The Transformative Power of Fat Women on Stage

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On seeing yourself in your heroes.

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Amy McCarthy | February 4, 2016

Christina Halladay Sheer Mag

Christina Halladay of Sheer Mag at Berserktown II. Photo by Matt Draper.

My riot grrl mother is and always will be Kathleen Hanna.

I always credit Bikini Kill with the genesis of my feminism. Even as I have grown as a feminist and a music fan and a person, from the first time I heard Kathleen Hanna scream over the grungy glory that was “Rebel Girl”, I’d finally found something that I could relate to in an era when Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears were as likely to earn attention for their bare midriffs as they were their music.

Even as I dug deeper into punk and feminist music, falling in love with L7 and Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre and anyone else who happily claimed the label along the way, something was still fundamentally missing. I could hear the ideas that would later form my budding ideology and suit my genetically rebellious personality, but no one looked like me.

Sure, they were mostly white like me and we (ostensibly) shared the same reproductive organs, but there was a glaring difference that I saw on every album cover and music video. These artists were mostly thin, and I was not. In my proto-Internet adolescence, it would take years for me to discover Poly Styrene and the other few fat, punk, feminist heroes that I now know exist.

Sometimes the artists I looked up to were rail-thin, possessing a worrying frailty that felt familiar in my mind but I could never seem to find in the mirror. They were aspirational not only in terms of their success as women in music and musicians, but also in body shape. I would search for protruding hipbones on my chubby frame because Carrie from Sleater-Kinney had them and so did everyone in L7. I did not.

I didn’t know then that those slight frames were sometimes the product of life-sucking eating disorders, detailed in depth in Carrie Brownstein’s 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. I wish I’d known then, because as a 15-year-old girl with a growing affinity for speed-based diet pills, I was in the process of developing my very own fucked-up relationship with food.

I just assumed that only thin girls could be cool punk girls or musicians of any kind, really, because there were no fat girls in punk or rock or pop or anything else that was accessible to a 13-year-old girl. To find someone in music whose whose body even remotely resembled my own awkward, chubby frame, I had to look back to the 1980s, when Heart made Nancy and Ann Wilson the hardest rocking women in music.

Unfortunately, Heart was also music that my parents didn’t hate, which wasn’t quite rebellious enough. If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that Missy Elliott and Jill Scott were living, breathing examples of successful fat women, but I like pretty much everyone else completely ignored their contributions, and those of other women of color, to what would later become the body positivity movement. I wanted fat rock stars.

I wanted Sleater-Kinney, just with five badass, fat, guitar-wielding girls.

To this day, I’ve never gotten that. But I did get Beth Ditto. Now both a punk and body positivity legend, Beth Ditto was the first famous fat punk rocker I’d ever seen. Not only did she look like me, she also had a penchant for lots of black eyeliner and audaciously saying things that pissed people off. She was a self-described “fat lesbian feminist,” and I’d never heard anyone use those words to describe themselves positively. They were usually used to insult women who refused to play along with the rarely-stated but constantly enforced rules that govern how women should both behave and construct their appearances.

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Beth Ditto was transformative not because she was fat, but because she had somehow managed to escape the circuitous pursuit of thinness. Ditto boldly accepted, maybe even loved, her fatness and refused to hide it. Sleeveless shirts put fat arms that looked just like mine on display. She wore short skirts and didn’t give a fuck if anyone saw her cellulite, which I’m pretty sure I was born with. Even her fingers looked like mine.

Nearly ten years later, now that I’m a grown-up fat girl, I still never see myself in bands. It happens more frequently on TV now, thanks to shows like Orange Is The New Black and Empire, but the world is not built to turn fat girls into rock stars. A few months ago, I discovered Sheer Mag on Bandcamp, a blown-out power-pop/-punk outfit from Philadelphia and perhaps the most surprising group on this year’s Coachella bill. When I saw the video for the band’s rebellious, ferociously political single “Fan The Flames”, frontwoman Christina Halladay was wearing a bitsy floral-print dress that I actually owned myself.

I cried.

I scrolled down to view the YouTube comments, expecting a shitstorm of fat hatred and vitriol. Surprisingly, there was very little. Any hate was drowned out by vocal comparisons to a “young Michael Jackson” and proclamations that Sheer Mag is one of the best female-fronted rock acts to come out of anywhere, much less Philadelphia, in the past few years.

Like Beth Ditto, Halladay is aesthetically unapologetic. She wears sleeveless tops and shows off her fat tattooed arms and wears short skirts. She is raw and loud and sweaty in the magnificent and seductive way that only rock stars are. She crowd-surfs, a feat that most fat girls assumed was off-limits to us, as if a thousand tattooed arms would not be enough to support our fatness.

These moments have incredible power for girls and grown women who hear every day that their bodies are not good enough to be displayed. That men are so revolted at the sight of female fat that we should cover every inch of our bodies and, perhaps more importantly, shut up and let the pretty girls talk. The mere presence of Beth Ditto and Christina Halladay and Jill Scott and Missy Elliott is enough, believe it or not, to help walk back the actual decades of body-shaming that makes fat women feel invisible.

It’s enough to make us go to shows, to wear our punky clothes and ripped stockings without feeling self-conscious, if only for a few hours in the darkness of a music hall or dank club. Maybe a chubby teenage girl will crowd-surf and tell a boy who wants to use her body without bothering to respect it that she deserves better. The visibility of fat women in music is enough to make the rest of us feel like it’s okay to be visible in our own lives. To take up space.

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