By Brittany Ulman
Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and prepare yourselves for the amazing performance you are about to witness! Eileen Rosensteel herself has graced us with her presence to provide us intriguing insight into the worlds of five historic fat ladies! The ladies that you are about to observe go above and beyond the everyday expectations of the freak show. They utilize their time on stage to teach all of you about social issues, including modern day society’s outlook on body image and what is considered the “perfect” individual. So, do not hesitate! Gather around the stage and behold a never before seen fat lady act!
On the evening of Monday, April 4th, Eileen Rosensteel joined the Digital Literature Review in their investigation of freak shows throughout history and the impact they have had on both past and present societies. Rosensteel, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, has taken it upon herself to study fat ladies from history and give them the voice that had been taken away from them at a young age. As a fat activist, Rosensteel has an interest in the history of body image. After enduring years of walking down the sidewalk to the sound of passers-by blurting out, “Oh my God, she’s so fat!”, she glimpsed the spark of an idea. Jokingly, she said that she should start selling tickets for people to look at her, but, with this joke, she realized that she wanted to know more about other fat ladies from history. So she set out to research these other women and write a poem about her experiences along with theirs.
However, she quickly learned that there were so many stories that were either not being told or being told incorrectly by individuals who had nothing in common with these women. This lack of accurate research inspired Rosensteel to discover the truth so that she could “honor their stories and to make their lives become real to other people.” She also wants to inspire her audiences to examine their personal feelings towards what is considered “normal” and what has influenced their opinions. By helping her audiences rethink their current perceptions of what we all “should” look like, she encourages us all to become comfortable with ourselves because, in the end, it is not a competition. According to Rosensteel, everyone needs to learn to “be gentle with yourself and realize that it is not a switch: there is no magic switch that you do this long enough and you finally love yourself.”
As Rosensteel went about researching the stories of her five fat lady performers, she contacted some of their family members to obtain more personal information about these women. While doing so, she received mixed reactions from the families, some of whom even denied that their family members were in freak shows in the first place. Others’ stories nearly contradicted what Rosensteel had found while conducting her research. These discrepancies were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the obstacles that she encountered while striving to find the truth. Due to the lack of accuracy in this field and the fact that these women often changed their names, there were times where Rosensteel could not find any truth at all. However, she did not let that lack of authentic information discourage her in her quest to share these women’s stories. Somehow, she managed to compile enough facts to create five different personas of fat ladies from our history, fat ladies who featured in her performance at Ball State University.
In her performance at Ball State, Rosensteel and her audience trekked through history as she took on the roles of five historic fat ladies followed by an exclusive glimpse into her own life as a bodacious beauty. In these performances, Rosensteel included the numerous conflicting emotions that these women experienced during their time in the freak show. The effects of being deemed a “freak” weighed heavily on their minds and self-confidence. In the case of Gertrude Barnes, her life as a circus fat lady only diminished her already deteriorating self-esteem. Barnes constantly asked why God was punishing her with a body that was contrived from a “twisted nightmare” and contained nothing but “mutilated” flesh. Barnes’ depression had sunk so deep, she did not even want her young son to ever see her again, so as to prevent him from watching her fat lady performance. The main thing that Gertrude Barnes wanted was to finally fly away to some glory that would provide her with the release she had so desperately been praying for.
The child performer Jolly Lottie remembered the times where little boys were afraid to pinch her fat too hard, and the older men’s hands would move around a little too much on her body. But unlike Barnes, Jolly tried to focus on the pets that she could have while at the circus along with the hopes of one day having a family of her own away from the freak show. Remembering the good things in life was a little more difficult for Baby Bessie. Her life as a circus fat lady started off great, filled with the love of a man who always made her feel comfortable in her own skin. Unfortunately, Bessie’s love and fellow performer, Jimmy, died in the war effort during Pearl Harbor. Despite her pain though, Bessie still calls the circus her home because it is filled with a family that takes care of one another.
Even though these emotions and occurrences were part of everyday life for those deemed “freaks,” there were those like Delilah Dixon of the Georgia Dixons that chose to look at the freak show as a business endeavor. Alongside her husband, Delilah realized that she “ain’t got time to be ashamed of being in a side show because there’s good money to be made.” Being raised in the circus environment with her mother as a former fat lady, Delilah understood that she needed to do what she had to do to survive. She did not want to be like those men on Wall Street taking their lives because they had too little money and too much pride. Lady Velma Emonse was also proud to be a fat lady performer because it allowed her a way to advocate for increased human rights. Because she wanted to travel the world and spread the word about women’s rights, Emonse saw her stance as a circus performer as the ideal platform for expressing her true love—campaigning for human rights.
Once Rosensteel had shared these stories, she took a seat center-stage and opened up a discussion with the audience. The conversation comprised of questions about where Rosensteel had gotten the idea for her performance and how she personally deals with a topic that is often disheartening and depressing. In response to these inquiries, Rosensteel mentioned that the entire process involved coming to grips with her own self-hatred and channeling it into something productive. Fortunately, Rosensteel is comfortable with her body and wants to encourage that confidence in her audience. According to her, “it’s really about owning your own space, and owning your own body. Taking pride in who you are.” Taking that into consideration, Rosensteel wanted to convey that many historic fat ladies prided themselves on who they were despite not fitting into society’s mold. She also went onto mention that there should never be a mold in the first place No matter the size, Rosensteel believes that everyone should be comfortable with themselves and not allow others to discourage them—just like the women she personifies in her act.
Other than the fat lady performance, Rosensteel also has created a movie in which she confronts images of her own body. Even though she is comfortable with her appearance, she realized that she had never actually looked at her body. So she had a photographer take nude photos of her which she then made into poster size images she placed around her house. She then went onto show the film at an academic conference and several film festivals around the country. Despite the experience being rather traumatic, Rosensteel wants this movie to be in conversation with the book that she is currently working on and hopes to finish soon. In the end, she wants society to reevaluate their opinions of body image and what is considered “attractive.” However, Rosensteel acknowledges that in order for this transformation to happen, constant communication is needed. Therefore, she also encouraged her audience to interact with her and keep her updated on what they are doing. She is currently working on recreating her website, but she is easily accessible via her Facebook account. This communication is key to increasing awareness of society’s perceptions concerning body image and the “freak” and giving those that are considered “different” the advocacy that they deserve.