How ‘Hairspray’ helped me embrace my body

Some people are just born big. I’ve been bowling-ball shaped, barrel-shaped, apple-shaped and hourglass-shaped, but regardless of shape the one thing I’ve never been is small. Not once in my memory have I ever fit into a single-digit pant size, and the one time I managed to get into a size 8 dress—at a formalwear store in Panama City, looking for my junior prom gown—the corset laced so poorly that I ended up looking like a diamondback rattlesnake. I walked out with a size 16 cotton-candy-fluff monstrosity that necessitated assistance as I got into my boyfriend’s Pontiac, but the dress that sticks in my mind is the one with the smallest waist. The fact that I fit into it at all at the time was a point of inane pride.

While I’ve never been thin and probably never will be, the desire to be thin manifested in me as early as age seven. Somewhere along the line I must have picked up a hundred contradictory ideas about food, activity and bodies. Exercising was good, but only if you were thin—jiggling, sweating or losing your breath while you exercised was enough to earn you as much disgust and ridicule as not exercising at all. You could eat whatever you wanted up to a certain size; after that, “healthy” eating entailed obsessive tallying of values from food that tasted like dirt and left you hungry. Mirrors were for noticing your flaws and making them disappear as quickly and completely as possible.

Ultimately, I knew these two things: Small was good. Big was bad. To a kid with a neurotically guilty conscience and stretch marks, that meant that I was bad, and that I would not be good until I drastically reduced the amount of space I took up in the universe.

I was thirteen years old in the summer of 2007 when I walked into a movie theater to see my friends after a long trip. The picture was Hairspray, which we’d chosen because we were theater kids and six of us had experienced moderate success singing “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” at a district drama competition. After the previews and some establishing aerial shots of Baltimore, the camera zoomed in on the main character, Tracy Turnblad. She was gorgeous, she was passionate, she was constantly dancing and primping and dreaming—and she was fat.

I was done for. Hooked. Addicted. I watched with the kind of wonder people usually reserve for fireworks shows. Tracy was sure of herself. She knew how talented and hardworking she was, and she knew her hair was awesome. She was an ally for racial equality. She even convinced her similarly plus-size mom that she was beautiful and deserved to look glamorous and have fun. Tracy’s clothes were flashy, her values were radical, her voice was loud, and all the time she was voluptuous, curvy, chubby, ample, fat.

She was the first fat character—maybe the first fat person—I’d ever seen who didn’t feel she needed to lose weight in order to achieve her goals, and the first who wasn’t depicted as sedentary. She danced constantly, keeping up with hundreds of thin secondary characters, without ever needing to stop and catch her breath or expressing any insecurity about her arms or her thighs. She even got Zac Efron, who is as much #goals now as he was then, without ever shedding a pound.

After the theater let out, my obsession only grew. I ripped the songs from the soundtrack CDs (movie version and original Broadway cast), downloaded them to my Sandisk mp3 player and listened to them all the time. A poster for the movie, bogarted from a cinema-themed school dance, went up over my bed. I was Tracy for Halloween that year. I wrote Hairspray fanfiction. My mom surprised me with tickets to the touring show, and I got to meet Brooklyn Pulver (the actress who played Tracy, naturally) at the stage door. Of course I loved other shows—as a theater student, you have to spread your love of musicals around or people will think you’re a poseur—but Hairspray was my special favorite, almost entirely because of Tracy. (I also had a lasting, torrid fantasy love affair with the actor who played Seaweed, Elijah Kelley, but that’s another article altogether.)

At the time, I don’t think I realized why Tracy resonated with me so much. Of course she represented my body type and expanded my cosplay options, but on a deep, unconscious level, she gave me permission to be happy. Big didn’t have to be bad. Big could be active. Big could be driven. Big could be beautiful or even sexy.

I wish I could say Hairspray completely ended my body image issues. Not so much—I still deal with disordered ideas about eating and body dysmorphia. However, it was my first taste of the body acceptance movement, and it did a better job than a lot of media narratives featuring fat people do today.

For all its good qualities, the movie is certainly not perfect. A recent critical re-watch after four years of college education and two on Tumblr made me uncomfortable with the white savior-y elements of the story. Tracy, a fifteen-year-old white girl with little knowledge of the sociopolitical elements of her time, shouldn’t have been the one to suggest a march on the TV station to a room full of African-Americans. That sticking point probably originates with the combined five white men and one white woman who wrote and directed the 1988 movie, its 2002 musical adaptation and that musical’s 2007 film incarnation, all of which feature integration as a major plot element and none of which feature people of color in top production positions. Whoops.

However, Hairspray is a great start to what should be a profusion of films featuring more diverse body types. I’d love to see more actresses who look like Queen Latifah and Nikki Blonsky in movies that not only celebrate their bodies, but celebrate their skill as performers and their full range of emotional depth. There doesn’t need to be a plot- or character-development-based reason for a character to be plus-size in a film any more than there needs to be an emotionally resonant justification for someone to be plus-size in real life. Sometimes fat people are sedentary. Sometimes we’re active. Sometimes we “eat right”, and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we don’t. We develop friendships and fall in love and work hard at our jobs, and I’d love to see more women who look like me and other women I know and love doing all those things on the big screen. I think we’re headed in that direction, if slowly, and I don’t know that any amount of body-shaming vitriol is going to be enough to keep women who don’t conform to arbitrary beauty standards. out of media for very long. And you know why? ‘Cause you can’t stop the beat.

[Image via Newline Cinema]

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