OPINION: The only time I’ve actually ever wanted to punch someone is the time when I got off stage after my first burlesque set and a woman said to me: “God, it’s so nice to see a big girl up there on stage being sexy.”
I know she meant it as a compliment. She was in the I’ve-had-three-too-many-$8-wines stage where some women get both over-complimentary and unintentionally bitchy. And it took every iota of self-restraint that I had to smile, say thank you and bolt backstage before crying.
I was size 14 at the time, and weighed precisely 89 kilograms. (And I know that “fat” is a relative scale, and for some people that’s not even overweight, while for others that makes me a soggy human dumpling.)
I’d started burlesque because I hated how I looked, I knew I should love it, and I also knew I didn’t know how to fix that disparity. And the fact that it took me six months to get back on stage made me realise how much work I had to do.
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I thought about that moment this week when watching our collective reactions to Rebel Wilson’s weight loss. It’s a repeat of what happened with Adele a few months ago. And Susan Boyle and Khloe Kardashian and Kelly Osbourne … and basically any woman larger than a size 8 who manages to break through into mainstream celebrity only to have the audacity to drop size.
They lose weight and we lose our minds.
(And I can tell you this from working inside a news organisation: celebrity weight loss stories go off. Trump may have Covid, the election may be less than a fortnight away, and Lake Ōhau has been ravaged by a fire, what we really cared about was Rebel Wilson’s get-fit phase.)
The most traditional, deeply flawed response to her weight loss is to congratulate her. We love the spectacle of the fat clown turned hot clown. We crave the smooth, inspirational, incremental improvement of the female body as she drops dress sizes.
Partly because culturally we’ve still got very narrow beauty standards that say that thinner equals better. But also because there’s something impressive for many people about weight loss as an easy, understandable symbol of how much humans can improve themselves through willpower. As the kids would say, it’s a problematic fave.
And then there’s the other equally irritating response that people have to her weight loss, which is to bemoan her decision as “letting down” the body positivity movement.
When she rose to fame as a rare example of a glamorous, gorgeous, certified star who was also plus size, we made her a fuller-figured figurehead. We loved her for being big, exactly as my drunken backhanded commentator was trying to say, and we celebrated her for almost doing us a public service in showing us that sexiness doesn’t have a size.
But now we’re grumpy because she’s supposed to be happy being fat.
This expectation on her directly contradicts the reality that nearly all women hold deeply tangled, contradictory and knotty feelings about their own bodies. Many genuinely celebrate fuller-figured beauty, but we also still want to be skinny.
Likewise I was both flattered and deeply humiliated to be a plus-sized poster girl. And this isn’t necessarily proof we don’t “believe” in plus-size beauty, rather that we hold deeply felt but utterly contradictory views simultaneously.
So, as soon as Rebel Wilson shows that she also has these deeply human feelings, that she may have been proudly plus-size for years but now she wants to lose weight, we tell her off for not fitting with the ideological narrative we’ve written all over her.
The depressing reality is that all of these responses – enthusiasm, curiosity, disappointment, gawking – they’re all nonsense. Whatever we do, we’re still making her fleshy pocket a symbol of public morality, either to celebrate it for conforming to conventional beauty standards, or to complain that it’s failing to conform to #selfacceptance doctrine.
Whatever she does, she can’t win. Wouldn’t it be heavenly if she could lose weight and us not care?
If our response could be the actual, neutral body-acceptance that says, “Do whatever you want with your pocket of flesh.” But our enduring obsession with stories like hers, through the skinny tea decades and now the #selfacceptance years, shows that’s never going to happen.
We can’t not take a woman’s body and make it an ideological battleground for our own tangled, frustrated, insecure notions of size and self-worth.