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.