First and Foremost

facepalmI love the show The Sing Off, it is an a capella singing competition.  As with most reality shows of this type there are three judges – Ben Folds, Jewel, and Shawn Stockton from Boys to Men.  Last night on the first episode (no real spoilers…) everything was going well and then it was time for the all girl group.  They sang their number and it was Shawn’s turn to critique.  He said “First of all you guys all look beautiful. First and foremost you all look great.” then continued with his critique.

First and foremost. Foremost:  before anything else in rank, importance, or position; in the first place.

The most important thing,  in Shawn’s estimation, in this singing competition in which these women just sang complex harmonies over a wide vocal range, including vocal percussion, sound effects and choreography, is that they “look great.”  If he hadn’t decided that they looked “beautiful” would he have scored them differently? Would the fact that they didn’t, in his estimation “look great” be the thing that is first and foremost in his mind.

Now, before someone freaks out in the comments about how I’m way over reacting to this comment and how he may just have been looking for something to say or trying to create a “compliment” sandwich or whatever that may well be true, and yes this is just one comment, but it’s certainly not the only time it’s happened.  If you watch singing or dancing reality shows, check out how many more times the female contestants are complimented strictly for their looks, or first or their looks, vs. the male competitors (though men are certainly subject to being judged by how they look.) I feel strongly that a world where women are  judged first and foremost based on how we look regardless of what we’re actually trying to do is fucked up.  It also means very real ramifications for fat women since, in this culture, there are many who believe that “looking great” and being fat are mutually exclusive.

If we take The Sing Off for example, other women who want to compete on the show just heard a judge say that looking great was first and foremost – how will that influence who they choose for their group?  It makes choosing an amazing singer who is also fat, or in any way not stereotypically attractive, a risk.

We can see the effects of this everywhere.  At least once a week I see a video on facebook that I’m told is a “shocking performance” that I “won’t believe” but turns out to be just a talented person who is not stereotypically beautiful. Talented fat people are not actually shocking, we’re just hidden either by those who want to judge us, or kept out  by those who don’t want to be judged for their association with us.  But the single stereotype of beauty has been shoved at us so hard by Hollywood and the music industry that people are legitimately shocked when someone who doesn’t fit the mold can sing, or act, or dance, (or do anything), I call it the Susan Boyle effect. Imagine how different the world would be if we chose our singers based first and foremost on their ability to sing, or our actors based first and foremost on their ability to act.

I think that if we want to change this the first step is to be aware of how often we are judged first and foremost on how closely we can approximate the current stereotype of beauty, whether we call it out when we see it or just make a mental note that some bullshit is happening.  We can also choose to stop participating in it – refuse to make guesses about people’s abilities based on how they look, consider that if we don’t see the beauty in someone it means that we are deficient – that we haven’t yet fully developed our skill set for seeing beauty. We can also push to do the things that we want to do – sing, act, dance, etc. – whether it’s in main stream environments or by creating our own spaces and opportunities.  First and foremost, we should get to decide what is first and foremost about us.

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28 thoughts on “First and Foremost

  1. Hello there Ragen …..

    Well, I think one reason why people are shocked when a person who is, say, less-than-conventionally-attractive, performs exceptionally well, is because those people often face so many more obstacles in developing their talents. They see how the entertainment industry HEAVILY favors the trendy, fashionable ideal of attractiveness, and either decide it’s not worth their time to fight a battle they can’t win, or they end up trying and losing so many times they become discouraged and give up.

    Likewise, since they face discrimination in virtually every facet of their life (i.e.: education, healthcare, employment, relationships, housing, etcetera), they spend more time and effort just getting bye, and have less charge to work with in their “emotional batteries” due to the fact that so many haters are constantly trying to tear them down.

    Considering all the obstacles facing people who many might consider less attractive, it really **IS** somewhat surprising when they are able to excel. Sad, but true.

    By the way, I am new to your blog, and want to thank you for your excellent commentary. *S*

  2. That’s why the only I show I’ve watched like this is The Voice. They are turned away for the singers and vote on them before ever seeing them. To me, that is the fairest, judging by what they hear and NOT what they SEE. Totally agreed, it’s bullshit.

    1. Blind auditions (the judges don’t see the musicians) in classical music have led to more women getting hired. Anyone know whether it’s also affected whether fat musicians get hired?

  3. I’ve noticed that NPR (and the BBC, I think) has a bad habit of starting news stories about people with “you wouldn’t expect” followed by the dreariest stereotypes. I don’t think they mention weight, though. Anyone else notice that habitual hook?

    1. I always comment on this to my friends – the much wider variety of bodies shapes and sizes, not to mention interesting looking/non-(American)traditional faces – on British television. I love that!

  4. This applies to more than just performance art. As an artist and sculptor, I have had people look at my art and then look at me as the artist in utter confusion. As if fat people with talent are something that they cannot reconcile to their world view. I once had a pencil sketch I had done chosen for the cover of a brochure for a university wide conference on tolerance. I framed the original and displayed it in my living room. I was very proud of it. The wife of a friend saw it and asked how we had managed to buy it. All of us were broke as hell college students. I explained that I was the artist. Her response was “But, you’re fat!”

    My husband asked them to leave. She did apologize, several times, in fact and we did become friendly. We even managed to discuss what had happened that night and she admitted the irony of the whole situation; Artist does work symbolically showing tolerance gets confronted by intolerance in her own home. For me, it was an eye opening experience. I had never realized that how I looked effected how people viewed my art and vice versa.

    1. Wow! I’m shocked at that! As a singer, and therefore judged by my appearance, I always somehow thought that the visual arts were kind of like the shoe buying of the art world-something fat people could do without too much trouble (if they had the talent for it, of course.). And, yes, I realize the utter ignorance and stereotyping of that, now that I’ve put it out there. But I’m still shocked, and I think you’re a swell person for getting past it!

  5. lets not forget that “first and foremost” begins when we start school, the workplace, etc. Thank you for a thoughtful post. –Jen

  6. The first and foremost thing that ought to be important in a talent-based contest is the talent. If you’ve got people doing vocal percussion, sound effects, and complex harmonies going on, what does it matter what the performers look like while making them happen? I don’t care if it’s being done by Jojo the Dogfaced Boy, Quasimodo, and the Elephant Man. If it’s good, it’s good. And if it isn’t good music, it doesn’t matter that they all look like Dorian Grey did when his picture was painted.

    Let’s judge singing on singing, dancing on dancing, and painting on painting.

    After all, we don’t wait to see the craftsman before we decide if the chair is comfortable or the table wobbles… at least I hope we don’t.

  7. I sing in a local choir and there is a woman in the soprano range who is quite fat. She is also quite likely one of the best singers in the choir… and we have well over fifty active members. Judging abilities based on superificial and shallow qualities that tell you nothing of a person is something that shouldn’t happen.

    1. It amuses me when people do this in regards to singing in particular. Extra weight on the chest and throat changes the resonance of a voice, and a big chest often translates to better lung capacity. There’s a *reason* so many of the world’s best vocal performers (outside the auto-tuned pop world, anyway) are large. Being big won’t give you a star-quality voice if you don’t have one, but if you *do* have one, being big is by no means a detriment — except if you’re competing on shows where the judges pick contestants based on their pantsfeelings rather than their ears.

      1. This is not entirely true. Chest cavity size may not have anything to do with lung capacity. I know it doesn’t in my case. I have always been one of the fattest folks in the room (or the choir), but my lung capacity is not related in any way to my body size. I have always had difficulty with long breaths, even when I was much smaller and my lungs weren’t squooshed by extra weight.

        “Being big won’t give you a star-quality voice if you don’t have one, but if you *do* have one, being big is by no means a detriment.”

        WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. The Golden Age of the Singer is over. We are in the Age of the Conductor, and the trend is toward casting the “pretty” people, regardless of how well they can sing, or if they can fill the house with sound. I’m so sick of this trend I could vomit. I don’t go to the opera to look at pretty people from a mile away. If I wanted to just watch pretty folks acting, I’d watch a Hollywood blockbuster movie. I come to hear SINGING, dammit!! So give me people who can SING!!

        Conductors very often cast with their eyes instead of their ears, yes, even in the opera realm. As a Wagnerian soprano (a real-life “Kill da Wabbit” Valkyrie) who has tried to make it in the US as an opera singer, I know two things: (1) I have (or had, in my younger years) a world-class voice; (2) My looks have knocked me out of contention for more than one role.

        Our lyric opera here refuses to cast me as anything but the fat chorus chick (no more than one per show, thanks). Never mind the fact that I have had some spectacular auditions here in which I’ve blown the conductor and music director out of the water, they have never and will never cast me as anything greater than chorus. There is a decided bias towards “the pretty people” here, which really sickens me as many of those folks can’t fill the house with sound. It’s pathetic and it’s a growing trend that needs to die a horrible and painful death.

        Gee. Guess I had something to say about that. Who knew?

          1. I totally agree on so many levels. Hope they never go blind, beauty perception changes drastically. I think of the classic 1985 movie Mask with Cher and Sam Elliott. Like you, I go to hear not look at a bunch of fake pretty people. I love music and have not a drop of talent, LOL.

  8. I was watching the Steve Harvey show today and they gave this woman a new wardrobe because her teenage daughter didn’t like the way her mom dressed.

    I bring this up because it occurred to me that

    a) There are tons of makeovers for women, but very few for men.

    b) Women always need to look ‘pretty’ while the men with them can look like total slobs.

    c) Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of a makeover, women were given some sort of class that they were interested in. Maybe singing lessons or wood carving or whatever floated their boat. Heck, even cooking or sewing if it was truly an interest.

    d) Ban any makeover based on someone else not liking the makoveree’s look. If it is done as a treat and for fun, that’s one thing. And I can kind of see the makeover I saw a few years back for the teenager that was dressing in extremely revealing clothes; but just because you think your wife/mother/daughter/sister/best friend should dress different. That should be banned.

    I know, makeovers can be done in an hour and have a nice ‘before and after’ thing going for them.

    And honestly, maybe a part of me is jealous because I’m unlikely to ever be the subject of a makeover where I actually like the after since I have weirdly wide feet, an aversion to makeup and am a non-standard shape (even at 140 pounds, I still had no hips and big boobs).

    There really is a lot of pressure for women to look a certain way and I personally think it reinforces society’s status quo in a bad way.

    I know I am preaching to the choir here, and I know I sometimes wish I had ‘that look’, but it really does concern me when that seems to be all that’s truly valued.

  9. This is why I was so disgusted when everyone was oohing and aaahing over the video taken at a Kristin Chenoweth concert where she invites a fan up on stage and the fan is a music teacher, kinda tall but sort of regular looking, and the fan shows herself to be an incredibly talented singer. Kristin Chenoweth treated her like an alien from outer space and made several comments while she was singing, like “OHMHYGOD HARMONY!!!” as if that were her purview alone. After awhile it was as if she was trying to get the audience’s attention back on her because this fan was her equal in every way. Guess what, Kristin. It’s not shocking. There are MILLIONS of us out here who sing just great (even in OHMYGOD HARMONY!) but because we don’t look like you, we don’t get paid megabucks for it. So just shut your mouth and applaud. And maybe let one of us through next time you’re holding auditions. That would be nice too.

  10. This is on my mind a lot when I watch TV and movies. I think about all the amazingly talented people out there who will never grace the small or big screen, simply because they don’t fit the “attractive” mold required by Hollywood executives. And how many “beautiful” people are on those big and small screens not because they have true talent, but because they have been deemed pleasing to look at. This seems especially true of women. I’d totally go to Hollywood and be, say, the new kick-ass side-kick slash love interest on Arrow, for example – if only they would have me!

  11. Coincidentally I read this blog entry immediately after watching a You Tube video of Big Mama Thornton’s performance of a song originally written for her. The song? “You ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog”! It’s an absolutely staggering display of talent…and the antidote to the “first and foremost” beauty standards Ragen so rightly damns. In honor of Big Mama’s birthday – check it out, you won’t be disappointed ; )

  12. This kind of thought angers me for so many reasons. I am a talented first soprano, I sing well, very well. I’ve own awards, been in competitions and far too often I’ve had people look at me with shock that my voice can come out of my body. I was once told my voice is too delicate for my body, that I should have a much darker soprano sound because of my size. I was a senior in high school auditioning for honor choir, I sang an Italian aria and as I left the stage this girl stood up and stopped me, looked at me and told me I had an incredible voice, one of the best she’s ever heard. She looked at some of the other girls around me and said she imagined I never got the solos or roles I deserved because I didn’t look like them, she was right and that was the first time I ever really put it together.

    It angers me that this is mostly done to women, like we have a responsibility to be sexually appealing to the men around us. It’s bullshit. My talent is there and it doesn’t matter what I look like.

    1. “I was once told my voice is too delicate for my body, that I should have a much darker soprano sound because of my size.”

      Oh, what bullshit. The voice you have is the voice you have. Honestly. I think I’d have looked back at the person and suggested that I thought their voice should be higher-pitched because their brains are so small. What an ass.

  13. All of this. I noticed this immediately, too, and it sucks that we are so quick to judge people by their looks. It makes me nervous about meeting new people, applying for a new job, dating and a million other situations.
    P.S. I am rooting for Street Corner Renaissance!

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