The other night, I found myself watching School of Rock with Jack Black. I had seen it when it came out, but I had nearly forgotten about this little exchange between the plus-sized Tomika (played by Maryam Hassan) and Jack Black’s character, Dewey Finn.
Tomika: [explaining why she is nervous] They’ll laugh at me.
Dewey Finn: What? Why would they laugh at you?
Tomika: I dunno… because I’m fat.
Dewey Finn: Tomika… Ok, you’ve heard of Aretha Franklin right? She’s a big lady. But when she sings, she blows people’s minds! Everyone wants to party with Aretha! And, you know who else has a weight problem?
Dewey Finn: Me. But when I get up there and start doing my thing, people worship me! Because I’m sexy, and chubby, man.
So, here’s a snippet from “Locating Your Fabulous Fat Lineage” which I wrote last year as I was about to start performing with the now defunct musical improv group, MC Hammerstein.
Even though I do this work all the time, I still have body image slip-ups — moments when I feel self conscious or have a momentary desire to limit something I do b/c of how I look.
I recently was asked to join a musical improv comedy group. I love doing musical improv (we basically improvise a 40 minute musical every week) so I was really excited to join. But then, I had one of those moments of self doubt that can be so compounded for those of us who have or have had body image issues. I started thinking that I’d be the biggest woman in the group, and that just snowballed into a whole cascade of insecurities, like, “What if I’m the fattest woman in the group and my voice is off/I sing wrong notes/I’m not funny….”
So I did something that I often tell my clients to do. I found pictures of some of the greatest women comedians and singers and actors who were also fat and fabulous. Immediately, I thought of ones who are still around — Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Bates, Adele, Aretha Franklin. But then I decided to dig a little deeper, and I found some more outrageously gorgeous and talented and fat women. [All quoted info is from Wikipedia.]
Lillian “Diamond Lil” Russell — “One of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 19th century and early 20th century, known for her beauty and style, as well as for her voice and stage presence.”
Sophie Tucker — “Singer and comedian and one of the most popular entertainers in America during the first two-thirds of the 20th century…. She was billed as The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, as her hearty sexual appetite was a frequent subject of her songs, unusual for female performers of the era.”
Willie Mae (“Big Mama”) Thornton — “American Texas blues, rhythm and blues (R&B) singer, and songwriter. She was the first to record the hit song “Hound Dog” in 1952. The song was #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks. The B-side was “They Call Me Big Mama,” and the single sold almost two million copies.”
Kate Smith — “American singer, best known for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”. Smith had a radio, TV and recording career spanning five decades, reaching its most-remembered zenith in the 1940s.”
Mahalia Jackson — “American gospel singer, widely regarded as the best in the history of the genre, and is the first “Queen of Gospel Music”. With her powerful, distinct voice, Mahalia Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds” million-sellers.”
I’m not saying I sing like Mahalia or photograph like Diamond Lil, but doing this exercise helped remind me that the cultural moment in which we’re living is really just a blip. It helped me see myself as part of a lineage of beautiful, talented, outrageous and larger-than-life women who were beloved by audiences for decades.
If they can do that, I can make people laugh in a little theatre on 29th street, even if I go off key sometimes.
Try This: Find images and information about fabulously fat people who have done what you’re feeling discouraged about doing. (Trade magazines and web sites are good for this sort of thing when you’re looking for people who are not always in the public eye.) Do a collage, journal entry or blog entry about them. Paste your own picture in there for good measure, so that you can see yourself as part of this heritage. Let me know how it goes!