One of us: Deep Thinking About Beth Ditto

By | June 22, 2009

Last week I skimmed an interview with Beth Ditto, talking about her upcoming Evans line. Though I don’t expect to buy anything from it (I’d be happy to be wrong! But it would take something impressive indeed to convince me to deal with the international shipping), I’m excited to see this happen for a few reasons. For one, if what folks are saying is true, it may possibly be the most trend-forward plus size collection many of us have yet seen. For another, it’s being offered by a British retailer, which is great for my dear long-suffering UK fats, whose local plus-size options are ten times more abysmal than what we have in the US.

“Some fat girl blogger was saying, ‘It’s cool that all these famous designers are making clothes for her, but they’re not going to make them for everyone.’ And the truth is, yes, they’re not going to make them for everyone. They make only a few pieces just to fit me,” [Ditto] shrugs. “For the rest, I have to make it work my own way. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to go round my shoulders because it was a skirt, but that’s how I wear it.”

I had a moment here where I went, oh, somebody else must have made the same point I did awhile back. And then I thought, OR, it is just dimly possible I’m a self-deprecating moron and she’s actually referring to my post. While I still stick by my original point, the quote above creates a tension in Ditto’s position I’d failed to take into account. I hadn’t really considered how surreal it might be for a fatty like myself, accustomed to waging straight-up war in nearly every attempt to cultivate a personal style out of the lemons mainstream plus-size clothing manufacturers offer us, to suddenly have Chanel call and offer to make me a dress. (Would years of rage spill out of me in a stream of vile profanity? Would I humbly blubber my thanks and send my measurements right over? Would I be caught between reactions and hopefully have the sense to accept a ridiculous opportunity even as the aforementioned rage was rising in my throat, lest the chance never come again?)

Though I became fond of the band Ditto fronts, Gossip, long before I knew she was fat, it probably goes without saying that I have no connection to Beth Ditto on a personal level (those who do, no doubt, have unique perspectives on Ditto as media concept). And yet as an activist and Thinker About Fat Things, in her role as a cultural figure she tends to occupy my mind fairly often, if only because probably one in four pop culture stories that mention fatness will also probably mention Ditto in the same breath. Even amongst self-accepting fat folks, we all, at one time or another, talk about Beth Ditto: how much we love her, how much we hate her, how we’re just not impressed with her, how we admire her courage but just aren’t so into her music, how much we dig her band but just aren’t into her performativity, etc. Beyond me and my fat friends, in public life, Ditto has come to represent an alien force in the discourse around weight and appearance. A good portion of the public has no language or context in which to place someone like Beth Ditto, so instead they respond by trying to force the same tired ideologies on her, even when they just don’t fit. Among the most popular expressions being that glamorizing Ditto (or Ditto glamorizing herself) is promoting an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

Beth Ditto in POP Magazine

I find it incredible that the true first thought of anyone who sees Ditto, for example, posing for Pop magazine in the shredded Gareth Pugh dress above is, “God, she looks so unhealthy!” It’s possible that folk have swallowed more of cultural imperatives that conflate the appearance of health with traditional beauty standards than I like to think, but I would bet that the honest first inclination of most people who see photos like the one above is some heady mixture of revulsion, fascination, and fear, and that these feelings have sweet FA to do with their worries over Ditto’s “health”. This, for the reason I’ve cited above: most of us have no context in which to parse what we’re seeing. A fat woman, in a couture dress, and who is not being employed as the punchline to a joke. What? What does that mean? It’s like trying to read a language you think you know but written in an alphabet you’ve never seen before.

In a broader cultural sense, Ditto’s position as simultaneous muse and iconoclast to high fashion may mean something, but I’m not sure what that meaning ultimately will be. Beth Ditto is interesting to the narrow fashion world because she is an aberration. I expect her inclusion absolutely does not signal the coming-around of high fashion to embrace fat women as a whole, as I’ve seen some folks posit, wide-eyed and hopeful; in fact, I would argue that it further ensures that won’t happen, since including fats aplenty would erase the outsider-art novelty that Ditto’s fatness currently supplies.

That said, it’s indisputable at this point that Ditto’s media exposure is having a tremendous effect on individual people, and arguably on cultural discourse as a whole. Ditto is, intentionally or otherwise, creating an archetype for other fats to emulate and follow, and carving a space where fat folks who are NOT trying to just blend in can exist, loudly, and colorfully. Before Beth Ditto, a woman who wore outrageous outfits and loud makeup would have likely drawn comparisons to the character Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, but no longer; part of this shift is rooted in the fact that pop culture moves fast and a cultural reference from a long-cancelled show is not going to continue to have relevance to younger generations. However, it is also telling that prior to Beth Ditto, we had no other fat media figure meeting these attention-grabbing standards to deploy in her stead. Truly, I bet if I looked, I could find at least a few blog posts connecting Ditto to the fictional Mimi even now.

Now to be clear, I’m not arguing that Ditto should go put on a muumuu and tell Karl Lagerfeld to fuck off. (Though that WOULD entertain me a whole lot.) I think that ultimately Ditto’s cultural persona is a positive one, and one that is shaping the discourse around fatness, however subtly. At the end of the day, Ditto is a real person whose choices are her own to make, public or otherwise. And I prefer to let Ditto retain her individual agency, rather than point to her as a fat-shaped object simply being used by the fashion world to make themselves feel open-minded and edgy, which has been a common conclusion I’ve seen being drawn by a number of straight-size fashion blogs. But I still have to wonder what the impression she leaves will ultimately be.

Below, enjoy the first video from The Gossip’s new album, Music for Men, which goes on sale tomorrow.

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