Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Beth Ditto, Cover Girl

Laurie and Debbie say:

Apparently, there’s been a good deal of controversy over Beth Ditto‘s appearance nude on the cover of NME. Ditto is the lead singer for the successful rock band “Gossip,” and is well-known as a fat activist as well as a singer.

Beth Ditto on the cover of NME

Both of us had an initially positive reaction to the picture: she’s cute, she’s hot, and she looks like she runs the world. Before Laurie even saw the picture, however, she had a long conversation with a woman who deeply objects to the cover shot, seeing it as just another in a long line of overly sexualized pictures of naked or near-naked women.

We asked ourselves: if the woman in this picture was thin, would we like it as much? Both of us agree, that the answer is, “No.” Neither of us would be particularly offended by it, but neither would we give it a second glance.

So what’s the difference?

Perhaps the best way to say it is that we both (even though Laurie is thin) look at the picture through a fat woman’s identification: we are so accustomed to looking at how fat women are portrayed, and treated, and objectified that we are delighted when an image steps outside the accepted box. Ditto, in this picture, does not look guilty, downtrodden, or ashamed of her body–what’s not to like?

What’s more, because the picture is hot, it stands in opposition to the lie that men are only attracted to hyper-thin women. One of the reasons Ditto is on this cover is that she was nominated Sexiest Woman Of The Year in the 2007 poll for the magazine. Ironically enough, she lost that title to super-skinny Kate Moss; she did, however, come out on top of their Cool List.

In reality, thin women hate their bodies just about as much as fat women do. In reality, a photograph of a thin woman posed naked and convincingly looking like she runs the world may be just as radical as this picture of Ditto. At the same time, it’s easy to find pictures of near-naked thin women posed to look like they’re completely in control, so the delight is replaced by familiarity.

The familiarity can also easily be replaced by concern. Fat or thin, women’s bodies are still used as objects of male desire. Ditto’s fat body is a less socially acceptable object of male desire, but that’s still what it is.

The trick here is to keep both things in mind: 1) it’s good to see fat women’s bodies in all the places and all the ways that we see thin women’s bodies, especially the ones with a celebratory flavor; 2) we need to remember that as long as the main reason for women’s bodies to be displayed is for men to have something to jerk off to, there’s going to be some slime covering most female nudes.

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17 Responses to “Beth Ditto, Cover Girl”

  1. Stef Says:

    So what’s the difference?

    I was talking with jwermont the other day about Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT film festival. (Aside: I note that it’s in its 31st year, just like Wiscon.) We agreed that as far as we were concerned, there is a certain amount of positive LGBT content in film – not Hollywood mainstream film, but at least indie film on the distribution level that shows up at our local art film houses throughout the year. So we don’t feel desperately hungry to see all the Frameline festival films.

    But then we both agreed that we would REALLY REALLY like to see a fat film festival.

    That’s the difference.

  2. susan senator Says:

    L & D – Love the pic, and the discussion. This blog always makes me think. I totally get what your saying, but I don’t think you have quite nailed it. You say that Ditto does not look at all “downtrodden, guilty, or ashamed of her body.” But later you say that the thin women are sometimes “posed” to look as if they are in control. Isn’t it possible that neither are posed? If Ditto can manage to look and/or be photographed as looking like a strong, proud woman (which she does), then I don’t think we can assume that the thin women are posed in one way or another simply because they are thin! Sometimes I think you assume too much about the thin women’s self esteem, issues, motives, when really one can’t definitively know such things. People are far too diverse to make too many assumptions, although it certainly is fair to say that many thin women also hate their bodies, or some aspect of them. How can we really know how deep their own self-hatred goes, as compared to a fat woman’s? How to compare one person’s suffering or self-acceptance to another’s? It is like saying that you see red the way I see red. We can’t know!!

    Or, another way to look at it is that because people are just people, fat or thin, some may actually be feeling totally in control of what they are doing in their nude photos and some may not and some may be conflicted. Feminism — or any other ideology for that matter — is at its best when it does not make perhaps unfair assumptions of anyone, but rather, looks at people as people; feminists should treat and view others the way they themselves want to be treated (and I say this believing that I am a feminist! :)

  3. withoutscene Says:

    There are plenty of people who think we should just be satisfied that fat women are getting any positive attention at all (and probably far more that are horrified that that’s even the case), but that’s crap. I can be happy that a fat woman is getting what is culturally defined as positive attention, but at the same time I can criticize the nature of that cultural definition and broader cultural context (just as I would in probably any other case). I think that is exactly what you are saying here and I thank you for using this topic to do so.

  4. Lynne Murray Says:

    Interesting discussion to me in light of an interview I just did with a journalism student who was writing for an SF newspaper competition on the subject “The Summer of Love”–I have that phrase on my web page, although I arrived in SF a few months after that even. I tried to explain to the young woman that there was a glimmer of feminism among leftists and hippies, even though it seemed to be based on escapism. The example that popped into my head was a rock n roll magazine (not Rolling Stone, which might not have been founded yet) I bought as soon as I arrived in SF. There was a picture of Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas, lying flirtatiously nude (I recall that she lay on her stomach in a field of daisies), with a daisy tattoo on her buttock. In the same article, Janis Joplin was quoted as saying that the problem with being a female rock star is that “there are no male groupies.” My point (I do have one, honest!) is that the image and the thought stayed in my mind, and mingled together with my disgust at being expected to play the part of the handmaiden and the groupie in leftist, anti-war circles in the ’60s–although it was years before I heard the word “feminist” or read Betty Friedan. When women perform on stage, they often do take charge–it’s taking it offstage into real life that gets a bit tricky.

  5. laurie toby edison Says:

    Stef,

    I think you really nailed that.

    Susan,

    The comments on thin women’s feelings about their bodies is based on all the talks, conversations, letters emails etc that we’ve had with women of all sizes over the last 20 plus years. Our experience is that in this society, it’s extremely difficult for women at any size to feel good about their bodies. I also think there are lots of exceptions in all sizes who do manage to feel good about themselves. And the degree of peoples feelings about themselves will vary greatly.

    When we said “In reality, a photograph of a thin woman posed naked and convincingly looking like she runs the world may be just as radical as this picture of Ditto” that was a comment about the folks (mostly men) who shape these images not the models. Seeing or not seeing nude women looking really in control in the media is mostly not about the individual women. And of course, thin women images are the ones we see.

    withoutscene,

    Thanks! That’s just what we were trying to say.

    Lynne,

    This could be a long conversation another time. I was a hippie living on the Sausalito houseboats at that time. I saw lots of feminism develop but it’s complicated (of course). And where I was I don’t think it was “escapist”.

  6. tacithydra Says:

    Just came to this blog through silk_noir.livejournal.com. You guys are amazing. Do you have an LJ feed I could subscribe to? I dug around your sidebar, but didn’t see anything.

  7. laurie toby edison Says:

    tacithydra,

    Thanks!

    Yes, it’s body_impolitic.

  8. tacithydra Says:

    Oh duhr. I checked for it, but without the underscore. Thank you!

  9. debbie Says:

    I love Beth Ditto, and I love the cover. I also love your analysis of the cover.
    I was pretty disappointed by the reaction of some feminists (Germaine Greer, and some of the comments in subsequent conversations). The absolute worst comment I read was that she shouldn’t have posed nude on the cover because people will laugh at her body instead of taking her seriously as a musician. If fat women didn’t do things because people were going to ridicule them, they’d never leave the house (or turn on the tv, or read a magazine or a newspaper).
    Anyway, I was fortunate enough to see the Gossip live a few years ago. Beth Ditto was amazing, telling all the fat girls to come up and dance in the front instead of hanging towards the edge of the crowd.

  10. shadygrove Says:

    Have you seen the ads for “Fit Life Yogurt” that have been making the rounds? (See Shakesville blog, if you haven’t seen what I mean, or my blog, where I’ve reposted an image with commentary.)

    The blogosphere’s reaction to those images (Hot! Wait, totally offensive and objectifying! But…. you know… hot!) reminds me of the problem here. Beth Ditto, however, seems to have had a great deal more control over how she’s been presented and what she’s saying here than the model in the Fit Life Yogurt ads, who was apparently subversive by accident: Paid to portray self-hatred rather than pride, she fails utterly, with gorgeous results. But even though it’s delicious cheesecake, it still has a nasty misogynistic aftertaste.

  11. Laurie Says:

    shadygrove,

    I just looked at the photos on your blog and I agree with your comments about the politics. But there is no question that, however accidently subversive, the beautiful woman is the fat model _not_ the movie star.

  12. Dr. Rob Johnston Says:

    Beth Ditto is to me the sexiest woman I have ever seen, BECAUSE she is so well developed, and not ashamed of that fact. I think she is lovely. Who wants a woman to be skinny anyway? She is the ultimate palaeolithic Venus. She is just the way a woman should be.

  13. Paul Says:

    Good on her. Being big is definately in these days. The magazines might show thin people but the reality is obese will the norm soon.

    Additional plus side is it’s soooo easy to be big. Takes a lot of effort to be thin and fit.

  14. Tanya Says:

    I think she is beautiful, I see my body like hers.

  15. mo Says:

    What are you people are talking about?!?! She does not look hot. It’s gross… sad, at best. Just because being fat is becoming “the norm” doesn’t make it ok. People are dying every day from obesity related diseases. The last thing we should do it glamorize it… no more than we should glamorize being anorexic.

    Being proud of being fat is no better than being proud of being anorexic or bulimic.

  16. Robin Landseadel Says:

    Dear Laurie,

    I’ve always loved your book Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes. I recall when the book came out that I worked and played in circles that included a number of the women photographed in your book. I have to wonder sometimes why I have this powerful attraction to big women; maybe it’s the caveman inside looking for a Venus of Willendorf. I realize there’s very real health issues here, having been in relatioships with obese women. And I realize that the general expansion of the World’s collective ass is yet another portent of metastasizing Idiocracy with an order of the decline and fall of damn near everything on the side. At the same time it’s curious how transgressive the image of Beth Ditto is and at what levels it’s working.

    I say the difference between Erotica and Porn is lighting, and Beth is all lit up for the cover of “Plumpers” [or a medical examination]. She’s got her best “S & M Top” [Like Rosie Perez in "Night on Earth"] look on her face with cosmetics to match, like a booby-trapped valentine. And this is on the cover of NME. Being as I’m over 50, and seeing as I been noticing these goings on for quite some time I guess it’s only fair to note that this cover could not have appeared on a mainstream magazine back in 1978, in fact I doubt it would have appeared on a mainstream magazine any time sooner than this. And some guys will pass by the magazine racks and make like they’re throwing up, and some gals will go by thinking “Gawd—I hope I don’t wind up like that [must resist urge for that mocha with whipped cream],” And every now and then a guy or gal will look at it and think “that’s hot.”

    Strangely enough, in 1967 it was nearly possible: that. . . .

    “picture of Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas, lying flirtatiously nude (I recall that she lay on her stomach in a field of daisies), with a daisy tattoo on her buttock”

    . . . .was in Circus magazine [as I recall] and I saw it coming home from Junior High way back in 1967. Mama Cass wasn’t on the cover, but there she was on a supermarket shelf just as nudity was seeping into mainstream media, notable in magazines like “Life” and “Look”, the movies and the theater.

    I was 12 and yes, I fell in love with Mama Cass right on the spot. Hellava singer too, kinda like the anti-Karen Carpenter, her vocal/spiritual Doppelganger. Imagine the warpage in the world’s energy fields should the two ever embrace. . . .

  17. Stella Says:

    I for one like the cover. The fact that she is nude is not demeaning to her because she is owning her own sexuality. Ditto is showing the world that she is not ashamed of her body. Women can be sexual without the sole reason of making men happy.

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