Cindy Baker's Fashion Plate by Allyson Mitchell
Through the wide picture window of the Drake Hotel's coffee shop I could see Cindy Baker and Megan Morman sitting at a large harvest table. I walk by this window often, sometimes several times a day. Normally, this table accommodates tiny hipsters in trucker baseball hats with svelte lap top computers, nibbling on pencil tips (I sometimes wonder if this is their lunch). For two weeks in the summer of 2005, the normal patrons made way for a messy hub of alternative activity that was Fashion Plate. For the performance, the large table was covered with fabrics, notions, sketching paper, assorted drawing utensils and pattern books. At one end, Cindy was talking with unsuspecting patrons of the café as well as a few intentional performance art lovers who were curious as to what Ms Baker was up to (she has performed before in Toronto so there was some expectation and excitement about this performance). At the other end of the table sat Megan Mormon, Cindy's partner and her assistant for this project, behind a sewing machine working with great concentration on a seam and juggling the duo’s receipt book used for keeping track of their fashion orders. For Fashion Plate, the audience was invited to design an outfit for Cindy. Some of the participants sketched a design for a single article of clothing and others created plans for entire outfits. Pattern books and fashion magazines were scattered on the table for inspiration. In her original artist statement, Cindy says she wanted the participants to come up with something from scratch: “translating what they like on their body to hers, or ‘sizing up’ the artist’s size, taste, and personal style and decoding it from abstract idea to 3-dimensional design”. The plans that the visitors made were given to the artist and assistant to sew and make into clothing. This project produced a total of 30 items of clothing over the course of 2 weeks and culminated in a fashion show. What is activist, practical and for some even interesting about this performance is that Cindy is fat.
My PhD dissertation is about fat activism and fat bodies. Furthermore, I headed up and worked with the performance and education troupe Pretty Porky and Pissed Off for 8 years.(1) I am ready to write about Cindy Baker. But this research, prep and experience did not wholly prepare me for what I found when I encountered Cindy and Megan at the Drake Hotel one hot summer afternoon.
What is striking at first with the performance of Fashion Plate is how much space these women take up in the café. It is noteworthy that their fat bodies and all the stuff that they’ve brought seem to mess up the space of the Drake coffee shop – who belongs and who does not. The amount of space they are taking up is relative to the context that they are located. One of my complaints about the Drake has been its clientele of “beautiful people”. You know the type – movie stars and fashion models – and the very body fascism that attends this type of crowd and the insecurities that the spaces occupied by those who fit into those kinds of body standards bring up for the rest of us normal, ugly, fat folk. When I first see Cindy and Megan through the Drake window – I think: Yes!! The fat girls are taking over the Drake. The presence of their active fat bodies temporarily transforms the meaning of that space for me.
The second striking element of Fashion Plate is Cindy’s fat body. The practical process of the performance demands that her fat body be looked at. People have to measure and consider her rolls and girth in order to create the patterns for the clothing that she sews. Some of them did the actual measuring. Others, who participated on a less active level, had to watch her get measured and move around. Cindy speaks about this secondary participation in an email conversation with me a few months after the performance:
For those who didn't actually make something, they were still confronted with watching others do this awkward dance with me, got to see the process of the garment's creation, got to hear the conversations. I estimate that for every person that made an article of clothing there were 10 others that I had individual conversations with that covered a range of topics from body politics to women's rights to performance art to fashion design, and way beyond. I really feel like just because someone didn't make something, it doesn't mean they didn't actively participate in the project.
The attention she got was obvious, as her performance space is lively and demands a lot of attention. She is undeniable.
Arguably the bodies of fat women are caught in a strange double existence of simultaneous invisibility and hyper surveillance. If they are regarded they are watched and judged and held up as examples of excess without subjectivity (think of the headless bodies of fat people, used to strike fear regarding obesity epidemics, that we are familiar with seeing on the nightly “news”). These are sneaky looks at fat bodies. One of the only other occasions that we “see” fat bodies in the media are in before and after shots for diet ads or television shows like “The Biggest Loser” or (the thankfully cancelled) “Fat Actress” which are about getting people out of the subject position of fat as quickly as possible. For Fashion Plate, Cindy asks the visitors to actually consider her fat body as a lived reality – not as a problem necessarily. Audience members engage with it and participate in it via clothing. I watch as visitors finger and look at the swathes of cloth and size up Cindy. Cindy’s body at time of performance seems to sit in the category (what we call in fat activist circles) as super size. She is a real fat girl – not just chubby or chunky or “feeling fat” as some of the smaller patrons in the café may “feel” and complain about regularly (familiar with the following question: “Do I look fat in these pants?”) Cindy looks, is, and embodies fat.
In her artist statement, Cindy talks about how this project gives people permission to look at her, and to practically size her up. The challenge for her is to be looked at in a manner that she assumes will be “critical”. Part of the purpose of this project is to get people to consider fat bodies outside of their normal framework. In a previous performance titled Glass Box, Cindy walked around in a giant clear plexiglass case. While the strategy of the performance was to draw attention to the vulnerability and protection of the artist, I can’t help but see it as the visibility and the erasure of the fat body as Cindy paraded through public spaces in a protective plexiglass box with sharp edges. Viewing her body through the box in the context of the mall, the street and the park was about allowing people to look at her and also about forcing the private experiences of the body into the public through this display. In Fashion Plate, Cindy is making people not only see her, but also think about her body in a more complex way. She employs the position of fashion model as a strategy to force her audience into a place where they are the artist/designer. By including the audience in this construction it means that they have to think about her body and the object they are creating with a sense of pride. What will provide a sense of accomplishment is if the clothing fits and Cindy looks good in it. Their mission was to make Cindy look beautiful. This is not a project that most people are used to taking on in relation to fat bodies.
Cindy’s performance is about making her body visible — literally forcing people to consider it. Baker’s excitement at the success of her performance comes from moments when participants figured out something about her body in relation to the clothing they were designing. She recalls moments when they may say something like "Oh! I get it, that crease goes way deeper than I thought." For Baker, this represents “some honesty on both our parts, because we were both letting our guards down and being a bit vulnerable, one in displaying her body and the other in displaying her ignorance.” It is this ‘realness’ of reaction or the letting down of one's guard that Baker is after with her performance. The outfits and the materials are all just a ploy for her to get to see small crumbs of people’s real and unfettered reactions to her body. One of her most favorite (and she adds horrific) moments of the performance was during the final fashion show, when some of the audience members could not hide their reaction to her body in a skimpy bikini. Baker says:
[W]hen I came parading in wearing Leif's bikini or some other skimpy dress, people's gut reactions were painted on their faces. It was the one time where I felt like "Yes! Some honesty!" That's what made it satisfying; there were lots of really supportive people and lots of positive reaction, and I felt confident, but the best part was that there was still visible proof that the problems I was raising through the performance really do exist, and that I hadn't just created a bubble of support around me that shielded the rest of the world from having to deal with it at all.
In retrospect, Baker talks about being surprised at how much her body was actually a part of the performance. It is as though her body in theory, in grant applications and performance proposals is nothing like her lived body in the moment of the performance. What gets lost on paper is the emotional experiences (both joyful and traumatic) that become much more poignant in the moment of performance. It seems as though Cindy’s performance forced her to see and be in her body in ways that she is not necessarily familiar with in public contexts.
Cindy did not anticipate that her work would be received by willing participants who were open to getting their hands on her body. In our interview she claims:
…one thing I could not predict was that those who were willing to engage did so wholeheartedly, and were not afraid to get their arms around me, to wrap me in fabric, to hold things up to see how they’d look. I thought I’d be more of an active participant in the process than I often ended up being; in many cases, I was asked to stand, lift up my arms, turn around – to be a mannequin.
While I could make the obvious connection between Cindy’s body and objectification, my experience at the performance suggested to me that there is more to it than that. Like Cindy mentions above, people were interested in engaging with her and talking with her as well as, for some, getting their hands on her.
Fashion Plate is a blend of performance and object-making. Baker claims that the most important part of the project is what happens between her and the people she connects with through conversation and negotiation. She wanted to find out about what she calls in her artist statement “the things that were avoided as well as the things that were covered. Each garment tells its own story, but it is the final product; the rack full of clothes, the finished collection – that has the potential to demarcate trends or reveal truths”.
Cindy was surprised by the kind of clothing that people were interested in designing for her. Rather than practical clothing (and this may speak for the kind of people willing to participate), people were interested in making what she calls “contemporary art clothing”. She says: "Instead of trying to make something that fit by selecting a simple design, they pulled out all the taffeta and the organza and made the most elaborate designs and really tried to make me into their diva.” This may be one of the ways that people are actually able to consider the fat body – as spectacle. Cultural theorist Mary Russo (1994) makes this point in her analysis of the articulation of female subjectivity by performance artists who use the grotesque. Basically, if our frame of reference for fat bodies is diva, clown, or freak show fat lady, this would explain why some of the clothing designed for Cindy emphasizes babyish or clownish characteristics. Russo and other academics that consider the fat body such as Probyn (2000) and Le Besco (2003) point out that one of the only ways to actually celebrate fat is to do it in a kind of over-the-top, carnivalesque, grandiose way rather than as “normal”(2). Trying to articulate fat as normal is actually quite complicated because of the meanings that the fat body is laden with. The case could be made that celebrating the fat body is a special occasion rather than an every day event. Still, sometimes a useful and practical blouse or trousers are way more important than a taffeta dress. In reworking meanings attached to fat bodies there is a fine line between clownishness(3) and dignity.
I understand the impulse to make and decorate a fat body like birthday cake. This has been a strategy of Pretty Porky and Pissed Off. The literal translation of “joy” attempts to celebrate the fat body given the visual tools that we have – we called it fat drag. In this way I am consciously utilizing Judith Butler’s early theories about gender and performativity in relation to drag culture, which highlight how gender itself is a copy. In Bodies that Matter (Butler 1993), she looks at how othered sexualities challenge gender fixity. By looking at concepts of the lesbian phallus and cultural phenomena like drag (through the film Paris is Burning) she critiques “normal” gender by looking at drag performances. Fat drag, I argue is a way of “doing fat” that emphasizes its constructedness rather than inherent givens. For example, Baker, by wearing a muu muu that is way over the top is donning the classic attire of “the fat woman”. She is marking her body as fat. She is performing fatness in a way that is “knowable” to the general population. However, when she sports a bikini, she is definitely stepping outside of the boundaries of what a fat woman is supposed to wear or how she is supposed to present herself. When she does this, she is subverting the fixity of fatness. She is shaking it up by subverting it and drawing attention to flesh and the constrictions of it in the same ways that drag queens and kings critique “normal” gender. Baker is challenging “normal” bodies and in effect using her body and her clothing line to demonstrate how “thinness” or “normal size” are also performed. Fat is not the imperfect copy of the proper body. There is no proper body, and fat is.
Performativity works to “produce that which it names” (Butler 1993, 2). That is, “naming it” is making and doing gender. Simply put, performativity theory claims that “saying” makes something come to being. More complexly, performativity is how the subject comes to know itself – it is how we are able to articulate “I”. Generated through speech act theory such as this, claiming “I am fat” can be revolutionary, while simultaneously hearing “You are fat” can be oppressive. Both statements can work to empower or oppress. Both statements are constitutive of identity. What happens when the fat woman asks the “normal bodied” person to design clothing for her? She, and they, are acknowledging that she is fat. Because of the unavailability of clothing in larger sizes, they must make clothing for her “abnormal” body that mirrors “normal” fashion in some way.
The complexity of Fashion Plate is that Baker asks participants to consider the fat body in relation to their own. Which means that I would like to ask some of Baker’s designers: Would you wear that dress to the party? Could you wear that shirt to a job interview? Do you think that Cindy conveys confidence and cool sexiness with what she is wearing? The answer is no to the majority of the outfits that were designed for Cindy. Crazy and beautiful – yes. Practical and usable by this fat bodied woman in her everyday life – no. This lack of practicality is an observation. It is not necessarily a failure of the project. It is the failure of people to engage with the practical realities of fat bodies. One of the main purposes of Fashion Plate was to get people to think about fat bodies in relation to their own (the majority of the designers were not super size). It is telling that given the opportunity to do this they designed clothes which are actually further away from probably anything they would ever wear in their own lives. I would argue that they did in fact consider Cindy’s fat body in relation to their own and when pushed to contribute to the creation of an object in relation to Cindy’s body, because of fat phobia, they made something that was really quite distanced from their bodies(4). It is the kinds of revealed truths that are found in the impracticality of her designed outfits that are the quiet success of Baker’s project from this fat activist's perspective.
My own design contribution took into consideration some of my learned experience as a fat woman as well as my immersion in fat culture for the past 10 years. I know that fat girls have difficulties negotiating body visible areas such as swimming pools, fitness clubs, beaches and dance clubs. I wanted Cindy to have a bathing suit that was totally cute and that she could wear to the beach in a fat body – that means a top that could hold her boobs up and a bottom that covered her butt. I also considered Baker’s career as an performance artist and figured she could handle her midriff showing, so I made it into a bikini – arguably not practical, however – revolutionary for a fat woman to wear in public in my imagination.
In the research for my dissertation I interviewed 15 women who identify as fat and asked them to talk about how they move through the world in their fat bodies. One of the most cohesive findings in my research is that fat women have a lot of difficulties clothing their bodies. Furthermore, the experience of shopping is not positive. In terms of space, the clothing store, and more particularly the change room, are often sites of oppression for fat women. For many it is the location where they first learned they were fat and that fat is wrong – often seeing themselves through the disappointed eyes of a “well intentioned” mother or sales person. The clothing change room is a site of disappointment, anger and frustration. One of the elements that I find the most exhilarating about the Fashion Plate performance is asking “normally” sized bodies to consider a fat body and lovingly and excitedly dress it. I am/was also astounded at how Cindy bravely transformed the space of the Drake Lounge into a public change room. I don’t mean that she changed in front of people. She changed in privacy. But she paraded around in her fresh new outfits in front of the judgmental eyes (replacing the mean moms, shoppers and sales people). By doing this, Baker takes this seemingly universal fat experience literally out of the closet. Those who are able to take this idea in can access how profound this kind of feminist intervention is. Cindy turned that space inside out. As an audience member during the fashion show I felt terrified and triggered. I wanted to protect Cindy. I cringingly watched the Drake clientele either ogle or consciously ignore Cindy as she paraded through the hotel in her new tight and often skimpy outfits. We are not used to seeing the flesh of fat bodies in public in this way. The only time I’ve seen the kinds of corporeal realities that Baker exposed has been at the YWCA change room (a life transforming experience) and in spaces that have been marked by activists as fat positive by the bodies that are there and the performance that takes place.(5) The unveiling of Cindy’s outfits in the pretense that it was a fashion show (and it was) was actually quite a solemn affair. The smallish crowd that had gathered to witness Cindy’s performance tried to overcompensate with clapping and cheering but there was little interaction between the audience there to observe Cindy – “the converted” as she refers to them – and the groups of people who just happened to be in the space. But, according to Baker, this is truly what she wanted from her performance – some real reactions to her body. For many people the realest reaction was ignorance in all its forms – I’m not surprised and neither is Baker.
I am looking forward to Baker's next endeavor, which promises to create an even bigger spectacle and will taunt her audience even more – denying them the opportunity to turn away. For the aptly titled: Personal Appearance: Performing Self Cindy Baker, she is constructing a professional mascot costume of herself. Similar to other amusement park and sports team characters, Cindy’s mascot will be cuddly, goofy and supposedly approachable. In her artist statement, Baker theorizes that the mascot will:
function to erase social barriers and encourage physical contact and play, as well as the building of emotional bonds; it will therefore allow me further and more complex access to my study of people through allowing them to study me.
Will Cindy’s mascot of herself be sweet or will it be monstrous? Hopefully, it will be both – my favorite flavor.
(1) “Pretty Porky & Pissed Off was not initially conceived of as a performance group. Rather, the group endeavoured to raise awareness in other ways, such as protesting, conducting educational workshops, engaging in group consciousness raising, and other activities. The group evolved, and in addition to these activities, they also eventually produced zines, held fat girl clothing swaps, performed street theatre, as well as more formalized performance work that could be classified as ‘cabaret style’, meaning it encompassed a variety of performance styles, such as monologue, dance, storytelling, singing and fat drag. While multi-faceted, the activist performance repertoire of PPPO’d is all geared towards one central goal: raising public awareness and consciousness about body issues and fat phobia”. (Pinterics, 2005 pp. 178-9)
(2) I would like to draw a parallel as well as underline the danger in normalizing outsider or marginalized identities and sexualities – and arguably occupying fat as a position of pride or even happiness is outside the mainstream ideals of loathing, fearing and hating fat. However, as is the case with most identity-based politics, fat activists have expressed fear of losing the radical politics based in their identiies with the homogeneity of normalness (Cooper, 2005). Think about the arguments by some queer activists against gay marriage, for example. The fear is that normalizing outsider identities in fact erases the very differences that make them unique and interesting or resistant in the first place.
(3) There is a historical legacy that has existed at least since the turn of the century which has associated fat bodies and fat people with clownish behaviour in white North America. This topic is considered thoroughly in at least two collections of essays by Braziel and Lebesco (2001) Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression and Kulick and Meneley (2005) Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession.
(4) This is not unequivocal. Some of the outfits actually looked like the people who designed them, for example, Paul Couillard’s muu muu, Vera Frenkel’s multi layered gown, Istvan Kantor’s neoism uniform and Leif Harmson’s bikini. Making Cindy into the larger doppelganger of these famous artists, offers an entire other psychoanalytically based essay about ego and creation – the desire to see the self blown up larger than life….
(5) Here I am thinking about fat cabarets like Chubbalicous (2001), Blubber (2001), Double Double (2002), Big Cindy [ironically titled in relation to the work of Cindy Baker but it was not originally titled with her in mind] (2003), No Lose (2004-5), and Chub Rub (2006).
Baker/Mitchell email interview, February/March, 2006.
Baker, Cindy, Fashion Plate artist statement, Fado website
Baker, Cindy, Personal Appearance: Performing Self Cindy Baker (unpublished)
Bazeil Jana Evans and Kathleen Lebesco, 2001, Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Berkley: University of California Press.
Butler, Judith, 1993, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.
Cooper, Charlotte, 2005, Plenary Speech at NoLose conference, Newark New Jersey, available at www.charlottecooper.net.
Kulick, Don and Anne Meneley, 2005, Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.
Le Besco, Kathleen, 2004. Revolting Bodies?: the struggle to redefine fat identity. Amherst MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Pinterics, N. 2005. Big & Bawdy Bodies: A Feminist & Cultural Studies Analysis of Fat & Frisky Performances. MA thesis, Mount Saint Vincent University.
Probyn, Elspeth. 2000. Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities. London: Routledge.
Russo, Mary. 1994. The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. New York: Routledge.