual everyday wardrobe than some of my friends. And when I do feel compelled to go the full fatshionista – makeup, styled hair, accessories and so on – it’s usually because I feel vulnerable in the situation I’m going into and I need the additional defence of looking well-dressed.

Reading Melissa’s post, I was reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I was complaining about the trouble I had buying clothes in my size.  A friend told me I must be either lying or exaggerating because I always looked well-dressed to them. This was a weird kind of backwards compliment and I didn’t really know how to respond. It was a long time ago and I was thinner than I am now, but I was still firmly within the plus size range and besides, plus sizes were – forgive me – slimmer pickings than they are now. It is still true, though, that I like pretty much everything in my wardrobe. I don’t tend to settle for clothes that I personally think are ugly (unless I have to for uniform or costume purposes), and I did and do always look well put together when I go out in public. That isn’t an accident.

I do it on purpose, but not because I think that’s the way things should be done, or that I have some kind of belief that women owe it to the world to look pretty at all times, although it has taken me many years to unlearn the Rules of Dressing While Fat that my well-meaning mother instilled in me as a chubby child. I do it because not only is it almost impossible to find comfortable jeans and cute t-shirts in my size, but also I have those “narratives about sloppiness, laziness, dirtiness to overcome” that Melissa mentions. I dress up in part because I’m scared of how I’ll be treated if I dress down.

The other side of my friend’s comment that I was “lying or exaggerating” is that they underestimated how much time, effort and money I put into always looking well-dressed to them. It can be true that there are few decent and affordable plus size options AND true that I dress well, because I track down and buy all the decent and affordable options that fit me, as well as some that are not so affordable. I spend a lot of my free time looking at and shopping for clothes, and a large percentage of my available funds go towards clothing. And any time I see a clothing sale at a major store (online or off) where I know they stock my size and ship to Australia, I look at everything in the sale, even if I haven’t got much money, even though a lot of it will be ugly, on the off-chance there is something there I like and can afford.

Every time. Do you look at every item in every sale of every major store that stocks your size and ships to your country? If you do it’s probably either because you are a hardcore fashion blogger or because you have as few stores that fit this bill as I do.

Evans, Autograph, ASOS, Yours, Target, Kmart, Old Navy. That’s it. And I buy almost nothing from Old Navy because their plus size stuff turns baggy or falls to bits after the first wash.

Part of the reason I do this is because it’s fun for me. I find clothes shopping enjoyable, especially online, although I know a lot of women my size hate it. I collect pictures of cool plus size clothes on Pinterest and Polyvore. I even like looking at clothes I can’t wear because they don’t come in my size; I sized out of City Chic years ago but I still follow them on facebook because I enjoy looking at the regular drops of new stuff. Of course, this would be more fun if I had a hope of wearing any of it, but it’s still something I enjoy.

But part of it – a large part – is because if I want to have nice clothes on my budget and with my body, this is what it takes. So yeah, decent plus size clothes do exist. But they are few, inconsistent, expensive and difficult to find in my size. And the ones that do come in my size don’t always fit.

For every couple of items I buy online that I love, there’s a few that are not quite right and require adjustments, and one that outright does not fit. Shipping returns to the US – where most of the larger plus size clothing industry is based – costs a bundle for a return of nothing, so I tend to just keep the things that don’t fit and pass them on to other fatties who are smaller, a different shape or just like a different fit than I do. This is a pretty expensive kind of altruism, but it balances out when they do the same, though it’s rare that you find the labelled size is too big instead of too small, and I don’t personally know many women bigger than me.

Thin ladies scrimp and scour sales for basics they need (for work and so on) and for fancy stuff that makes them feel good, I know this. But it’s worse when you’re fat. Just ask any size 26+ woman who’s just been invited to a wedding with a formal dress code. Panic stations! It’s difficult even when the items in question are so bog standard you’d think they’d be everywhere. For example, a few years ago I got a job that required me to wear black suit pants as part of my uniform and I spent over a month looking for any that would fit me, no matter how daggy, no matter how expensive, from anywhere at all. I found one pair of pants, and they were too short, but I had to wear them anyway. My choir performs Christmas carols every year with a dress code that involves a white shirt, and every year I panic that my one white shirt (which doesn’t quite fit the code anyway because it has no collar) won’t fit or will be missing, because you cannot get a plain white shirt in my size for love nor money.

Thin people and smaller fats just flat out don’t believe me when I say it is impossible for me to find a white shirt or a pair of black pants that fits me. They must either think I’m lying or that I’m too lazy or stupid to have checked out the super obvious thing they always suggest when I complain about this (“Have you tried Target? I got a white shirt there yesterday!”). But it’s true. I have lost many hours and shed many frustrated tears over these things. I’ve scoured websites you’ve never even heard of. If I sound bitter it’s because I really, really am.

I’m lucky I’m femme, because if I were seeking masculine style clothes in my size and shape I’d be doomed.

On that note, as well as shopping relentlessly, another way I ensure I always look put together is that almost every item of clothing I own is a dress. The handy thing about a dress is you put it on and you have an instant outfit! No need to match anything, and they’re usually fitted, a shape that typically reads to others as more tidy or dressed up than loose clothing (though there is a fine line for fat women to walk between “that’s loose, you look sloppy” and “I can see your rolls, quelle horreur!”). The dresses I buy are usually stretchy, because stretchy fabrics are comfortable and forgiving, not in the sense that they cover up “flaws” but that a stretchy dress that isn’t quite the right size or shape can still look good, whereas a fitted dress with no stretch is far more likely to just not fit, or to look “sloppy”.

When I talk about all the work I put into dressing myself, I don’t mean to say I am forced to do this or that it isn’t pleasurable for me (well, apart from the uniform stuff, that sucks). I like clothes and I enjoy shopping for them, thinking and talking and writing about them, looking at them and looking a certain way in them. But it’s not an unweighted choice, either. I could wear black skirts and loose t-shirts every day, like I did when I was in high school and internet shopping wasn’t a thing (and the only plus size stores in Australia were My Size, Maggie T and the BIB – “Big Is Beautiful” – section at Myer) but I would be treated differently if I did.

And while you ponder that, bear in mind that I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do this at all. Fat women who are poor frequently struggle to be taken seriously as job seekers, as parents, as healthcare consumers, as human beings because they can’t afford to wear the defence of “dressing well” that makes others think you care enough about yourself to be worth caring about. Fat women who are bigger than me struggle to find any clothing at all, let alone anything that others will read as stylish, professional or even neat. Fashion is great fun for many of us, but the extent to which participating – or not participating – in it can determine what kind of treatment, jobs and care you receive is seriously fucked up, especially when you are a fat woman.

Looking well-dressed is a whole lot of work for a fat woman, even if she makes it seem effortless. Just like a swan swimming on the surface of a lake, there’s a whole lot of paddling going on beneath the stylish exterior. Remember that before you presume we must be “lying or exaggerating” about how few clothing options there are for us.

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On Fat Admiring Men at Fat Positive Events

I’ve had this written for a few weeks now and have been unsure about whether or not to post it. It’s based on an experience that put a downer on something excellent for me, and as such the post is itself a bit of a downer. But it’s something that concerns me too, so I’ve decided to go ahead and put it up for discussion.

When you go to see a performance, there’s a kind of unspoken contract that goes on between the performers and the audience; they invite you to look, and you agree to behave in particular ways. When you go to see a play you sit quietly and clap at the end. When you see a classical music concert you clap at the end of the work, not in between the movements. When you see a comedy show you laugh at the jokes (hopefully). And at a burlesque show, as Va Va Boombah MC Lisa-Skye encourages, you “bay like hungry angry wolves”. In other words, it’s fine to be vocal about the sexiness of the performers, because you’re being invited and encouraged to do so!

But I think some people assume this invitation goes further than is actually reasonable.

After the Va Va Boombah show last week, while I was staffing the merch table, I had an encounter with a guy who had really enjoyed the show, seemed to find me attractive, and wanted to take a photo with me. He asked my name (a couple of times) and whether I was single, and then put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek while his friend took a photo of us.

I’m not going into more detail on this; the way I handled it has a lot to do with my own personal history and I don’t really want to get into it. Let me just say that he made me very uncomfortable, invaded my personal space, and made me feel like an object he thought he was entitled to. As I made my apologies to the other merch table volunteers and went to hide in the toilets until I calmed down, it made me think about the presence of fat admirers at fat burlesque shows like Va Va Boombah.

It makes sense that fat admirers are going to be among the audience of fat burlesque shows, because the premise of the show is fatties taking their clothes off. It also makes sense that this part of the audience – the part that finds fat people sexy – could include fat admirers who are not even slightly progressive or fat positive. Remember, enjoying fat bodies as objects of lust is not in and of itself fat positive, just as men who like looking at naked women are not necessarily feminists. For all that Va Va Boombah is radical, queer and body positive, and run by radical queer body positive people, not all the audience members are going to fit that mould. Some are just there for partially naked fat dancers.

And I kind of hate that, even though I know that may not make a lot of sense.

Like I said in the beginning, it seems fair to say that by performing burlesque and inviting a public audience to come watch them the dancers on stage are implicitly granting you permission to gaze on them in a sexualised way, while they perform at any rate. You don’t necessarily need to be thinking about their nuanced identities and personal lives while watching them dance, though it’s good to remember that they have these things. But that doesn’t mean you are being invited to look at every other other fat woman who happens to be at the event in the same sexualised way. Just because I am present at a fat burlesque gig – even as a member of staff – and happen to share some traits with some performers (fat, female, wearing lots of sequins) does not mean I am part of the show. It does not mean I am a decoration or exhibit you can get your picture taken with (actually, taking photos of burlesque performers is a big no-no anyway; they will let you know if it’s ok but assume it isn’t). And it definitely does not mean you have inherent permission to put your hands or lips on anyone, staff, audience members or performers.

The guy who hit on me was probably harmless. I say this not to diminish his poor behaviour but to make myself feel better about it. But he made me feel small and ugly when the show immediately preceding our encounter had made me feel powerful and beautiful, because he treated me like a thing that was present for his enjoyment, instead of a person who was there for my own reasons just like he was. And despite what I’ve said about being invited to look, it would not be ok if he treated one of the performers that way either, because performing for your enjoyment is not the same as existing for your enjoyment.

Perhaps it seems hypocritical of me to complain about fat admirers at a burlesque gig when I myself am pretty damn sexually attracted to fat women, but here’s the difference; I don’t treat fat women as if they belong to me because I find them attractive. I do not treat fat women like I’m doing them a favour (and therefore they owe me one in return) by expressing my appreciation for their bodies. I do not expect fat women to be so surprised and delighted to receive attention from me that they don’t require anything else from me other than affirmations that they are beautiful or sexy.

I’m just not interested in fulfilling some kind of fantasy for fat admirers. It’s nice for them that my appearance gives them some kind of pleasure but that doesn’t mean I need or want to hear about it. This seems to be something a certain subset of (mostly straight, mostly cis, mostly male) fat admirers don’t understand about what their desire means to fat women. You’re not doing us a favour or helping us by desiring us as sex objects. I actually don’t care about your desire. I care about my desire. And my desire is to be treated like an autonomous human being by the people I choose to share my space, time and body with. I am not grateful for your purely superficial attention because, difficult as it may be to believe, I don’t need or want it. I can do better.

It kind of boggles my mind that a person would ask a stranger for their photo, a stranger who is not even a celebrity or performer (though see above re: asking burlesque performers for photos), as if she were a pretty flower or piece of scenery they wanted to be able to look at again later. I’m not a thing. I’m a person. Next time someone I don’t know asks for a photo with or of me I’m going to charge them for it.

What’s interesting is that I had no such experience at the Glitterdome dance party the following week, even though I presume the crowd present was probably pretty similar and contained many of the same people. Is this because a performance gives some audience members a feeling of entitlement to be performed for? Was being at Glitterdome with a dude who was obviously my lover a protective factor (depressing thought)? Or was I just luckier the second time?

I most definitely don’t think Va Va Boombah or burlesque are the problem. As I’ve said already, I loved the show and felt moved and empowered by it. The problem is sexism and the belief that women’s bodies – of whatever type – are objects for men’s personal enjoyment. Both fat hatred and objectifying fat admiration reduce our bodies down to a thing that exists for someone else’s pleasure, the difference is that fat haters think the body is failing and fat admirers think it is succeeding. A self-entitled fat admiring man is just the flip side of the kind of man who hates fat women for being unattractive to him, because both believe a woman’s job is to look nice for his enjoyment.

Yes, the Boombahs are sexy as hell, but they’re also excellent dancers and musicians and artists. You can let them know you think they’re hot stuff in a respectful way, like cheering and whistling for them while they’re on stage as you have been invited to do. And you should also appreciate that they are complex human beings, and skilled and hardworking performers who aren’t just there to please you.


Disclaimer: Any “not all men!” or “not all fat admirers!” comments will not get past moderation. I hope men and fat admirers who would not behave this way don’t need to be patted on the head for not being assholes.

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Va Va Boombah, Hip Hip Hooray!

So far 2014 is a wonderful year for being fat in. A couple of weeks ago I attended Va Va Boombah’s third fat burlesque gala, and last Sunday night I danced myself silly at a 90s dance party also hosted by Va Va Boombah: Glitterdome! Va Va Boombah is Melbourne’s first fat burlesque troupe, a group of radical body positive fat babes who dance, sing, make you laugh, make you swoon, and have been putting on excellent burlesque shows and other events for several years now. As a result of all this fat fabulousness I am writing in this blog for the first time in almost a year! Hopefully 2014 will be a year of more fat blogging too.

I had never been to the burlesque before my first Va Va Boombah show, and I’ve still never been to any burlesque performance that wasn’t Va Va Boombah, so I’m no great expert on the genre. I know that mainstream burlesque is pretty fashionable at the moment, and I understand it’s defining characteristics to be striptease, dance, kitsch and camp and a buttload of glitter, all qualities Va Va Boombah shares. But Va Va Boombah isn’t just burlesque, it’s fat burlesque, and it’s the fat part that makes it most interesting to me.

It’s the fat part that had me so overwhelmed there were tears in my eyes during Miss Kate Quaintrelle’s pink, sparkly, fan-waving belly dance number near the beginning of the show. It’s the fat part that had me spellbound as Cleo Torres bathed in glitter, and clapping my hands in glee as Harry Potter (aka Cupcake Kitten) summoned a shimmering sexy patronus (Bambi Lipschitz) to ward off a Dementor (Madame Derriere in disguise). Okay, that was equally the fat part and the Harry Potter fangirl part, but Bambi Lipschitz is totally my patronus now.

The reason I felt so emotional about the VVB gala is that all those performers and all the other Boombahs on stage, they’re me. They are people I can identify with and see myself reflected in, doing things people who look like me are told we can’t do, and they are absolutely rocking it.

In a technical sense, the ever expanding Va Va Boombah troupe puts on a more polished and professional show every gala, and I am excited to see what is coming in the rest of 2014 and beyond. In an emotional sense, as well as being my friends, they mean a lot to me as a fat woman. I can’t quite explain how it feels to see fat bodies on stage in all their glory, not airbrushed and squeezed into shapewear and photographed from just the right angle to diminish them and make them as small and manageable as possible, but letting it all hang out. Not to mention covered in glitter and rhinestones. It means the world to see fat femmes just like me (not that all the Boombahs are femmes) who are not being diminished to fit the public idea of how fat women should feel and behave, but are larger than life. And hey, to tie in my blog title in a nauseating but apt sort of way, being radically visible.

Glitterdome, a week after the gala, was an equally empowering experience for me. I used to go clubbing a lot when I was in my early twenties, but I don’t remember it being like this. I remember panicking about what I was going to wear, feeling self-conscious on the dance floor, feeling – whether reasonably or not – as if I was an unfortunate, ungainly lump surrounded by beautiful, glamorous people having an awesome time. With a delightful sprinkling of sleazy dudes either hitting on me or conspicuously not hitting on me while they swarmed around my thin friends. I’m not saying I didn’t have fun clubbing back in the day, but it was emotionally fraught.

Glitterdome before and after: on the left, a selfie of me in a car, looking made-up and wearing a necklace with neon skulls on it, on the right, a picture of me lying down in bed with no makeup and a weary expression.

Glitterdome before and after: on the left, a selfie of me in a car, looking made-up and wearing a necklace with neon skulls on it, on the right, a picture of me lying down in bed with no makeup and a weary expression.

Glitterdome was a dark, overheated room full of sweaty, sparkly, gyrating people of all kinds of body types, having the absolute time of their lives, and it was amazing. It was a more varied crowd than any goth or alternative club I ever went to when I was younger, and what’s more it was a really friendly crowd. A lot of people knew each other, but I chatted and danced and exchanged femme compliments (I love your hair! I love your dress!) with people I didn’t know, and everyone was so nice. Some of the change between what clubs were like for me when I used to go to them and what Glitterdome was like for me resides in me personally – I’m more confident, more relaxed, less worried about what strangers think of me, and I’d had more food and less alcohol before Glitterdome than I ever would have when I was last going to clubs. But a lot of it was that Va Va Boombah draws and encourages people who are either fat themselves or fat friendly, as well as frequently queer and feminist. My highlight of the night was a room full of people who fit this description screaming along to “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morisette! The 90s were an excellent decade for very satisfying angry girl music.

The music on the whole was great, too, plenty of long strings of songs I knew and loved that had me dancing well past the point of needing to sit down. I went home sweaty, sore and smudged and completely exhausted, but on such an emotional high I was babbling gleefully all the way home.

The long and short of it is, you should support Va Va Boombah (and follow them on Facebook). They are wonderful people who are doing wonderful things!

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