Tag Archives: Body image

The Woman Taking Her Clothes Off on the Flying Trapeze

Two views of a woman with very defined muscles, shown from the back with naked backs, arms in the air, and circus panties

Laurie and Debbie say:

Betsy Golden Kellem’s “The Trapeze Disrobing Act,” showcases a captivating little-known byway of feminist history.

… when Thomas Edison was testing motion picture technology in the early twentieth century, he figured a striptease would be the ideal subject.

But there’s a lot more going on in the resulting film than just erotic motion. Edison’s 1901 short featured the strongwoman Laverie Vallee, known professionally as Charmion, performing her “Trapeze Disrobing Act.” Edison may have intended to titillate, but Charmion, who combined extraordinary strength and a bodybuilder’s aesthetic with an expert sense of public tastes and emerging media, used her act to encourage turn-of-the-century women to embrace strength and action.

Implicit here is that Edison thought he was using Charmion, and almost certainly had no idea that she was also using him: she was getting paid to do what she was good at, with the bonus of being able to promote what she cared about–women’s physical power.

Kellem notes that this was the age of the “strongman,” the embodiment of both physical and moral strength; while strongmen were soon followed by strongwomen, the men were idolized and the women were freaks:

… unusually strong women were regarded as aberrant curiosities, described with wonder in the same breath as bearded ladies and living skeletons. (Strongwomen and the “singing strong lady,” who supported a piano and accompanist on a tabletop laid across her chest and legs, were listed in George Gould and Walter Pyle’s “Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine” at the turn into the twentieth century.)

Strongwomen found employment and increasing notoriety in circus and its allied arts, particularly as a combination of factors … made the circus tent an acceptable family destination. This not only destabilized the white-male basis of physical culture, it challenged popular ideas about female ability, all while showing a discomfiting amount of skin and startling muscle mass.

The amount of skin was discomfiting for the time; the muscle mass would still be somewhat startling today, but less so than it was 120 years ago.

Charmion seems to have been one of the most prominent strongwomen, and an extremely clever entertainer:

[In] 1897, Charmion astounded and delighted audiences with an unconventional aerial act in which she stripped from a full-skirted outfit down to her leotard and tights. In bringing together strength training, striptease, and aerialism in middle-class entertainment, Charmion was poking at a number of social hot-buttons. As physical culture scholar Bieke Gils points out, in a single act Charmion managed to argue for “women’s liberation from restrictive clothing, women’s ability to develop muscular strength like men, and the benefits of such ideas for their health and well-being.” A lot of people were suddenly nervous, confused, excited, or all of the above.

Kellem also quotes the inimitable Maria Popova:

“When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise.”

Kellem’s concise, well-written article (and the Popova quotation) don’t address one important issue: whether or not women “lifted much heavier objects in the home” would depend entirely on the woman’s class status. Rich and affluent women lifted nothing in the home, though they may have cuddled and even picked up the occasional baby. Working-class women cleaned middle-class people’s homes and servants (often live-in servants) cleaned rich people’s homes, in a period when there were effectively no labor-saving devices: they washed every dish and every floor, washed, dried and pressed every piece of clothing, lifted and moved all the furniture, and so on. But Kellem’s and Popova’s point is still well-taken: it never occurred to men that women of their class could, should, or did do physical labor … but the women knew.

The ultimate delight of this essay lies in imagining the women in the audience for the live performance or Edison’s film, watching Charmion strip and suddenly visualizing their own bodies as they could be … and going home to find a private place to lift weights and change their shapes and self-images.

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Laurie and Debbie: Published in the Fat Studies Journal

Laurie and Debbie say:

We are delighted to announce the publication of our article, “The trajectory of fat liberation: Where did we start? Where are we now?” in the journal Fat Studies. We were invited to contribute to a special issue, “Representing fatness through critical and artistic practice,” edited by Lori Don Levan and published by the Taylor & Francis Group. We worked really hard on the article; we had many conversations with each other and gave it great thought, and we’re really proud of the finished product.

Lori Don Levan’s partner in the editing process was Stefanie Snider, and we are greatly appreciative of the time, effort, and energy they put into walking us through the process and helping to make the article as good as it can be.

The article is a hybrid of our personal experiences creating Women En Large (and later Familiar Men and Laurie’s portrait suite Women of Japan), our knowledge of the history of fat liberation, research done specifically for the article, and personal correspondence from people we know. To explain that, we started by putting the article (and ourselves) in context for a variety of potential readers:

In 1994, Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin self-published Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, with Laurie’s photographs and text by Debbie. Working on that project embedded them deeply in the fat activist community, primarily but not only in the San Francisco Bay Area, at a time when the fat acceptance movement was taking shape. Some 27 years later, Women En Large, having been an independent press best-seller, is still in print. In this hybrid of first-hand participant observation, academic research, and popular culture analysis, the authors refer to themselves by their first names, to mark their closeness to the material.

We started working on this article in March of 2021; in the intervening almost-year, we went through peer review (which elicited some very useful comments and improvements). At the line-editing stage, Debbie made a deep dive into correct reference formatting and other fine style points.

We framed the article somewhat chronologically, with a brief history of fat activism in the context of the civil rights struggle and other anti-oppression movements of the time:

[F]at oppression of white people, at its worst, is in no way as virulent or as dangerous as the white supremacist war on Black, Indigenous and Brown people, which can be exacerbated for fat Black, Indigenous and Brown bodies. One way to frame this exacerbation is through intersectionality. This term, initially articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to specifically describe the experience of Black women, is now used to analyze multiple simultaneous oppressions. While fat oppression is not comparable in intensity to structural and individual racism, intersectionality indicates that all oppressions take place alongside one another, and all resistance movements must contend with tension between primacy and coalition.

Ongoing marginalization, oppression, and silencing of any group happens simultaneously with increased resistance to invisibility. Generations and “waves” of feminism, anti-racism, disability rights all happen while crackdowns continue and often flourish.

Fat activism is unique among the uprisings and increased awareness of the 1960s and 1970s, because it has no obvious historic precursor. Specific policing of the size of women’s bodies is as old as male supremacy. Being lower in the class hierarchy leads to disproportionate oppression (being a poor person of color has an intersectional multiplier effect). Body image standards also fluctuate depending directly on whether women as a group are vocally asserting rights that the power structure will not concede. Women have been fighting their status for centuries. The beginning of an actual politics of fat, originally in the context of oppression of women, can be traced to the formation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA, 1969) and the more radical Fat Underground (1973)

We look at what happened once fat activism started to flourish in that period, and how we got involved. We take note of the backlash. One person whose writing we drew on was Susie Orbach, famously the author of the 1978 Fat Is a Feminist Issue. Here’s something she said on that book’s 30th anniversary:

… we never saw the backlash coming, or the ingenious forms it would take, from the now rather innocent (“Because you’re worth it”) to the downright nefarious practices of industries that were growing rich on the making of body insecurity. And that was way before social media and the beauty bloggers with their, yes, millions of followers, would begin to reap money as daily beauty labor …. Beauty work became relentless and, with it, the ubiquity of … judgments and failures which, once internalized, destabilized girls’ relationship to their bodies and – as if that wasn’t enough – created an insecurity that hurt their minds.

We spend some time (as so many examinations of fat oppression and fat liberation must) on the health issues and the intransigent attitudes of the medical profession to what should be incontrovertible evidence that fat is not, per se, unhealthy.

And we close with a brief analysis of the role of contemporary social media in body image (the Facebook scandals on this topic broke when the article was too far along to update in the space we had).

We were especially pleased to quote Lizzo, on Tiktok:

So next time you want to come to somebody and judge them whether they eat kale smoothies or eat McDonald’s or work out, or not work out, how ‘bout you look at your own fucking self and your own god-damn body because health is not only determined by what you do on the outside but also by what you do on the inside, and a lot of you all need to do a *bleep* cleanse for your insides. Namaste. Have a great day.

In short, we’re really pleased to have been invited to participate, we’re really proud of the final result, and we hope you’ll read the whole thing. And let us know what you think!

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Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

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