The fat body is often ridiculed, asexualised and deprived of happiness, self-love and desire. Burlesque has changed both how we see fat bodies, and how we view ourselves.
Burlesque is a visual art form many people connect to the movie “Burlesque” starring Christina Aguilera and Cher. When I say I do burlesque, the most common reaction is “Oh, I love that movie!”. I usually play along, knowing very well that this person would be shocked if they knew what I do on stage.
In one of my favourite acts, I am Miss America. I have won. I have long, blonde, luscious hair, tight waist, and fit into what I grew up thinking a woman should look like. The music changes. Plastic Bertrand sings “Ca plan pour moi”, and I start to strip. My whole body is covered with surgical marks, telling the story of what my body should have looked like, according to society’s narrow frames for the female body.
I wash it all off. I tear off my blonde hair, revealing a bald cap. I flip my finger to the audience and scream, before humping the floor, aggressively. Although the movements and the idea is sexy, there is nothing traditionally appealing about the image of me – a fat, almost naked woman, aggressively rolling around on the floor, reaching into my panties for a well hidden burger. I usually end the act by eating the burger, before throwing the scraps into the audience.
This is what burlesque is to me. Freedom. Fat freedom.
Burlesque is as criticised as it is beloved. This is an art genre that receives divided opinions and is criticized for promoting a false feminism, where the performers themselves are fooled by the patriarchal belief that they are liberated. I understand this mindset. The naked body is difficult, but it should not be too hard to see that it can also be a powerful weapon in the war against the beauty industry.
Traditional stripping has a bad history where the exploitation of women is paramount. The biggest critics of burlesque believe we glorify the sale of the women forced into the sex industry. I do however think that stripping is created by the male gaze, and therefore also advertises to the male gaze.
This means that you as an audience member also look at stripping through the male gaze. It is easy to think that this also applies to burlesque because traditional stripping and burlesque are so closely related. But burlesque is a way of seeing the female body through the female gaze. And when I gradually learned that there is also a female gaze, I learned to see the world with new eyes.
I see burlesque as a celebration of ourselves, to the delight of other women who are both similar and different to ourselves, and I believe you can be a feminist, fat activist, fight for women’s right and be a burlesque performer at the same time.
I am 165 cm and weigh about 140 kg. I’m fat. You can not get around this fact. I have always tried to hide my own fatness. I have worn big clothes, locked myself in, gone on numerous diets and had a theory that if I hide my own fatness, or at least ignore it, no one else will see it either.
Society views the fat body as a societal problem. We are something that needs to be fixed. They pathologize our bodies and do not listen when we raise our voices. The right to reply is taken away from us and those who dare to raise their voices are ridiculed. What do we, who live in these bodies, know? I would like to ask – what do they know who have neither experience of what it is like to live in a fat body, nor knowledge that gives them any right to scream their opinions in my face, with their self-appointed expert role?
Society’s attitudes and constant reminders gave me an eating disorder and a negative self-image that has eaten me up inside. When I signed up for a burlesque class in 2013, it was after a suicide attempt as a result of self-hatred, and 10 years of destruction of my own body.
It was inside the dance studio that I was going to find myself. I was going to find a version of myself I didn’t know existed, but one I had dreamed of. A version of me that I thought was only reserved for women who did not look like me. The slim and beautiful vision of what I thought a woman had to look like. I discovered respect for my own body, respect for my own mind and respect for the fact that I still existed. I fell in love with my fat self and became Fifi von Tassel.
That was how I in 2013, at the age of 27, came out as fat. And so began a new chapter in my life. A chapter filled with glitter and feather fans, but also a long and difficult battle against my old self.
Having a body like mine, and not conforming to the norms of society, will always have a political sting. As soon as I set foot on the stage, the political game begins. I choose how I want to promote my story, my struggles, and my message. And most often it is through big hair, glittering stretch marks and a fighting spirit wrapped in humour.
I feel like in 2013 I was presented with a choice. I could open a new door or continue living as before. As a fat woman, I realised that when I stood on the stage for the first time and felt the feeling of being seen on my own terms, taking ownership of being a fat woman was a choice. A difficult choice, of course, but nonetheless – a choice. When I leave the stage, pack my suitcase backstage and wash off Fifi von Tassel and become Carina again, I am also treated like Carina. Off-stage, the same rules of the game do not apply. But I know that the box I have been given is much larger. I know that I am allowed to take up space and that the person I have been allowed to develop on stage is a part of me. And she wants to be seen.
As a fat woman, you rarely get to explore your femininity. We are often locked into an image that is less attractive, not worth spending time on, we do not get clothes that fit us and end up too often on the sidelines.
For many, burlesque is their first encounter with themselves, and the first glimpse of what lies underneath the layer of a persona you may not have chosen for yourself. It’s a way of moving your own boundaries, and explore. If you have always lived in a body that has never been socially accepted, burlesque offers you an opportunity to be just that – accepted. You are the one setting the rules, and the one deciding what is normal.
The biggest surprise for me about doing burlesque is realising how it helped my eating disorder. By the age of 27, I had an on and off relationship with bulimia. A relationship that was put on hold when I gradually turned into Fifi von Tassel. All the chaos and self-hatred turned into creativity. The chaos was used on stage, and not projected inwards. Burlesque became a life-saving tool. And not just that – I got to explore my sexuality in a new way as well. Sex was all of a sudden something I did with another person – not something they did to me.
Burlesque became a way of showing my sexuality. Not necessarily in an exhibitionist way, but to show that I’m also a sexual being.
When I show you my fat body, it’s on my terms. I let you see, and I let you enjoy, or be shocked, at how I feel my body.
My naked body becomes my way of pointing the finger at society, no matter what I do with it. As a performer, you change the narrative and the idea of what a body can and cannot do. My fatness becomes the least interesting thing about me, although it might be the reason why you either love or hate what I am doing.
When you show what, in society’s eyes, is considered imperfect, you also take the feeling of being different away from the audience. You give them a space of freedom and you allow them to feel better about themselves. Not in a way that indicates that they are laughing at you, or that they feel better because you look the way you do. They are laughing with you and experiencing a sense of unity and empowerment. If someone who looks like you are standing on a stage, and metaphorically reaches out to show that it’s okay to look this way, “If I can, so can you”, you will also be filled with the belief that you have another role to play than the one you are given.
As a performer, you give the audience the key to another reality and the realisation that their box may also have been too cramped, in the wrong shape and even in the wrong colour.
Burlesque is thus a game of power. By going on stage, you have deprived society of the power it has over you and your body. That power, you give out to the audience, like some kind of Robin Hood of empowerment. You flip the finger to the beauty industry and tell everyone that they are good enough as they are. And that through strengthening yourself.
Burlesque is such a unique and honest art form and is hard to summarise in a way that does it justice. I hope that everyone at some point in their life can feel at peace with themselves, and allow themselves to exist. In the end – if you will never fit into the box, never look like the magazine cover and never be able to fill the norm – why the hell should you? And – do you really want to…?
To give a broader sense of the Norwegian burlesque scene, we have spoken to five fat performers and their take on burlesque:
Roy Lasse is a lonely man in the middle of his 50s. He’s living alone in the countryside of Norway. Every woman he fancies are men dressed up as women. He just doesn’t understand it. He’s a confused, lonesome cowboy listening to his all-time favourite song: Bellamy brothers: If I said you have a beautiful body.
His deepest secret is that he likes to dress up as a woman, after a long journey down the bottle of whisky.
My character is Roy Lasse Klåsa, but when he dresses up like a woman, his alter ego is Redneck Rita. The name came to me after dating a lot of local men. I moved from Oslo to the countryside to study, and when I went out with the locals it was like a social anthropology study!
He is a man with a lot of fear. Fear of new experiences, he hasn’t been out of his village ever. When he tries to drive out of his village he gets sick. He was born and raised in the countryside, he’s still living in the same area he grew up in. The same environment.
I copy body language and facial expressions and make it even bigger on stage. The stage is my way to heal sorrow and pain. It’s my personal place to be loud, and turn pain into art.
I am a feminist. I think the burlesque stage is an awesome place to open up for how we interact as genders, and the cultural expectation of gender. What is considered feminine, what is considered masculine, and how do we act upon these traits? It’s a place for expressions that opens your mind, and vice versa the reactions from the audience are always interesting.
My body. Wow… Where to start. I think for me it’s about the comedy in our body. I think it’s all about being sexy all the time. How we talk. How we walk. And to get out of my own head, I made Roy Lasse aka Redneck Rita. I wanted to use my body for comedy, but I wasn’t sure how that would be interpreted.
After my performance, when I watched the video of me dancing as a man dressing up as a woman, I felt ashamed. I saw that I got fat all around my belly. Ever since I was a child, people have made comments about my belly, and I always felt like I did something wrong. Like when my grandmother was like “Oh, no! I can see your belly”. I was twelve.
I feel a lot of hate towards my body, and I talk to myself in a negative way. It’s different when I’m on stage. Before I go on stage, I get into character and I feel like I just don’t give a damn. Everyone, especially the ladies, think I’m hot!
Burlesque for me is total freedom. You can make your personality on stage, and the crowd you’re performing for are totally awesome! How they react, you know… They scream and it’s so high frequency of good energy and it’s the best drug ever.
Fifi von Tassel can best be described as a political happy pill wearing a thing, and she is ready to make you love yourself – one curve at the time!
When I started doing burlesque, I had no intention of being on stage. It wasn’t for people like me. I was too fat, too short, too clumsy, etc. Then, my friend and burly partner in crime Phoenix D’Vine persuaded me to join her on stage, and I used a name generator. It’s really quite embarrassing how little I thought this name through, but I like it!
When I’m on stage as Fifi, I tend to forget that there are consequences. The adrenalin and the moment sucks me in, and I do what feels natural. I often end up naked on stage. As Carina, there are consequences. I am much more free as Fifi.
To some, probably their worst nightmare, and to others – a hero, or a glimpse of what their life could be like if they came out of their shell. I often speak to people, especially women, who admire what I do, because they would never dare themselves. I always try to tell people that even if you don’t do burlesque, you need to make time and space for yourself. Do activities that don’t require you having to compete with anyone.
Yes. I think the only alternative to being a feminist is to be an idiot. Or being very uninformed.
On and off. I have an eating disorder that creates chaos inside of me. When I do burlesque, I am able to project this chaos into creativity and happiness. When I am not able to do burlesque, like during covid, I feel like the chaos is eating me alive. I like my body, and can confidently walk around in a bikini at the beach, but there is always that little voice in the back of my head. When I’m Fifi, I can easily tell that voice to go f***k off.
Burlesque is somewhere I can breathe. The stage is my second home. Sometimes I feel like I really don’t want to put makeup on, put on an uncomfortable costume and entertain people, but I think it’s like taking a shower after a long day, when you just want to go to bed – you feel so much better afterwards.
Frøken Bibelstripp is here to save you all from the immorality that seduces the people, and she does so by… more seduction?
My upbringing in “Sørlandet”, and which I experienced as characterized by religion and double standards against women. A protest of the fact that there are different rules for women and men in relation to behaviour and morality. Especially in relation to sexual morality.
The name also plays on a song by the Norwegian musician and comedian Øystein Sunde, called “Frøken Bibelstripp”, wich means “Miss Bible Stripp” in English, which I also experience is characterized by double standards and a solid dose of male chauvinism.
Frøken Bibelstripp, or Miss Bible Strip, is more bloodthirsty and less afraid of what others might think and feel than I am.
On stage, I am a more confident version of myself.
Yes, I would clearly say that I am a feminist. What I think separates stripping and burlesque is the reason why you are on stage. When it comes to stripping, the intention is to please the spectator, and the person stripping becomes an object that is intended to please. When it comes to burlesque, I think the performer is a subject, who does not have the sole purpose of pleasing the spectator. It’s more about getting a message across and telling the story. The message can be subtle or loud – you decide.
In the beginning when I performed I was more confident and happy with my own body when I stood on the stage than in front of the mirror, but after working with burlesque over time, I have taken the confidence from the stage into my everyday life. Now I can admire myself in the mirror and be happy with my body. I have also become more confident that my body is attractive to a lot of people, even if it is not the “ideal body” we are thought to look like.
To me, burlesque has been liberating, as a woman and especially as a fat one. Burlesque is for me a way of expressing myself and being able to show that my body also deserves to stand on a stage and exist. I have learned that there is no need to feel ashamed of my body and keep it hidden, something I for many years thought I should.
Luna Sugarcane is Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice. Like a box of Berty Botts every flavour beans, you never know what you’re gonna get.
She is a strong, invulnerable, unapologetically playful character. I was going to say woman, but these last few years I’ve moved more and more away from the importance of showing a woman. What gender you get handed out really is of no importance to me anymore, as long as I feel empowered on stage. Luna can be everything from vulnerable to totally in your face making you feel a bit uncomfortable.
I used about a year to find the right name for me. At first my name was Deadly Delicious, but it really didn’t feel like me or the character I wanted to portray. I chose Luna because I’ve always been into Tarot cards, and my card is the Moon. Also, I wanted something light and playful, so I ended up on Sugarcane.
My biggest difference is that Luna truly does not give a fuck about what you think or feel about her. She does what she wants, and she lives her truest design. In a way Luna is what I want to be. I do feel that over the course of the years Luna has helped me find myself. She has helped me accept me for who I am and love me. The lines between Luna and myself are blurring out more and more the older I get, and I do not think that’s a bad thing.
When I perform, I do not perform to pleasure you, I perform to pleasure myself. I perform to make myself stronger, to feel empowered. I perform to get a release, I get to release all the tension and hurt from real life. I am so vulnerable, yet so strong!
Before I started doing burlesque I did not think of myself as a feminist but being on stage I realised how much performing really was about feminism. Who are you to tell me, that what I’m doing, what I’m feeling when I’m on stage is not feminist?
I started taking a burlesque class because it was out of my comfort zone and because I really did not like my body. My whole life I’ve considered myself fat. And in my mind at the time, fat meant ugly. It is such a broken way of thinking! Burlesque made me see myself in a new light. It made me see my most undesirable features as sexy and hot. Of course, there are still days when I look in the mirror and think “ugh”, but those days are fewer and fewer. I think I look hot, and when I’m on stage I know I look hot! I’m also less afraid of not showing the best angles. I can do ugly faces and moves, but I still feel amazing.
Burlesque is freedom. Freedom to be who I want and unapologetically so.It gives me a voice to tell a story in whatever way I want, be it political or just stupidly funny.
Novelty Starr is everything I feel I need to be. She is sexy, angry, scary, emotional and beautiful. She is an extension of all the personalities I have inside of me. She is my weapon against anyone who has a problem with who or what I am.
The meaning of Novelty is; the quality of being new, original, or unusual.
I chose this name because instead of being a recognisable artist, I like to change my character to match the feeling or message I want to deliver. So, for every new act, you will see a new character that will not necessarily be related to any other you would have seen from me. The hair, makeup, costume, and demeanour will change. I also like to add an element of something weird or different to challenge your concepts of sexy. Hence the unusual. And of course, I am a star, so I give you Novelty Starr!
I deal with a ton of anxiety and suffer from depression. I have had many years of not feeling good enough for anyone, and always been the ugly friend. I feel weak when it comes to standing up for myself, and always believe all the shit that is said to me. I sometimes feel I’m a waste of air…. Novelty Starr does not take shit from anyone. She is the sexiest person in the room. She will laugh at your sorry attempt to drag her down. She will haunt your dreams if you do not show respect. She is a hero, a role model, a bad ass bitch.
On stage I am who I wish I had the “balls” to be in life. I am confident and powerful.
I am a feminist, and I believe burlesque is an amazing feminist weapon. If you only see sex when you see a good burlesque show, you are the problem, not the powerhouse in the g-string. It’s about breaking the mold that society (men) has made for what THEY see as a perfect woman/man/person. We show the reality, the rawness, the power the body has. And it is never (at least in my case) to satisfy a man’s lust.
I have a lot of work to do to be able to love my body completely, but because of burlesque, my relationship with my body has slowly become healthier and more loving. On stage my body is my rock, my weapon. It’s the best way I can describe it. The more I do burlesque, the more Novelty Starr teaches me to respect myself. I would never be where I am without her. So yes, I need more work in private, but on stage I am a queen.
Burlesque for me is the best antidepressant there is. It is an artform that is massively underrated. It is more important for me than my own family…
That must be the hardest question I’ve ever gotten. But I choose POWER.
Teddy comes from the deep, dark forests of Norway and he is the sexual fantasy you never knew you had!
The name Teddy Milkshake started as an inside joke, when my partner, Fifi von Tassel, posted pictures of me on Instagram, showing only my beard and a milkshake. Someone came up with the name Teddy Milkskjegg. Milkskjegg is a word pun which means milkbeard, and I used this name the first year as a performer, until I started doing shows internationally and realised my name was difficult to pronounce. Since then I have used the name Teddy Milkshake.
The biggest difference between Teddy and me is that Teddy is a lot more in your face and loud, then I am. He is not uncomfortable about showing his body in public.
On stage, I am the personalisation of confidence and do not shy away from flirting with the audience.
Yes, I consider myself a feminist, but I do acknowledge my standpoint as a white, heterosexual cis-man.
I see no problem with being a feminist while doing burlesque, because you are in control of what you choose to do on stage and how much (if any) clothes you choose to remove. It is also a great way to show the middle finger to society and be yourself no matter who you are.
When it comes to the male gaze, I as a cis man have not felt this personally. But I have witnessed that there are those in the world of burlesque who try to dictate how and what a performer should look like, and it’s often highly sexualised, and moulding the person into the commercialised beauty standard.
I will add that there is nothing wrong with being sexual on stage, but it should be the performer, and only the performer, who decides what is ok and not, based on what they are comfortable with.
I have a good relationship with my body. The biggest difference between when I am on stage or in front of the mirror back home is the amount of audience. But to be fair I will sometimes see my body in a negative light, and feel I should change my appearance. I never do that when I am Teddy on stage.
Burlesque is for me a space where you can feel free to be whoever you want to be, and an arena to explore your creativity and your boundaries.