When I take my clothes off, my body gets a variety of reactions. Some people are thrilled to see a woman who looks ‘real’ onstage, and some people are obviously uncomfortable. Like any professional performer, I expect my reviews to be mixed at best. Still, if I had I a dime for every time someone has made a beeline directly for me after a show to say “You were so good! Really, you did an awesome job. You should keep doing this!’, I would be a rich woman indeed.
At first blush, this seems like really fantastic feedback (it is, in a lot of cases!). But in some of these compliments, there’s also a strain of overemphatic positivity that makes me very uncomfortable, and it’s taken me awhile to figure out why.
The reason I am uncomfortable is this: sometimes, when people compliment my performance, they do so in a way that makes it painfully obvious that they think I need more reassurance and support than the skinny girls up there. I am almost certain this is well intentioned, so I have a hard time feeling angry or frustrated with the people who turn into cheerleaders in my presence. I get it, I think – they see me and suppose that I must get tons of negative feedback and criticism, and they think they can help by doing their part to ‘positively reinforce’ my self-esteem.
The thing is, it doesn’t take a village. At least not in my case.
I really do appreciate the compliments and the support I get from audience members. And I have to reiterate that I do not believe that all (or even the majority!) of the positive feedback I encounter is weight-related. The attitude I’m talking about is a very specific one. It’s kind, but also very condescending. I imagine it’s the same sort of attitude people take toward the chronically ill… it’s the ‘That must be really hard, so I’ll be extra cheerful and positive’ school of thought. But ill people don’t like being treated like small children, and neither do I.
I respect that ability to empathize, particularly in a culture so fat-hating as ours. It’s much easier to approach fat with ‘That’s disgusting’ than ‘That must be difficult’. But what’s implied in those compliments does occasionally make it hard to feel good about them. Those people are congratulating me on my ability to get onstage fat and naked, rather than my skill at dancing, or the production value of my piece, or the cleverness of the premise. As though that ‘bravery’ is enough to warrant praise, and anything above it is icing on the cake. The fact that I have a non-standard body trumps all else about my performance for these people (again, some, not all people). As a performer, this feels something akin to doing a fantastic rendition of the “To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet, only to be congratulated on how REALISTIC the skull prop looked.
People also act as though I’m in dire danger of quitting (presumably because of all the hardship I face in their heads). I don’t have any empirical evidence to support this, but I suspect strongly that the “You should keep doing this!” compliment is a size-specific one. I KNOW I should keep doing this. I’m good at it. People pay me to do it. And I don’t think the girls who have Broadway bodies probably hear this, because it’s assumed that they know they should keep doing it because their bodies are attractive in a more culturally conventional way than mine.
When you give me the “encouraging” compliment, you’re telling me that despite what the public at large thinks, YOU believe my body is stage-appropriate. You are letting me know that I am an exception, and while this is flattering in one light, it is deeply insulting in another. You are telling me that my body is good enough for you, even if it’s not good enough for most people, and you are telling me this in a way that suggests that YOUR approval should carry significant weight (no pun) in my decision to get onstage, fat and naked, and jiggle my ass around.
I don’t think it requires much analysis to say that this attitude speaks to a lot of deeply ingrained cultural presumptions about what elements go into the making of a fat person. Insecurity is assumed, as is lower-than-average intelligence and a deep innate inability to follow-through, or show discipline. I’m left frustrated and puzzled about how to process these compliments. In a “Thin Good Fat Bad” world, people who support what I do are placed in a difficult position. There is no socially approved behavior for saying “Your fat’s okay by me”, and I understand why people fumble around when saying it. But sometimes those express that support put me in a difficult position as well.
One one hand, I appreciate kind words in a business where audiences can be nasty and petty, and where the size of my ass prevents me from being booked. I am also heartened that people at my shows seem to understand and support alternative beauties and aesthetics.
On the other hand, I am not okay with the fact that people’s treatment of me makes me feel distinctly as though they see me as “FAT” first, and an artist second. This is not a problem that I can fix by myself, but it’s not a problem of the people who compliment me, either. It’s nothing so much as it is a problem with our fucked-up, self-hating, polarizing culture. But it’s a problem nonetheless, and I still haven’t come up with a productive way to handle it.