A love letter to Beth Ditto

On Friday, one of my office buddies did the usual chit-chat with me. ‘What are you up to this weekend?’ I told him that among other things, I was going to see a band, Gossip. He told me he didn’t know them, which confused me, but fine, so I tried to explain it was the band that Beth Ditto was in. Again, I was met with a furrowed brow and ‘Who?’ He’s only a couple of years younger than me, but it was the first time I felt like an old person trying to tell a young person about some piece of culture that was important to them.

But there was more to it than that. As a fat woman, the idea that Beth Ditto was not only not a centrepiece of my cultural landscape, but that I could have never heard of her, was unthinkable.

So I went to see Gossip, reunited for a summer tour and playing at Somerset House. As I was watching them play, with Beth bounding around the stage in a wild, angular-yet-soft pink jacquard dress, I realised it had been 12 years since I first saw her perform live. And something caught in my throat when I realised how much I, and my life, have changed since then.

Back in 2007, I was still at school. I was young for my year, not even able to legally drink until A-level results day, which coincided, absurdly, with my birthday. But my schoolfriend Alice and I braved the potential anxiety of rejection by a bouncer to go and see Gossip at the now-defunct Astoria on the edge of Soho, as part of the now-defunct NME Awards Tour. I was looking forward to it, but I was also kind of anxious about it. I was 17 years old and had not come to terms with my body as it was. I was even, whisper it, going to Weight Watchers.

Beth Ditto was, at the time, really the only fat cultural icon, or at least the only fat cultural icon who was cool, or punk, or edgy, or wild, rather than vaguely mum-like (no disrespect to mums, though. You’re doing the Lord’s work). Since Beth Ditto was the only fat cultural icon, I was acutely, painfully aware that positioning myself in proximity to her, for example, by going to see her band play live, I was opening myself up for people to associate me with her. While we’re not twins, we’re not entirely dissimilar: small features on a chubby face, very pale skin, dark hair. And fat. Her fatness was shocking and subversive because it was so overt and unashamed- she would take her clothes off at gigs, exposing her genuinely fat body with all its rolls and cellulite and sweat. It was a path in life I didn’t even really know or believe was possible.

In 2007, the girl going to see Gossip with her friend Alice at the Astoria was profoundly ashamed of her fatness. I was sufficiently self-deceiving to believe that fatness was something I could distance myself from by behaving in the right way and aligning myself with the right things. I could suppress the instinct that my body was, in fact, completely fine as it was, and play the game that my family and friends and culture wanted me to play. None of which involved acknowledging my fatness, allying myself to a fat cultural figure, or accepting that we were, physically, cut from the same cloth. I wanted to distance myself from this brilliant, exuberant, talented, empathetic, resilient woman, because I was 17 years old and didn’t know yet that my body would become one of the great loves of my life.

Over the past 12 years, bit by bit, I’ve let myself become me. And that’s meant becoming more Beth. Letting that completely unashamed, completely radical approach to fat bodies into my life. I can listen to the small voice inside me telling me that my body is fine just the way it is, that I can have a full, fun life in a fat body, that I can excel at the things I do, that I can have romance, that I can care about clothes, that I can make people feel even a little bit more secure in their fat bodies, that I can make people feel empowered to demand better for their fat bodies. I’ve let myself be guided by everything that Beth was putting out into the world all along.

And 12 years later, watching Gossip at Somerset House, listening to Beth sing, and talk, and be herself, onstage, I felt such a profound sadness for my teenage self, such shame that I would ever want to do anything other than claim her, learn from her, love her, thank all my stars that she exists and was my first real fat female role model, even when I was too self-hating and ungrateful to know her as that. And I’m much better for it at 29 in Somerset House than I ever was at 17 at the Astoria. Beth Ditto was there all along, I just wasn’t ready to let her in.

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