I find it hard to write about Beth Ditto. You'd think it would be easy, she's the epitome of rad fatness in so many ways, not just as a singer in a great band but in the way she uses her voice to put fat (and other stuff too) right at the heart of things. She speaks up beautifully to a mass audience without preaching and she does it with style and equanimity.
Beth's path and my own have crossed a few times, mostly long ago, and she is friends with some of my friends. I love her and feel protective of her, I want the best for her, I am one of many people who feel this way. Sometimes I find it hard to think about her achievements because they are so far beyond what anyone (or maybe just me) would expect for a radical fat dyke, she has truly pushed the envelope, who will follow or better her? Could that even happen? Beth enables people whose dreams have been robbed from them to dream big. Kids may be growing up during a war on fat, but they are also witness to Beth as a powerful role model, and this gives me a lot of hope for the future. My generation had next to nothing.
For these reasons, it feels difficult and disloyal writing about her here, but as I write I realise that it's not Beth that I'm writing about but the circus that surrounds her. Carrie Brownstein, the music blogger and ex-Sleater-Kinney guitarist, a thrilling role model in her own right, helped me realise this today with her excellent post about the British media's consumption of Beth, Beth Ditto: Eaten Alive. Reading this post I felt reassured that Beth herself is sovereign, and in a funny way it's not her that we should be looking at, it's the reactions she inspires.
Some of these reactions include the rush by the fashion industry to appropriate her. I used to wonder who was playing who, but now I think that Beth is just being her own sweet self as usual. It's nothing to do with her that she represents everything execrable to high fashion – that shit is not her fault! – she puts herself in that milieu and of course those fashion people are going to go crazy! Why wouldn't they? They're the ones who have really helped create this mess.
But instead of accepting that Beth might mean that all fat people can be as cool, everyday and incredible as anyone, something they've refused to consider, the fashion world has responded to Beth by trying to turn her into a Magical Fatty. Like the racist Magical Negro, oppressors use this exceptional and mystical figure to help them feel better about themselves. Thus arch fatphobe and diet book author Karl Lagerfeld feels no inhibition about cosying up to Beth, her mere proximity absolves him of any sin. Beth is special, she's amazing, but in this context she is Special, a state that tries to strip her of humanity.
With this in mind, it's no surprise that the things that have been bugging me about Beth recently are the things that relate to the way that the fashion world is trying to represent her and her body. First it was Katie Grand's Love magazine shoot. Beth's nipples were airbrushed from the cover, she was mostly nude in all of the pictures and she looked ghostly and unreal, far unlike the sweaty pumping presence she is onstage, where she inhabits her body completely.
Which brings me to the Evans doll version of Beth, which is being used to promote the range of clothes that her name is being used to sell this coming summer. I hate this doll and I am suspicious of the clothes. Where a fat body has movement, flesh, bumps and rolls, this doll is hard and smooth. The Beth-doll's breasts look stuck on, like an afterthought on a thin frame, the thin body that resides within every fat person perhaps. The doll has Barbie-style legs, nothing like Beth's own chunks. It has flinty, cold facial features. It creeps me out. And Evans sells shitty quality, poorly-fitting clothes at premium prices to a pretty-much captive consumer-base. The mark-up between manufacturing and sales price must be beyond belief, and I can't bear to think what the people who make this stuff are paid. Will the range named after Beth be any different?
I could go on about this at length but I won't. My point is that the fashion world and its related media are trying to appropriate Beth but they don't really know what to do with her. They're trying to fit her into stale formats (crappy plus-size fashion) and, as Carrie Brownstein points out, they cannot get over their own projections of fatphobia. Beth's circus is trying to make something of her and it is entirely ill-equipped to do so. Those people don't know how. The thing is that Beth doesn't need doing-to, she's fine as she is, she's magnificent, and we should remember this because we too don't really need doing-to by rubbish experts who apparently know better, who want to fix us, sell to us, improve us, or make us into dolls, or render us Magical.