Some thoughts on beauty. Last Friday evening I saw a local production of the play, Hairspray. I remember seeing the earlier movie version, with cross-dresser Divine as Edna Turnblad, but I didn’t really love it or get it at the time. The more recent film with John Travolta in that role is a favorite. The music is fabulous, the teenage take on the 1950’s becoming the 1960’s is fun – and somewhat accurate – and the treatment of the civil rights issues of prejudice and integration are moving.
And then there is ‘the fat stuff’. From the first time I watched the movie, there were a few lines that just exploded for me; that’s not the best description, but as close as I can get right now. When the teenage heart-throb sings to the fat girl, “Tracy, I’m in love with you, no matter what you weigh…”, there’s a little pop in my heart and brain. Just to hear those words spoken. And I’ve got to admit, the zing is still strong, even after hearing the line multiple times. I wait for those words. I do, I wait for them. It feels rather sad and pathetic to admit it, but I do.
Earlier in the play/film, during the fat girl’s fantasy about winning the heart of the heart-throb, triumphing over the pretty girl, Tracy sings to her ‘rival’, “Amber, much to your surprise, this heavy weight champion takes the prize…”; fat girl triumphant, with a tinge of revenge? Stirs me up a little. When the fat mother of fat girl sings about not being seen by neighbors since she was a size 10 (?) and not having left the house in years, I feel a little sick and scared. I guess I relate to that wish not to be seen. The daughter’s response “Welcome to the 60’s…things are changing out there…” leaves me wishing that had really been true in the 1960’s, my years of adolescent suffering. Things were changing in many ways, but fat acceptance was not one of them. It was the era of Twiggy.
In the rousing, closing musical number, the fat mother shakes ‘it’ on the dance floor, singing: “… if you don’t like the way I look, well I just don’t give a damn!” and my heart rises up at the cheer leading positive declaration. I wanna feel that way. But I feel acutely aware that this is fiction. An internal battle between Yes! and nope, is activated. Generally I push it aside and enjoy the upbeat passion that wraps up the show. Those see sawing emotions are too familiar and the battle is never resolved for more than a split second, so why bother?
An earlier scene, which is powerfully delivered by Queen Latifah in the Travolta film, carries the refrain “Big, blond and beautiful”, which led me to begin writing this reflection on beauty. It’s a rallying cry, of sorts, toward self-acceptance and owning one’s right to take up space, to define beauty for oneself. I don’t find this number as moving as the integration/civil rights anthem that comes later. As I ask myself why that is, I wonder if it’s because racial integration and civil rights for people of color are so widely agreed upon. The wrongs of slavery, segregation and racial profiling are so profound and the path toward righting those wrongs is (and will be) the work of generations. We are clearly not a ‘post-racial’ society, but many/most of us are cognizant of the issues.
The right to feel beautiful, to believe you are beautiful, even when you are fat, seems trivial and self-absorbed in comparison. Clearly the writer of Hairspray, John Waters, was drawing some parallels. To what end, I wonder? A last note about the stage production, as opposed to the more recent film… the script contains considerably more fat-bashing dialog. There I was, 60 years old, sitting in the audience and not personally receiving the abuse, but the sneering and mocking was stinging. It wasn’t sufficiently mitigated by the positive messages embedded in the play. Again, hard to admit, sad and dis-empowering, but I guess echoes of traumatic moments, even second (third, fifth?) hand, carry barbs.
So, it turns out what I have to share right now are these thoughts about the play, Hairspray. My thoughts on beauty will come another time.