Dancers In Fat Suits

Ragen Chastain – Fat Dancer (no fat suit required) Photo by Richard Sabel

There’s a video making its way around Facebook with what appears to be two fat ballroom dancers doing a fabulous jive.  A number of people have sent this to me excited to see two fat ballroom dancers getting such great attention.  Except it’s not.  It’s two dancers who are dressed in fat suits and, while the dancing is good, there are also some of the tired fat jokes you might expect.

Once again I find that I’m typing something that should be so painfully obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said or typed ever:  It is not ok to dress up like a member of an oppressed group for “fun” or profit.  It’s especially not cool to dress up like a member of an oppressed group and act like a caricature of that group to get cheap laughs off of the stereotypes that get people in that community bullied, stigmatized, and oppressed. There is no justification for this behavior.

[Edit to address something that’s coming up in comments: I should have made this clear initially and I apologize for not doing so. Doing this is wrong regardless of the oppressed group someone is imitating, that said, the imitations are not the same and aren’t comparable.  Wearing a fat suit is not the same thing as “black face” because of the history behind it (Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote a great article about it for Vox this I highly recommend.)]

Sadly this is hardly the first time.  In a dance circuit in which I competed two World Champions in the highest professional division – Ronnie and Brandi – spent three long seasons wringing every cheap laugh out of the use of a fat suit in their Masters Showcase Routine.  Three.  Seasons.  And when confronted they said that it wasn’t a fat joke, it was a joke about internet dating (his horror at the fact that she showed up for their internet date and was fat, her getting stuck in dance moves in the fat suit, his relief and her dance improvement when she took off the fat suit etc.)  Just in case there are people who would believe this BS, here’s an easy test – if it requires a fat suit, it’s a fat joke. And it’s bullshit, straight up.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that performers wearing fat suits often get far more attention than actual talented fat people (and they don’t have to deal with a bunch of bullshit concern trolling.)  It also adds to the difficulty that fat performers face since every time we step on stage we have to overcome people’s prejudices and preconceived notions before we even have a chance of them recognizing our talent.  When people throw on a fat suit and reinforce those prejudices and preconceived notions it makes it even harder for us.

Wearing a fat suit as an online dating experiment is questionable, wearing it to see what it’s like to be fat is also questionable when there are completely credible accounts from real live actual fat people about what it’s like to be a real live actual fat person (and is especially questionable when your grip on science and logic is as tenuous as that of Dr. Oz.)  But wearing a fat suit to get cheap laughs because we live in a society where somehow it’s funny that fat people exist in the world and do stuff is completely deplorable. Just stop.  Instead share a video of an actual fat performer and help us give people the opportunity to overcome their prejudices and preconceived notions and see that talent isn’t a size.

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13 thoughts on “Dancers In Fat Suits

    1. It’s is NOT the same thing. I really wish people would stop making this kind of comparison. Seeing people using fat suits is awful, feels discriminatory and humiliating – but I wish as a group we’d stop comparing our issues to racism. It’s not the same – both platforms have vastly different histories and deserve their own respect and recognition. They shouldn’t be conflated.

  1. I recall watching an experiment about online dating and how men and women handle fat people. Instead of USING fat people, they plugged thin actors into fat suits. To be honest, it was pretty obvious even with the magic of an LA makeup team, that this person was wearing a fat suit. I don’t think the experiment did anything more than illustrate that people are taken aback when someone is obviously conning them.

  2. So they won’t hire fat dancers, and they fire the ones other people have hired… but they’ll put a fat suit on a thin dancer.

  3. Reminds me of a number at the dance recital in my senior year of high school. Everybody on stage was in a fat suit and the catchphrase of the song they were dancing to was “Pound of Ground Round.” I wasn’t even fat yet and it made me uncomfortable, although it took me years to understand why.

    The one person with actual performing talent in the entire lively arts department that year was fat, always beautifully dressed and made up, always professional, with a gorgeous voice, and out of here like a shot the week she graduated. Haven’t seen her since. Gosh, I wonder why.

  4. “It is not ok to dress up like a member of an oppressed group for ‘fun’ or profit. It’s especially not cool to dress up like a member of an oppressed group and act like a caricature of that group to get cheap laughs off of the stereotypes that get people in that community bullied, stigmatized, and oppressed. There is no justification for this behavior.”

    Powerfully said, Ragen. The fat suit thing bugs me no end. How can people not get that this is wrong?

  5. I can think of one reason to wear a fat suit, and that is when an actor needs to portray a person whose size varies throughout the show. That’s pretty much it, in my book. It’s the same thing as hiring an able-bodied actor to play the role of someone in a wheelchair. That’s only OK if the character has to be up and about (and obviously able-bodied) at some point in the show. If they stay in their chair the whole time, cast someone who’s already in a chair.

    Now, if it were two actual fat dancers playing to the stereotypes and reinforcing prejudices, I’d say they have the right to do that, as they are already part of the oppressed group, but that they are buying into the oppression, supporting their oppressors, and really need to re-think their act.

    If you want to play for laughs about some character getting stuck in dance positions, how about a characters with a bad back? You’d have to introduce the bad back (or perhaps knees, or elbows, or all of the above) right at the beginning, and then you could have some fun with that. Mind you, I speak as someone with a bad back. I love dancing, but I can’t do it, anymore, because of the back, but I can visualize a performance where a dancer (a good one, who is not injured) could make a comic scene out of getting stuck, and then, perhaps, getting a chiropractic adjustment before the dance continues. This doesn’t play into oppression, yet the same or similar “getting stuck” moves that these dancers already use could be used again, without causing such a ruckus. And if they want “relief” at the end, have someone take a magic potion that restores their bodies to perfect health.

  6. Yeah, privileged people ignoring the stories of oppressed people goes way back. I immediately thought of the book “Black Like Me”. Only when a white man experienced prejudice was it taken seriously.

    1. What are the odds someone will do “Fat Like Me”? And if it were done, how many people would actually change their minds about fat prejudice. Or body-shaming, in general?

      It’s a cold, wintry day, and at the moment, I don’t feel very hopeful about it. But maybe when the sun shines, I would feel better about the human race.

  7. You make an excellent point, and I don’t think there will be a “Fat Like Me” anytime soon.

    I do hope that society will eventually change for the better. *HUGS*

  8. Obviously I think people should listen to the stories of actual fat people and believe them and try to empathize. But there are some things — maybe subtle reactions from people, maybe the cumulative effects of bad reactions from people all the time — that I’m not sure anyone can really understand and feel without experiencing it themselves. I think that’s just the way our brains work. Of course, I have no idea if walking around in a fat suit is really going to give someone that experience.

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