By Emma Volard, Jake Amy and Hugh Heller
From Emma: So far, 2020 has been a year of ambiguity, over-sanitised dry hands, loss of people-skills and fluctuations in body mass. For some, it’s also been a year of relentless self-doubt and learning how to not be a fucking misogynist. We’ve seen online activism reach its peak and the masses band together towards dismantling systems of oppression. And I myself have seen my perspective of self teeter between the realms of crippling anxiety, self-deprecation and total self-confidence.
My relationship with body image is complex and I’ve definitely had my fair share of comments tossed my way about weight gain, health and dieting. I like to pride myself on being a strong, independent and empowered woman, and for the most part I am. But there are days where I am self-conscious and hyper-critical about my own physical appearance. However, in this time of isolation I’ve found solace and renewed confidence in online conversations with empowered women and gender nonconforming people from the so-called Australian music scene. This experience inspired me to deepen these conversations with a series of interviews with some of Naarm’s most empowering women and gender nonconforming artists. I spoke with alt-RnB artist Thando, whose body confidence and musicality I’ve admired, about her personal relationship with body image and her negation of white beauty standards. Here’s an abridged version of our conversation.
Can you talk about your relationship with your body?
It was not until I got pregnant that I realised how incredible the vessel I have is. I know that I may not have society’s stock-standard “good-looking” body, but I’ve always appreciated it and loved all its differences nonetheless. Those differences help set me apart. As far as my personality goes, I’m kind of a weird person, so I guess it makes sense to make this the norm. I never go out of my way to maintain a look or anything. After the responsibility of nourishing a whole human, I treat it with more respect. I honour my body.
How has your identity impacted your perspective on body image?
Body image is not something I really ever think about - I’ve always been quite blasé about it. It’s allowed me to be very comfortable in my own skin and gives me the confidence to express whatever I feel, whether that be through the way I dress or in the way I move. In life, I just kind of soak up whatever energies are around me and use that to carry myself. What other people think of me is not my business (that’s something that I learnt from RuPaul).
Not a lot of clothes that can express my personality come in my size, so I can’t shop at stock-standard stores. It’s probably a bit cliché but I think there aren’t as many options. I can’t just walk into Bardot and buy a thing. I'm a size 22 - there’s nothing at Bardot. I think they only size up to 16, so I have to look outside the box for ways that I can express who I am. I buy a lot online from overseas retailers, local designers or go op-shopping to try and find something I like. Standard sizing in Australia is so limited. In the US, they cater for a demographic that tends to be larger anyway, so there’s a bit more variety there.
Has being a person of colour (POC) impacted your perception on body image?
I definitely do not speak for all people of colour, but yes. I’m from the Ndebele tribe in Zimbabwe where big women are revered. The body standards there are the complete opposite to those of the Western world, so I’ve always grown up being that bitch. I’m juicy, thick, have a fat ass and stomach pouch... it’s all characteristics of being a woman from a favourable background. Eating good indicates your social standing - your family must have money. When I moved to Australia, I remember my family would comment on my body and be like, “It's going to be so easy for you to find a husband and navigate the dating world - no one’s going to want us because we’re skinny”.
At the time, I didn't really understand it: I was not undesirable, but if I flipped through any magazine, all I saw was skinny white women. I just wasn’t that. Whenever I navigated white Australia, I was not ever looked at as the hot friend or the viable dating option. I was always the fat friend. And yet, there’s a whole culture of POC people (and not just from Zimbabwe) that used to look at me in a way that would glorify my body image. Basically all non-white people told me that I was a desirable woman because I had some meat on my bones. It was a weird space, and it only made sense to love my body the way that it was. I think I’d be doing a great disservice to other people that look like me to not embrace what I have.
Obviously, I think it’s important to be transparent about this as well: I’m not promoting bad habits and unhealthy lifestyles - we need to accept the body that we have. I’m still quite a fit person, even if it doesn’t look like I am. I have the stamina to be on stage for three hours at a time, dancing and singing. I do my cardio and chase a one-year-old toddler around all the time. I know that I’m healthy. I just don’t look like someone who is skinny and goes out of their way to maintain their weight.
In society, there are so many expectations of body-positive people to all have a similar shape and style. Body positivity is a bit of a weird term because I think it can imply that people who don’t have “beautiful bodies” are irrelevant. I’ve actually tried to steer away from saying that I’m body positive. This is the first time I’ve ever really spoken about my body in this context.
It’s hard. People want to make sure that the whole spectrum of representation is represented, and whether I’m modelling or being the spokesperson for something, I tick three boxes: I’m a woman, I’m black, I have a “fat” body (and I don't find that offensive at all - it’s the same as saying someone has a “thin” body). I know that I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities because I tick so many boxes on that diversity spectrum.
Being put in the forefront increases visibility for people that look like me. I’m very proud to have been able to get certain opportunities because of that. Because if you told me that I’d get those opportunities 15 years ago, I probably would’ve laughed.
Do you see yourself represented in the Australian music industry?
Yes and no. I see myself [represented] in women such as Emma Donovan and Kylie Auldist, but then also, it’s interesting to think that they’re not super mainstream artists either... I can't really think of anyone off the top of my head. I don’t know if that means I’m just not paying enough attention, or those people genuinely aren’t there.
I think back to when I was a little girl watching Australian Idol and seeing Paulini on TV for the first time. I was like, holy shit... there’s a black girl on telly - I could totally audition on a show like this! Seeing her up there definitely gave me the confidence and self-assurance that I needed to start pursuing a dream in music.
I actually find it quite interesting when I think about representation of body-positive women in our media. I can’t actually think of anyone. No, I do not see myself represented, Emma.
E: How does that make you feel?
I’m kind of disappointed, you know? And I think everyone is making a conscious effort to represent a lot more people: people who are gender diverse, culturally diverse... showing people who're able-bodied and also people who are disabled. We still need to do better though. It’d be really good to see people like me in newspapers and magazines, and not just in a tokenised way. Sometimes our bodies are invisible, and that’s really disheartening.
There’s a darker part to auditions for things: so, you know, a casting agency for modelling has everyone participate in an audition but won’t explicitly tell everyone that they don’t actually want to see certain body shapes, and they sort of just don’t select those people.
I guess the question becomes, “What can we do about it?”.
Where do you look to see yourself represented?
I think I gravitate towards seeing myself, if that makes any sense. For example, my saved Spotify songs are mostly by black women, and it’s not even intentional. I think it’s because I subconsciously want to see myself represented in those spaces.
A lot of that comes from a lack of representation in my early days. I got here about 20 years ago and was the only black kid at my primary school in Canberra. I know that there were populations of African migrants in other cities and regional towns, but in Canberra I felt very invisible. I had to do my best to fit in with everything that was going on around me. I found myself dialling down my blackness in any way I knew how. I never wore Afrocentric hairstyles. I went to the ends of the earth to change my accent so that no one ever said anything about it. I still have a couple of words where my partner will playfully say, “I don't know what that means”, but it’s still a reminder of how othered I am. As a result of fighting it so hard when I was younger and trying to reclaim my blackness in adulthood, I naturally gravitate towards anything I see myself represented in.
American media is kind of where I fit. I really love Jazmine Sullivan and her music videos. The people she features in her content resemble me the most. Beyoncé's HΘMΣCΘMING was amazing, because it didn’t just feature incredible show-fit dancers and backing singers. She had dancers that looked like me! Like, big girls. With thighs and booties and I was like, yes. It’s so exciting to see that because it’s a testament to being able to achieve anything you set your mind to and not letting society’s standards of ableism or beauty get in the way of that. It’s really important to be able to see yourself represented everywhere. Everywhere. Even if I've had opportunities given to me because of tokenism or quotas, I'm getting that festival slot or airplay or interview because someone wants to see what I’ve got to offer and hear what I've got to say. I’ll take that platform. I don’t overthink it.
How has your body image impacted the way you present yourself as an artist?
Majorly. It’s funny - I find that a lot of my fan base actually consists of a lot of middle-aged women, which is amazing. I think that largely came from being on The Voice when I was 20. Interestingly, I found there was a lot more acceptance of my body image when I dressed more conservatively. I guess that kind of mirrored what the crowd who came to see me was comfortable with.
As I matured in my artistry, I took more risks and wrote music that was a bit more risqué, raunchy and vulgar. I obviously wanted to reflect that in the way that I presented myself on stage. So I’d wear a dress with a little bit more cleavage and raise the sex appeal, which is something that I’ve really enjoyed doing. I don’t think people are used to seeing a woman my size own their sexuality like that. If they do, it’s usually in pornography and they’re not going to talk about it. This was a way for me to playfully challenge what people think is sexy or beautiful, and maybe get them to consider that bigger bodies have just as much sex appeal [as smaller bodies]. Because everybody is desirable.
The feedback I got from that was awesome, because people really relate to seeing someone that doesn’t conform to society’s standard of “sexy” owning their sexuality and doing it so comfortably, without being contrived. I definitely attribute that to having a really healthy relationship with a healthy sex life and being made to feel wonderful and sexy every single day, which really helps me elevate my body image. If I can give the same thing that my partner gives to me to my audiences, then I know that I’m doing my job. I want to help my audience feel empowered. That’s why releasing a song like Naked is so important to me.
I want people to appreciate what is beneath their layers. You can be insecure and shy and not like certain things about yourself, but when you’re completely naked there’s nothing to hide behind. You have to be able to embrace every part of yourself. That’s why I talk about getting to know someone and everything that makes them who they are beside all the material stuff you see on the outside.
Have white beauty standards had any implications on your artistry?
No, not really. My sisters helped me realise that I was sexy. I was like, “You know what? Yeah”! Because of that, I’ve always walked with confidence and pride. I’ve never been ashamed of what I have, and because of that, I’ve never really compared myself to my white counterparts. White beauty standards exist in this sphere, and people can definitely succumb to the pressures that come from those standards. I think that if you have a really great support network around you (with people that hype you up everyday), you can counter those standards with something completely different and beautiful.
I’m worthy of the swipe-right on Tinder. I’m worthy of all the things, because I’m beautiful, bold and sexy. And everyone can feel beautiful, bold and sexy. I don’t keep people around me that don’t make me feel good about myself.
At the end of the day, people who fit within white beauty standards are still beautiful. I think everyone is absolutely stunning. And while I don’t see myself being represented in all campaigns, I can still appreciate beauty. As long as people are happy in their own bodies, then I’m happy.
I think there’s definitely room to diversify beauty standards. Maybe we should just get rid of the standards altogether? There’s no realistic representation of what an average person looks like anyway. None of my friends fit into these standards at all. We all look so different. We all have a different way of looking at ourselves and appreciating the bodies that we have.
Should we be talking about body image when there are more pressing social/political issues?
I think that body image is a pressing social/political issue. Look at the way that women’s bodies are policed in every society, every workplace (sex workers)... um, hello? You can care about other political/social issues as well as this, but there’s a lot of things going on in the world and I think we’ll drive ourselves crazy if we try to fix everything at once.
Everything that you fight for is reflective of where you are in life, and most definitely dependent on your privilege. One of the hardest things I’m dealing with is how I move through the world as a black woman, what my body image is, and how I'm perceived. And that’s definitely not something that my counterparts back in Zimbabwe are thinking about. Comparing an issue to something else undermines it. There’s a lot of “what about-isms” that happen, but they literally do nothing. I think about Beyoncé and her film Black Is King. A lot of people are not impressed with her exploitation of African culture and her inability to speak out on the injustices happening in Africa. There’s a lot of corruption, there’s famine, there’s disease, but like, we can’t really expect a pop star to be the voice of change. You’ve got to look at it realistically - it’s the law makers that allow this corruption to happen. You can’t expect someone to end corruption in Africa because they use Africa in their music. You know? I wouldn’t expect this conversation to be the thing that changes Australia’s perspective on body image and ends white beauty standards in Australia. Online activism is great because it raises awareness, but it’s actually more about what work is done after that.
I think because we’re here in Australia, we need to use our privilege to address what’s happening in our own backyard. There are injustices here to First Nations people. How do we address these problems and situations? What you feel strongest about is what you fight hardest for. That’s what you’ve got to put your energy towards. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Do you think women’s expressions of sexuality are taboo? If so, why?
I think they are, and I don’t think they should be. I think that the patriarchy (because there’s also women that encourage this) demands for women to be seen and not heard, and even when women are seen, they have to be very respectful, dainty and non-vulgar. They can’t openly talk about the things that they want. They can’t talk about their desires, they can’t express their sexuality. And then, you know, you have people that will come out and challenge that, like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion in their new collaboration WAP. There’s so much criticism about them speaking so openly about their vaginas and people are offended and yet their male counterparts are releasing songs about fucking bitches and nailing them against wall. And that's acceptable?! I think that anyone who identifies as a woman who finds themselves shocked by WAP’s message should probably think about why they think that, considering their male counterparts have been doing that since the beginning of hip hop. Don't talk about how vulgar and trashy these women are because they're singing about their vaginas. Literally, let's look up every male who's ever sung about his dick and then we'll have the conversation. Even outside of music, think about how it’s just seen as promiscuous for a dude to sleep with a bunch of women, whereas if a woman is sexually liberated in the same way then she’s a whore. It doesn’t make sense. I think it’s archaic. I think it’s stupid. I think if women want to fuck 100 dudes, they should be able to fuck 100 dudes and have no one say anything about it. I don’t think someone’s sexual expression is anyone else’s business. I hate that it’s a taboo thing. I hate that when women who want to put it in their music or in their art it's considered vulgar. There's just literally no reason for it. I just kind of dip my toe in the water a little bit. Jill Scott is probably one of my biggest inspirations and her music is very sexually explicit in a very tasteful and fun way... I don't fellate my microphone because I don't want to have that conversation with my mum, but I still try to push boundaries of what I think people will be comfortable with. It’s really frustrating and I really thought that by the time I'd reached adulthood we'd have moved past all that stuff, but it seems like society definitely still has a really long way to go, especially when it comes down to basic things like double standards. Sexuality is taboo when it really shouldn't be.
What change would you like to see happen in the so-called Australian music industry within the next five years?
I would like to see people like me holding higher positions of power. If there’s a board for the ARIAs and all these record labels, you know, the gatekeepers, I think there has to be a fairer representation of what the scene itself looks like. And if that doesn't happen, then I’ll have to do it myself. But yeah, I definitely want to see more people that look like me represent the masses in those positions of power. It’s the people upstairs, and it’s about numbers, it’s about maintaining power. It should actually be about equity and sharing some of that around. Only then will we see a much more level playing field for everybody. And five years is more than enough time for that to happen.
Keep up to date with Thando here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.