Be Kind to Yourself, It’s Not a Competition

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!

Eileen picture

Eileen Rosensteel at her performance at BSU this past April.

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.

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“Why Can’t You Be Fat Too?”: The Use of Fat Suits in The Big Bang Theory

By: Bryce Longenberger

During the past century, fat people exhibits featured prominently in the American freak show. Although today the freak show has largely died out, the fat body continues to be on display in modern American pop culture. The issues surrounding the contemporary display of fatness can be seen when one examines CBS’s number-one-ranked television show The Big Bang Theory. Unlike the freak show, The Big Bang Theory does not include an actual fat person. In one particular episode, fat people are actually replaced by people in fat suits. This allows for the display and performance of the fat body without the presence of a fat person. In so doing, it robs fat people of the power and control to determine how their own bodies are portrayed, while also reinscribing social norms that value thinness and degrade fatness.

The historical fat lady/man exhibit reveals prevailing ideologies about the fat body. Sharon Mazer writes about Katy Dierlam, who performed as “Helen Melon” at Coney Island’s Sideshow in 1992 as a fat woman exhibit. Mazer notes that the fat body is recognized as “a common sign of personal dysfunction, of overeating” (258). She later characterizes the “overweight woman’s body” as “something men are trained to shun, women to fear in themselves” (259). In essence, the fat body represents moral and physical excessiveness, a state that is thought abhorrent by many.

This sort of negative association is known as stigma. Erving Goffman defines a stigma as a personal attribute that is “deeply discrediting” due to societal attitudes regarding it, attitudes that can lead to social shunning (257). Among Goffman’s three types of stigma, the type that pertains to the fat body is “abominations of the body,” or “various physical deformities” that are visible to others and are difficult to cover up (257). In the case of a fat person, the body has the potential to consume the identity of the person, creating a singular identity concentrated on the fat body itself. Any interaction with a fat person, then, is tainted by the stigma that others impose upon that person, denying the fat person a chance of cultivating a normal position in society.

The stigmas associated with fatness can be seen throughout The Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory is a television sitcom focusing on the story of four young nerds: two physicists, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper; an aerospace engineer, Howard Wolowitz; and an astrophysicist, Raj Koothrappali, all of whom work at Caltech. They are all geeky and socially awkward, especially when they interact with their neighbor Penny, an aspiring actress.

The only fat character in the show is Howard’s mother, Mrs. Wolowitz. Besides being fat, she has an excessive appetite, makes frequent comments about her bowel movements, and nurtures an overbearing relationship with Howard. The first problem with the portrayal of Mrs. Wolowitz is that it reduces her to her bodily identity, which is presented in stereotypical and stigmatizing terms. The second problem is that, despite the fact that the entire cast calls attention to her appearance by making fat jokes about her, Mrs. Wolowitz’s body is never shown to the audience. Instead, she always appears speaking from behind a door or from another room. Thus, there is no actual fat body present to contradict or counterbalance the stigmatized image presented in the jokes.

But the problem with the show’s portrayal of fatness goes farther than a simple lack of representation. Instead, in one episode, “The Cooper Extraction,” three of the characters don fat suits. It is on this display of the fat body without the presence of an actual fat person that I would like to focus.

In “The Cooper Extraction,” Sheldon Cooper visits Texas over the holidays because his sister is having a baby. While he is absent, the rest of the cast (including Howard’s wife, Sheldon’s girlfriend, and their friend Stuart) throw a Christmas tree decorating party and envision how their lives would be different if they had never met Sheldon.

When asked why Leonard (Sheldon’s roommate) and Raj never lived together, Raj narrates what would have happened if they had. In the imagined scene, Raj prepares dinner for the two of them. Raj takes a turkey out of the oven and says, “Come on Leonard. Dinner.” The camera then switches perspectives and focuses on Leonard, who is wearing a fat suit under his clothing. The camera shows him struggling to rise from his chair and walk slowly to the dinner table.

 

Before I describe the rest of the scene, let’s examine the issues surrounding fat suits. In her article on fat suits, Kathleen LeBesco discusses the politics of performance as it pertains to fat suits in relation to to Blackface and drag. She defines a fat suit as “a prosthesis, often made of foam and latex, which allows a thin or average sized person to appear fat” (232). Essentially, a fat suit allows a person who is not fat to present themselves visually as being fat.

The problematic nature of fat suits occurs when we consider who maintains power when a fat suit is worn. According to LeBesco, “when each group (fat and black) is imitated (through fat suits or blackface performance), their power is limited” (234). It is “limited” because the fat suit allows a non-fat person to dictate when fatness should be displayed and in what manner, essentially robbing fat people of control over their image and over beliefs about their body type.

This often leads to the denigration of the fat body. LeBesco comments that fat suits “seem to allow for a moment of recognition that fat-phobia exists, followed by a mandate that fat people must lose weight to avoid this stigma” (232). In this way, fat suits situate thinness as the preferred and dominant societal norm, while relegating fatness to deviance and undesirableness. And because fat suits display the fat body without the presence of fat actors and actresses, fat people cannot challenge these negative ideas about their body type. They have no voice because they do not control its display.

If we return, then, to the scene from “The Cooper Extraction,” we can see that the characters’ narration of the imagined scene and their use of fat suits further denigrates fatness. After the brief clip of Leonard walking to the table with his fat suit on, the scene is interrupted by Leonard in the present scene. “Hang on. Why am I fat?” Leonard asks. Raj replies, “You’d have no girlfriend to see you naked, you’d try to fill the void with food, and I’m an enabler who once deep-fried a pancake.” But Leonard merely retorts, “Why can’t you be fat too?”

In the next instant, we are once again returned to the imaginary scene, but this time Raj is now also wearing a fat suit. As they both gorge themselves on an extremely large amount of food, Stuart also walks in with a fat suit. As we return to the present scene once again, Raj asks Stuart, “What are you doing?” Stuart, who appears sad, says, “I just wanted to be in anyone’s story.” Still puzzled, Raj says, “Yeah, but why are you fat?” Stuart merely lowers his gaze and says, “Cause Leonard’s fat.”

As I stated above, the first major issue is that three thin or average sized actors are presenting themselves as fat. This portrayal is not only accomplished without a fat person  present, but it also reinforces the notion that fatness is a result of gluttony and losing control, a state that should not be desired.

The second problem is that these three characters also flippantly decide who is fat in this imaginary scene. First, only Leonard is fat; however, the plausibility of the scene cannot be maintained unless Raj is also fat. Finally, Stuart imposes fatness on himself just so he can be mentioned in someone’s story. In this way, the frivolous nature in which Leonard, Raj, and Stuart take fatness on themselves devalues the fat body and the experience of fat people.

I will not concede that fat suits are entirely destructive and harmful to views surrounding fatness. Indeed, Kathleen LeBesco states that “the power and possibility of fat drag … comes in denaturalizing the thin ‘original’ body of the actor [or actress]” (233). I would agree that if fat suits could redirect the attention away from the absent fat body and back towards the cultural norm that thinness is natural and to be preferred, while also valuing and humanizing the fat body, then fat suits could be used to some benefit.

However, as I’ve shown in this blog post, that is not usually the case. Therefore, I believe that a better course of action is allowing fat people to represent themselves, thus “win[ning] more advantageous positioning in fields of power” and gaining back their control over their own representation (LeBesco 234).

What might this look like, you ask? Well, a good starting place would be Helen Melon’s performance, which I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post. Dierlam/Melon does display her body for audiences at Coney’s Island Sideshow, but she uses her performance to confront her viewers’ beliefs about fatness and body image.

According to Mazer, Dierlam/Melon “reverses the lens of her performance” and exposes our thoughts about her as “cultural stereotypes” (260). She uses her body to directly and explicitly state what her audience is thinking about her, thus turning the tables on her audience and forcing them to confront their own prejudices about the fat body.

Another example of challenging negative fat representations can be found in the art installations created by Rachel Herrick and titled The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies. In Herrick’s travelling museum exhibits are displayed mannequins representing the endangered “obeast,” a creature modelled on Herrick’s own body. The “obeast,” as she describes it, is simply a fat woman, but it is described as if it were a wild animal. Instead of degrading the fat body, Herrick’s fictional animal critiques the notions that fat identity is somehow dehumanizing or animalistic. She exaggerates societal norms and challenges the public to reexamine their preconceived notions of fatness.

As we watch three actors don fat suits on The Big Bang Theory, we are left with a false representation of the fat body. There may be laughter as Leonard and Raj stuff themselves with food, but we can not forget that while they can take off their fat suits, the prejudices and ideologies about fatness to which their performance contributes are not as easily taken off.

Works Cited:

Goffman, Erving. “Stigma and Social Identity.” Understanding Deviance: Connecting Classical and Contemporary Perspectives.” Ed. Tammy L. Anderson. New York: Routledge, 2014. 256-265. Print.

LeBesco, Kathleen. “Situating Fat Suits: Blackface, Drag, and the Politics of Performance.” Women and Performance 15.2 (2005): 231-242. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Mazer, Sharon. “‘She’s so fat …’ Facing the Fat Lady at Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001. 257-267. Print.

Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies. MOCS, 2015. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

“The Cooper Extraction.” The Big Bang Theory. CBS. CBS, New York City. 12 Dec. 2013. Television.