Body Talk with Lillian Bustle

I reached out to the infamous Lillian Bustle the day after Councilman Chris Gadsden sent me a copy of On The B Side. I was a guest on the show; he sent me a copy of it before it aired. I clicked on the link and after a few moments, I stopped it, poured a whiskey, retreated into the bathroom, sat on the floor and cried. I couldn’t accept the image of myself – of how fat and unattractive I looked on the screen.

And then, just as quickly, I realized how absurd I was. Was Mark Rowan, the show’s other guest, having the same reaction? Was Chris? Likely – no. Likely they watched with excitement at what they made, their gaze focused on their words, on their ideas. And here’s me – sitting at the proverbial table, hyperventilating over my aesthetic. How horrific.

I thought Lillian could help me. She’s a burlesque dancer who recently gave a TEDx talk called Stripping Away Negative Body Image. Here are her thoughts:

On My Bathroom Floor Story

“I still have days like that. I can be moving through the world and get surprised by images of myself. Thankfully it doesn’t put me under the table like it used to. I’ve practiced. It’s scary because whether we like it or not, someone is always out there measuring women’s worth based on whether they look healthy, sexy, and conventionally attractive.

People deserve respect, and they deserve to feel safe and secure in their own skin without worrying about curb appeal all the time.

There’s that adage – “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and that’s fine, but when you’re talking about whether a person should be able to get a job, or get respect from their doctor, that’s another issue.”

About The Halo Effect

“There’s a term used in psychology called The Halo Effect, which basically means that human beings use shortcuts to help us stay safe, but these shortcuts also encourage us overgeneralize in really big ways. It’s a cognitive bias. It means that if we observe one trait about someone, we can then extend that trait to all other aspects of that person. It means that we use visuals to inform us about all kinds of characteristics – like work ethic or health.

And that extends to the “What is good is beautiful” trope. Cartoons are a great way to demonstrate it. Think about the beautiful and good people – versus the gnarled and evil. This goes back to our childhoods. We carry these tropes throughout our lives.

Think about that. When we tell little girls that they’re pretty, we’re praising them for something they have no control over.”

Lillian Bustle TED

Dropping Out of Beauty Culture

“When people drop out of that beauty culture, they get attacked. Publicly fat people get death threats all the time. Take a look at the comments on my TEDx talk. The things I say aren’t incendiary – I’m just like, let people lives their lives and maybe you can be happy sometimes. And they’re like “DIE BITCH.”

Self acceptance starts with taking a step back and seeing a bigger picture, but it also means seeing different goals. For the longest time, my whole life was about losing weight. A decade, probably. A lot of grown women are never not on diets.”

With Respect to Diets

“The first diet that I tried was Atkins. It worked really well and really fast. I learned how to cook on it; I’m grateful for that. My whole life became about people praising me for losing weight. At work! My boss would come over and be like, “What are you eating today? Want to trade recipes?” It felt inappropriate and weird – but I didn’t say anything about it.

And then my dad passed away. Then my grandma passed away. Then I got married and my mom passed away after that. This all happened in the space of 3 years. Suddenly not eating bread didn’t seem so important anymore. Or rather, eating bread felt really important! It was right around that time when I became friends with fat acceptance activists.”

Finding Fat Activists

“It was the first time I’d been around other women and not talked about dieting. It’s almost like we’re always in training. I could talk about clothing stuff with them. I could talk about chafing! They were very outspoken and pointed me to all of these bloggers who were talking about quitting diet culture and just saying ‘Congratulations, you get to be who you are.’ You might have to fight against other things, but at least you will no longer be fighting against yourself.

I was down at Bluestockings – there was a whole body politics section there which I had never heard of before – and I found a book called Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. I remember feeling embarrassed to be holding the book. At that point, I was still scared of the word fat.”

Concern Trolling

“Complete strangers walk up to fat people with concern about their health. And I believe that people deserve respect whether or not they’re healthy – but health is not something you can tell by looking at someone. It’s concern trolling. If you see a stranger smoking a cigarette outside a bar, you don’t walk up to them and give them a lecture.

It gets deeper – imagine going to a doctor who diagnoses problems based on the way the patient looks. I have fat friends who were not treated for illnesses because they were told they would feel better if they lost weight. I even have a friend who had a tumor that was never diagnosed. These are real problems.

And let’s not forget that psychological constructs produce physical reactions. You can get a stress headache, right? And we know that if you’re under a lot of pressure, your immune system goes down. Similarly, feelings of low self-worth have an impact on your body too. And when people bring up the health issue, I always bring up the mental health issue. I’ve been living in my body this whole time. I have experienced mental anguish because of the way people have treated me because of my body.”

Lillian Bustle

Learning to Love

“A long time ago, someone gave me a Humans of Wal-Mart calendar – and we would laugh about these people in these calendars. I finally realized these are people who just wanted to go to Wal-Mart. They weren’t going out on the town. Preparing to go to a big box store is literally the least amount of effort we put into anything when we do. I threw out the calendar and decided that I would be nicer to other people – no matter what they looked like.

I went out of my way to compliment people on non-visual things, and it really softened the way that I felt about myself. It was intentional. I moved from that to surrounding myself with positive images, and images of people who looked like me – and who were happy – which can be tough to find, but it’s very powerful when you find it.”

How To: Changing Attitudes

“My change didn’t happen overnight – it came slowly over a course of years. My attitude had already been on the mend. The hard part is to recognize the people in your life who are bringing the negativity in. It’s even harder to push against or away from them. Freeing myself of negative thoughts was hard enough without people dumping work-out and diet talk on me. Remove the negativity – whatever that means to you.

Control the images that you consume. Go on a visual diet. Get rid of beauty magazines. Be conscious of the images you consume. You could start a whole Instagram account where you intentionally seek out body diversity. Look for people who vary in shape, size, ethnic background, ability – people who deviate from the Thin White Ideal. The more you see different kinds of people being celebrated, the less rigid your sense of beauty becomes.

And then there’s the work we have to do that uncovers the “What is good is beautiful” paradigm we talked about earlier. There’s not really any right answer to that. Think about the commodification of beauty. Recognize it. Because it’s been such a long running program in the backgrounds of our lives, it can take work to find it.

And finally, be gentle with yourself. Other people are not as fixated on you as you are. And if you feel comfortable, share your experiences with other people. Find a Facebook group, talk to friends. Share your pain and the way you’ve overcome it.”

Posted by

Mel Kozakiewicz a professor, editor, writer, and mother of two.

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