Carol Doda: Victim or Victory?

Debbie says:

photo by Stan-the-Rocker, 2013
photo by Stan-the-Rocker, 2013

Carol Doda died this week. If you aren’t a San Francisco Bay Area person, you might never have heard of her, but she was an iconic figure in “the City” for many of the decades I’ve lived here. A San Francisco native, she dropped out of school in the 8th grade.

“I thought the only way to make it was to be a cocktail waitress, so that’s what I did when I was 14,” she once said. “You can make yourself look older if you use your hair and makeup right.”

Many would quarrel with her life choices, but they certainly seem to have worked well for her. In 1964, she became the first well-known topless dancer of that period, and later that year she got silicone implants which increased the size of her breasts by ten sizes.


That summer, the Republican National Convention which nominated Barry Goldwater to run against Lyndon Johnson was held in San Francisco, and she was the entertainer the delegates most wanted to see. Later, after Jimmy Carter admitted that he “lusted in his heart” for women he wasn’t married to, Doda invited him to come see her act. She also put a ten-foot high picture of him outside the door of the Condor, the club where she danced for decades, under  the billboard which showed a sketch of her with bright red blinking nipples.

After leaving the Condor, she started a rock band, the Lucky Stiffs. When that faded in the 1990s, she started a lingerie shop in San Francisco called Champagne and Lace and did comedy, singing and dancing — with her clothes on — at North Beach nightclubs near where she once danced topless. She was sashaying through her flirtatious act, warbling “That Old Black Magic” and the like, until her health began to fail this year.

She often said she considered herself more of an entertainer than a stripper.

In one  narrative, she is a victim of the male gaze and the objectification of women, a woman who could have had a very different life, perhaps been the entertainer she wanted to be without such extreme sexualization, without the breast implants, without the prurience of much of her audience. In another, she’s a woman who took charge of her own life, built a career doing something she loved, and reveled in an acceptance of how people chose to see her. The obituary says that she had a large extended family in Northern California, a place to get outside of the spotlight.

She certainly made some difficult choices, almost inevitably must have struggled with some of their consequences, and in the end seems to have had a full, rich, satisfying life, substantially on her own terms. Her story complicates the question of the sex worker in American life in the second half of the 20th century. She deserves to be remembered.

Body Oppression Teach-In/Santa Rosa, California

Debbie says

On Monday, November 16, at 7:00 p.m., Laurie and I will be the featured speakers at a body oppression teach-in sponsored by Occupy Sonoma County. If you are anywhere near Santa Rosa, California, please join us at the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County,  467 Sebastopol Avenue. (Donation requested.)

Here’s an (unpublished) article I wrote to offer some context for the teach-in:

nude from Women En Large

Perhaps the only thing that all human beings have in common is that each and every one of us lives in a body. Until the bioengineers figure out a way to upload our brains into the cloud, that’s going to stay true.

So what is “body oppression”?

If you are treated less well than other people because of something about your body, that’s body oppression. If a store detective follows you around because your skin is darker, and/or you are younger, that’s body oppression. If you can’t get into a building because your wheelchair doesn’t climb stairs, that’s body oppression. If your doctor makes assumptions about your health based on your size, that’s body oppression. And if you learn to shame yourself because of the body you live in, that’s internalized body oppression.

In other words, body oppression is everywhere. Almost all of us know what it feels like to be oppressed because of our bodies, and most of us know what it feels like to internalize that oppression and blame ourselves.

Resistance to body oppression is both individual and collective, both private and organized; however it forms, it always relies on each of us learning to accept our own bodies, live in our own skin. The cosmetics manufacturers and the beauty corporations have co-opted this message into “Love Your Body,” but Laurie and I are working towards something much richer, more complex, and more powerful than a smooth skin campaign.

nude from Familiar Men

Working with Laurie’s stunning black-and-white photographic images of bodies – fat female bodies, male bodies, bodies of women who live in Japan – and with accompanying text which encourages the viewer not to trivialize those images. We don’t want the portraits of fat women to be simplified to “yes, those bodies were beautiful in another time,” so we provide text that demonstrates her as powerful in the tradition of fat liberation.

Resisting body oppression as an individual isn’t (necessarily) about loving your body; that’s great if it happens. It’s about the right to look in the mirror and see what you see, not what the world tells you to see. It’s about making the invisible visible.

Michelle, who blogs as The Fat Nutritionist, said it perfectly:

We need to be allowed to see ourselves as human, at any size, and to see ourselves represented alongside other humans. We need to be able to share our images in public, if we want, and push the recognition of our humanity. Mostly, we need to be allowed to have images of ourselves imbedded in our brains, alongside everyone else. When we see nothing but images of people who don’t look like us celebrated and represented by our own culture, little by little, it degrades our sense of being human. It is a form of systemic emotional abuse.

 Resisting body oppression collectively is about working together, about learning to notice who is being oppressed and who is oppressing, about fighting back, about demanding that every single one of us is treated respectfully and fairly. Over the last few decades, body image activists working together have changed the kinds of clothes that are available, the quality of medical information, the laws about seat belt extenders on airplanes, and much more. There’s so much more to change that sometimes we forget how far we’ve come.

Building collective resistance can only be done by adding more and more individuals to the group. The one thing that makes the invisible visible better than a photograph is a living, breathing person. Each victim of body oppression (fat, dark-skinned, disabled, or any or all of the above) who asserts their right to live fully is a harbinger of the world we all want to live in. Each ally who supports us is a bulwark of the effort.

Come talk with us at the teach-in. Uploading into the cloud isn’t happening any time soon; as long as we all have bodies, let’s learn to live in them well and to fight for what we deserve.