Fat, Fashion, and Scapegoating

Couple of items came to my attention regarding fat women being presented as sexy and the reactions thereto.

First up: Trouble at the Lusty Lady, the country’s only unionized strip club, over an email from a male worker (who wants to see the union gone now that the club is a co-op owned by the union members) relaying complaints he allegedly heard from customers regarding a night at the Lusty Lady featuring “BBW”* performers:

Like a lot of San Francisco businesses, the Lusty Lady prides itself on diversity, offering up dancers in a variety of sizes, shapes, ethnicities, attitudes and tattoos.

But like a lot of North Beach clubs, business at the Lusty — while steady — isn’t what it was a few years back during the dot-com years, so every customer and dollar counts.

That’s why it was such a big deal in July, when someone booked an entire night of “BBW” entertainment — big, beautiful women — and the clientele reacted by walking out.

The counterman wrote up the customers’ objections — “I came for fantasies, not nightmares” being one of the more printable ones — and sent them off in what he thought was a confidential e-mail to the club’s board of directors.

However, one board member, who worked as a Lusty dancer, took offense and plastered a printout of the e-mail on the dressing room mirror for all the entertainers to see.

Talk about an ugly situation.

Now, from this account, it sounds like “the clientele” walked out en masse. Because, my God! Who would want to see fat women dancing naked?

This account provides a different spin:

The tale goes back to July, when a support staffer named Davide Cerri sent the co-op board an e-mail complaining that the peep show’s revenues were falling off. Since everybody’s pay at the Lusty is based on monthly revenues, any decline in cash flow would hit every worker’s wallet.

Cerri claimed that the Lusty’s madams were hiring “unwatchable girls” — women who were too big and not quite sexy enough — and that as a result, the club lost money.

“People comes [sic] asking for refunds, because they do not want to see girls that they would not want to have sex with even if they were completely drunk,” Cerri wrote.

“This is reality, not question of options. We sell fantasies, not nightmares.”

Looks to me like someone’s not happy with the whole financial arrangement of the co-op, where one’s personal income depends on how much revenue the revenue generators generate.** And where the market is down, and people just aren’t coming in the door like they used to, it’s time to find a scapegoat. In this guy’s case, his lower income became the fault of the fat dancers because an unspecified number of customers complained (and, looks like, what with the “nightmares” quote and the quote about fuckability, he added his own editorial comments into the mix). As a bonus, he blames the union.

[Note: I do not support at all the action that the dancer who posted the email took. That shit should have been dealt with at the board level. Moreover, while she may have had good intentions, posting that email where the dancers assessed as nightmarish unfuckable unwatchable beasts had to see it was just cruel.]

The Lusty Lady’s been struggling for quite a while, so it seems unfair to blame the entire problem on one night of BBW dancers. I don’t see any actual receipts here showing how much business actually declined, or how many people actually got refunds.

But, you know? Fat chicks are ugly — everybody knows that! — and it’s easier to blame them than it is to face the fact that the business just isn’t bringing in the customers like it used to. So you get a board member telling the Guardian:

“It’s great what we at the Lusty think the standards of beauty are, but the reality is that we’re in the adult entertainment business.”

Interesting thing about the adult entertainment business: it’s only been within the last four or five decades that the standards of beauty in the business weren’t a great deal more zaftig than what Mr. Nasty Email would like. I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Rachel Shteir about the industry’s origins, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. From the beginning of burlesque, which included “undressing acts” in the 1880s, and on through striptease in the 1930s, performers were a great deal heftier than you would see at a random strip club today. In fact, at the turn of the century, there was a troupe known as the Beef Trust that proclaimed that no performer weighed less than 200 pounds — and there were occasional scandals when performers were caught padding their costumes.

Thinner bodies became in vogue around the 1920s, when the Ziegfeld Follies opened on Broadway. Flo Ziegfeld used only slim, small-breasted chorines (who could appear nearly nude, but only if they remained still), which he felt gave a “classier” look to the Follies than the more full-figured burlesquers and strippers downtown, who were considered more geared to working-class and immigrant tastes. While burlesque and striptease continued to use more zaftig bodies than the “classy” joints uptown, burlesque performers did become thinner than the Beef Trust performers had been, if not quite as thin as the Ziegfeld girls. Postwar strippers like Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm were extremely busty, but burlesque and striptease were considered something of another era, a cute old-fashioned throwback. By the time topless clubs came in in the 60s, burlesque and its larger bodies were out, and strippers and topless dancers were not only smaller, they’d dispensed with the floor-show aspects of burlesque.

Which brings us to our next item. Sexy fat woman as curiosity and nod to the past:

In what seemed more of a nod to front-row guest, the burlesque artiste Dita Von Teese, Gaultier sent out the plus-sized Paris-based American model and actress Velvet d’Amour, 39, in a satin corset and negligee. The rest of his collection was on a “workout” theme, an athletic wear-inspired collection of silk track pants, hooded sweat tops and dresses.

Gaultier probably thought of himself as being daring, but what would have been really daring would have been to treat Ms. d’Amour as a regular model instead of Othering her by treating her as a throwback and an oddity. From Queerty:

He couldn’t put the fat model in track pants because overweight people never excercise. And he probably wouldn’t have gotten as much press.

I recently saw a program on Ovation called Dawn French on Big Women (which doesn’t seem to appear on her imdb listing), in which French ponders why big women are not represented in modern culture when they were previously celebrated in art. One of the most interesting things about the special, which is nearly a monologue as French alternately visits several artists and photographers to be painted or photographed and talks to a near-silent Alison Moyet over champagne and strawberries, is French’s observation that big women are, indeed, allowed to be sexy in the modern world — as long as the way they are sexy conforms to the way they were depicted as sexy in the past. So, with (IIRC) only one exception, the artists and photographers she visits all fall back on recreating famous paintings in which big women were depicted in seductive poses, rather than finding what was sexy about French herself as a modern woman.

It’s the same thing with the Gaultier show and the Lusty Lady complaints — Velvet d’Amour was allowed on the catwalk, but only because she could be shown as sexy by putting her in burlesque wear; the fat dancers at the Lusty Lady were deemed “unwatchable” because they did not refer to burlesque or some other past, acceptable, portrayal of fat women as desirable. Nope, they dared to ask to be taken on the same terms as the other dancers.

If you check out that Ovation link, you can see that Dawn French on Big Women will be shown sometime this week. Fire up your TiVos.

_________
* Mother of God, I hate this term.

** You ever wonder why law firm associates work so many hours? Because law firms are run on this kind of model at the partnership level. Every hour an associate bills is more money in a partner’s pocket. And since lawyers are professional employees, they don’t get overtime. So the more hours worked, the higher the profit. This is why partners become screamers.


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25 comments for “Fat, Fashion, and Scapegoating

  1. October 4, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    I don’t think Gaultier did it to be “daring” at all. I think he did it as a backlash against the banning of underweight models and the few recent shows where designers sent “bigger” models down the runway. He’s saying, “Look, you really DON’T want to see normal, much less big women on the runway. Look how bad this looks.” (although I happen to like her legs, but then again I used to be her exact size and appreciate large bodies)

    I think to most designers, fashion isn’t about selling clothes. It’s about aspiring to the unattainable.

  2. zuzu
    October 4, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    Well, then he’s just falling into that false-dichotomy thinking I’ve seen so much of in discussions of the Milan BMI floor: if the models aren’t so thin that they’re in danger of falling over dead once they step off the runway, then they must be HUGE!

    Because someone with a BMI of 18 is just the same as Velvet d’Amour.

    I also have to say that I’m happy to see legs like hers, too, because I have similar. It always seems that plus-sized models have comparatively thin legs.

  3. piny
    October 4, 2006 at 3:38 pm

    [Note: I do not support at all the action that the dancer who posted the email took. That shit should have been dealt with at the board level. Moreover, while she may have had good intentions, posting that email where the dancers assessed as nightmarish unfuckable unwatchable beasts had to see it was just cruel.]

    I agree with the insensitivity, but I can’t believe that she got fired for publically posting someone else’s hateful language. That just seems wrong on so many levels.

  4. zuzu
    October 4, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    I think part of it had to do with her being a board member. Both of them were suspended at first.

  5. piny
    October 4, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Ah, I get it.

  6. Frumious B
    October 4, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    While I was watching The Jazz Singer I was struck by how much bigger the thighs and how much smaller the boobs on the chorus girls than you see on dancing girls today. These ladies were still fairly thin, though.

  7. K
    October 4, 2006 at 4:29 pm

    First, OT, Girlchild is here! Yay and What was I thinking??

    Second, when I was dancing the only thing that affected business (short term) was how much money guys had to waste on us girls. Only the saddest addict would buy table dances and allow the rent to go unpaid. One of my regulars managed a movie theater and his revenue rose and fell with ours. So. again, it’s the economy, stupid.

    Now, girl quality would affect profits over the long term. And by that I mean not body shape but alcohol and drug use. We had more than one pleasingly fleshy girl on a given night and they did quite well.

  8. Seraph
    October 4, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    Funny thing about the adult entertainment business…

    I don’t know about the San Francisco market specifically, but if the Internet and the local video store is any kind of indication of the Adult entertainment industry as a whole, then “BBW” (I understand completely why you hate the term) is a thriving sub-genre. What that says to me is that, unlike the designers who, as Amber said (and I agree entirely) “aspire for the unattainable”, and the various mainstream media outlets who feed us a steady diet of rail-thin starlets, the man on the street is attracted to a wide variety of body types and doesn’t necessarily buy into the supposed standard of beauty.

    I’ll understand if that’s not much of a silver lining.

    An aspect that might be worth considering is race: in both the Adult entertainment industry and the mainstream media, non-white women are “allowed” to be larger. For example, I can’t think of any white counterpart to Queen Latifah – a larger (although, I’ll admit, not really so large – only in comparison to the Standard Hollywood Types she’s usually standing next to) woman who is considered sexy and desirable enough to occasionally be romantic lead material.

  9. Bruce from Missouri
    October 4, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    ****An aspect that might be worth considering is race: in both the Adult entertainment industry and the mainstream media, non-white women are “allowed” to be larger. For example, I can’t think of any white counterpart to Queen Latifah – a larger (although, I’ll admit, not really so large – only in comparison to the Standard Hollywood Types she’s usually standing next to) woman who is considered sexy and desirable enough to occasionally be romantic lead material.***

    Well, there is Camryn Mannheim. But really, you are talking about cultural standards there (and stereotypes). Large women are far more popular in the black community than in the white community. Therefore a large black woman has a much better chance of making it in Hollywood than a large white woman. Black women have always been allowed to be larger…Pam Grier was pretty big compared to white actresses of the time. And before here I imagine most roles for black women were as maids (excluding “race films” like Carmen Jones with all black casts)

    You are casting too broad a net by saying “non-white”. It only applies to black women. You will never ever see a large asian, pacific Islander, or hispanic in a romantic lead. Ask Margaret Cho.

  10. Seraph
    October 4, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    You are casting too broad a net by saying “non-white”. It only applies to black women. You will never ever see a large asian, pacific Islander, or hispanic in a romantic lead. Ask Margaret Cho.

    Perhaps I am. But I wouldn’t be that narrow, either. I feel safe in saying that “acceptable” size varies from one racial group to another – asians may be as (or even more) restricted than caucasians, but I believe hispanics have at least a little more leeway.

  11. Seraph
    October 4, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    but I believe hispanics have at least a little more leeway.

    Here I’m thinking of the difference between, say, Salma Hayek (once again, not a “large” woman by any normal standard, but definitely a voluptuous one) as compared to, say, Nicole Kidman or Gwyneth Paltrow.

  12. Seraph
    October 4, 2006 at 7:01 pm

    But now I suppose I’m going OT by moving away from the adult entertainment industry – which, whatever else you can say about it, features more variety than Hollywood.

  13. zuzu
    October 4, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    if the Internet and the local video store is any kind of indication of the Adult entertainment industry as a whole, then “BBW” (I understand completely why you hate the term) is a thriving sub-genre.

    Oh, trust me, as a fat woman who dates, I know this. I suspect that the Lusty Lady, seeing as how its management isn’t the most experienced in business, didn’t promote the hell out of the BBW night to capture the fat fetishist market. One thing that internet porn has shown is that there’s a market for any and all kinds of porn out there, it’s just a matter of finding the buyers.

  14. kate
    October 4, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    Excuse me for being obtuse, but since when does the hyper sexualization of women translate into their liberation?

    Whether fat, skinny, dead or alive women dancing onstage in lingere or nothing at all smacking their behinds and squeezing their nipples to please men to get money to ‘pay the bills’, does nothing to raise my wages, keep me from fearing rape, keep women from being beaten, or keep women from having to forgo control of their bodies or help me or any other women be taken more seriously as humans and not just objects of pleasure for men.

  15. sophonisba
    October 5, 2006 at 2:05 am

    does nothing to raise my wages,

    This is just a guess, but I think they might be just a tad more concerned with their own wages than with yours.

    or help me or any other women be taken more seriously as humans and not just objects of pleasure for men.

    I am all for mocking and deriding porn culture and male entitlement to female bodies. I am not a defender of the porn industry or of strip clubs. However, this is just so astoundingly self-centered. You’re quite right, women dancing onstage in lingerie are not doing so for the express purpose of helping you. Or me. What, pray tell, are you doing at your day job to help them? Feminist obligation doesn’t flow just one way.

    That aside, it is certainly degrading to be assessed as a pleasingly fuckable commodity. It is not, however, notably less degrading to be assessed as a disgustingly unfuckable commodity. Fat women are allowed to object to the ugliness of latter without denying the ugliness of the former.

  16. October 5, 2006 at 8:01 am

    Great post, zuzu.

  17. exangelena
    October 5, 2006 at 9:32 am

    It’s disgusting and misogynist that all women get lumped into “category:sexy” or “category:ugly”, not which particular category they end up in. Both of them have their own pros and cons, but in the end, all it really means that women are assessed only in terms of their sexual attractiveness. Bitingbeaver says it better than me.

    Sophonisba – I think that some feminists feel that the emphasis on sexual liberation is a frivolous one to concentrate on, when compared with issues such as the wage gap, sexual assault, DV, etc. Although of course, feminists are capable of multitasking, and many do take on sexual liberation issues AND the ones mentioned above. It sort of reminds me of the debate going on at Twisty about “Bust” magazine. Just my $0.02 – and I’m not claiming to speak for Kate :)

  18. zuzu
    October 5, 2006 at 10:02 am

    Here’s the thing, kate — whether or not you or anyone else considers nude dancing empowering or liberating (and I don’t really know why you’re yelling at me for claiming it is, because I didn’t make such a claim), the fact is that the Lusty Lady is in the business of providing nude dancing. And the fact is that business is down. And the fact is that we have a guy at the Lusty Lady blaming fat dancers for being the cause of business being down, when that’s not the case. So we have a scapegoating situation going on that’s based on the lazy assumption that fat women are ugly and unwatchable.

    As far as the Gaultier show, we have a fat woman presented as a freak and Other, because she’s not taking part in the show except as a curiosity.

  19. October 5, 2006 at 10:03 am

    gah. yeah, i’d heard that lusty lady wasn’t exactly the paragon of feminist/progressive goodness it was cracked up to be, improvement though it might represent; that sucks, though.

    and while i expect Amber is quite right about fucking Gaultier, i for one am pleased to learn of the existence of Miz D’Amour.

    and if he really thought that she was more “shocking” than all the near-dead-looking models the fashion industry has been using for years now, (and is probably right, sadly, when it comes to his peers at least), well…goddamit, let’s give ’em a rude awakening.

    fat can be sexy.

    thin can be sexy.

    in-between can be sexy.

    emaciated to the point of near-death: not sexy.

    trying to sell the notion that that extreme level of thinness is not only desirable but there’s something wrong with you if you can’t attain it (by dint of never showing anyone else): REALLY not sexy.

    really old.

    i for one am sick to death of it.

  20. October 5, 2006 at 10:08 am

    > am all for mocking and deriding porn culture and male entitlement to female bodies. I am not a defender of the porn industry or of strip clubs. However, this is just so astoundingly self-centered. You’re quite right, women dancing onstage in lingerie are not doing so for the express purpose of helping you. Or me. What, pray tell, are you doing at your day job to help them? Feminist obligation doesn’t flow just one way.

    That aside, it is certainly degrading to be assessed as a pleasingly fuckable commodity. It is not, however, notably less degrading to be assessed as a disgustingly unfuckable commodity. Fat women are allowed to object to the ugliness of latter without denying the ugliness of the former.>

    Ovation.

    As per “frivolous:” you know what, that goes both ways. If it’s frivolous to be concerned with being able to express one’s sexuality in the way that one wants, (i.e. i like blowjobs and sports corsets), it’s damn well frivolous to be concerned with browbeating other women into giving up their blowjobs, sports corsets, etc. You can’t have it both ways. Either this shit matters or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t matter, then why do some feminists keep harping on it so relentlessly? You want to focus on reproductive rights and the wage gap and the women being stoned to death in Iran and so on, well by all means: knock yourself out. I may join you. But don’t sneer at me for being concerned about my sexuality when you yourself apparently can’t think about anything else.

    (that was a generally directed “you,” p.s.)

  21. October 5, 2006 at 10:12 am

    >Although of course, feminists are capable of multitasking, and many do take on sexual liberation issues AND the ones mentioned above. >

    What a wacky notion!

    And what a wacky notion that the “sexbot” or even prostitute in the miniskirt and high heels may actually be a formidable intellect with serious feminist activist and academic chops.

    I have a lot of cynicism about “feminists” for whom that notion is apparently as wacky as it is to mainstream generic sex-negative -sexists.-

    Sure, the mini and the heels should not be -compulsory.- The problem however is not the mini or the heels; the problem is the COMPULSORY. It could be anything, and often is, frankly, did one care to look outside the narrow purview of one’s own experience.

  22. exangelena
    October 5, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    belledame – (Ok, I’m not savvy enough to do blockquotes or anything fancier than links, so the format is going to suck) When I said that feminists are capable of multitasking, I simply meant to rebut a criticism of sex-positive feminists, that they’re too busy spinning around poles to care about x feminist issue.

    As for frivolity …

    So I don’t attempt to speak for anyone else, I’ll use myself as an example. That I’m concerned with things like hypersexualization, eating disorders, the feminist implications of x, y, z, etc. is probably a function of the fact that – living in a somewhat secular and relatively prosperous part of the Western world (like many of the feminist bloggers, I’d assume) – I’m allowed to work and pursue a university degree, I wasn’t forced to marry at age 12 and then, denied birth control and sexual agency, compelled to have babies until I developed fistulas, I’m not going to be honor-killed if I’m seen in public with a man who’s not my relative, I’m not faced with the threat of gang-raping militias whenever I go outside for firewood, I’m not required to leave the house with a male chaperone, I can wear what I want within reason, I wasn’t killed at birth for being a girl and so on and so forth. That’s not to say that the position of women in the secular, prosperous West is perfect, it isn’t by a long shot. But if I think of it as a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I do have more of the basics covered than many other women, and maybe by their standards, my rubbernecking at the feminist blogosphere’s sex wars *is* a a luxury :)

    To make a long answer short, maybe the sex wars are frivolous in comparison with other things (and, yes, equally frivolous for both sides), although I think that they’re perfectly legitimate and timely for debate.
    Sorry for such a long, incoherent comment, I hope I don’t offend anyone, because I’m not meaning to!

  23. exangelena
    October 5, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Ok, rereading my comment, scratch eating disorders and replace with body image. I’m also not implying that any of these things are trivial, because they’re not, but I’d better quit while I’m ahead.

  24. exangelena
    October 5, 2006 at 7:31 pm

    Ew, after having sat on this for awhile, I think that whole comment was a function of a sleep-deprived, preoccupied and slightly incoherent mind. Especially in light of the tragedies in Colorado and Pennsylvania, as well as the horrific rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence, I can’t emphasize enough that the position of women in the West is *hardly* perfect. Not to mention that virtually all of the feminist bloggers cover the aforementioned issues. So please take the preceding posts with a grain of salt :)

  25. October 5, 2006 at 9:24 pm

    exan: I think I’m the one who should grab the salt shaker; when I said “what a wacky notion!” i was being sarcastic; i.e. I was agreeing with you. (in the rebuttal of that stereotype of sex-pos feminists; i count myself as one, and also tire of the stereotype).

    sorry; that sort of thing often doesn’t come across that well on the Internets, i realize.

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