Being neither fat nor a bloke, you might wonder what compelled me to go and see performance artist Scottee’s brand-new show, Fat Blokes, on its preview night at the Dixon Studio, Southend.
After all, I’ve reached early middle age without ever being overweight, and aside from a flirtation with bright orange hair in my teenage years, I’ve spent most of my life blandly making sure I ‘fit in’.
But I went along because I’ve always been fascinated about lives that aren’t anything like mine, from which I might learn something. It also helped that Fat Blokes, billed as a “sort-of dance show about flab, double chins and getting your kit off in public”, is a refreshing antidote to the usual, very avoidable, Southend theatre fare. Case in point: Joe Pasquale starring in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em…coming soon, folks.
And so I fully expected to shut up, listen and be challenged by Fat Blokes. What I didn’t expect were the extremes of unvarnished emotion, outspoken bravery, simple kindness and plain old-fashioned joy that rattled through my mind like an out-of-control roller coaster throughout.
The hour-long show was performed by Scottee himself, together with four ‘fat blokes’ who had responded to a social media casting call. Now they were taking centre stage, some of them for the very first time. Each one shared intensely personal stories, there was plenty of unapologetic, in-your-face brazenness, and there was some rather wonderful dancing. But there was so very much more than that.
Perhaps it’s ironic that I decided to write this piece while I was in the gym, on the morning after I saw Fat Blokes. It was there that I realised the show’s effect on me needed so much more than the hasty Tweet I composed afterwards, in which I said I wanted to “tell the world to go and see #FatBlokesShow”. I’d said nowhere near enough.
Truth is, regardless of how large or small they are or have ever been, I think a lot of people can tell a personal story about fatness. Mine begins, as so many do, in childhood.
My parents were divorced, and my Dad was left in the thankless role of bringing up my two little sisters and me on his own. Times were hard, and our family wanted to make sure we had the best chances of success in life. As far as they were concerned that meant two things: we couldn’t drop our aitches, and we couldn’t be fat.
“Fat people didn’t exist during the war,” my Nan would sniff disapprovingly, while my Dad would criticise the amount of weight Sharon from EastEnders seemed to gain “with every episode”.
Meanwhile, Mum obsessed about thin-ness. On our access days I’d watch her calculate the exact amount of calories in every meal, before burning them all off afterwards with unsmiling bouts of at-home aerobics she would try persuading us to join.
Once, aged twelve, I was eating crisps in her bedroom, watching Kylie performing live in concert and trying to memorise her dance moves. Mum came in, looked at the TV screen for a moment, then back at me.
“You’re ten years younger than Kylie,” she said, “so why aren’t you at least as thin as her?”
She whipped the crisp packet away from me, whereupon I went home and chomped my way through a six-pack of chocolate bars, just to spite her. Back then, most of my eating was done because I was bored, or tired, or angry about how my life was turning out, rather than just because I was hungry. If truth be told, it still is now.
Though I was on the chubby side as a kid, I was never actually fat. I was cripplingly shy, and at school I was bullied relentlessly for being ugly and boring. But even I could see that the fat kids had it far worse. The cruellest nicknames were reserved just for them, and they were treated as though their bodies existed only for everybody else’s amusement. Though I’d love to say I stood up for them, the shameful truth is that I kept my head down, grateful I wasn’t them and resolving that I never would be.
I learned to stave off any more chubbiness, and any more criticism, with lots of exercise, and while these days the gym has taken over as a place to think and to give myself a dose of energy, I’d be lying if I said the idea of gaining weight still isn’t terrifying.
Even now, when I’m older and should be wiser, “have you lost weight?” is still the ultimate in compliments. It shouldn’t be, should it? But for so many people, it is. Losing weight means you don’t have to fear other people’s negative reactions to the way you look. Losing weight means you can look in the mirror and not fear your own negative reaction to what’s reflected back.
While Fat Blokes made me think about and question all of that, it did so much more.
“This is fat rebellion,” Scottee bellowed at his audience as the show opened, and it was. The atmosphere sparked and fizzed from the off, and what followed was unapologetically loud, bold and brazen. But it was also unapologetically honest, kind, loving and accepting. In the unforgiving world we’re living in, we need Fat Blokes.
Through its stories and its dancing, the show made me realise how much better you allow the world to become when you display your ‘flaws’ for everybody to see, own the hell out of them, yet still allow yourself to be vulnerable. That way, you’ll not only be ready to accept the flood of kindness that inevitably follows, but you’ll be better armed against anyone who sets out to hate or disapprove of you. Even when that person is yourself.
When the show finished I headed down to the bar area, where the performers were gathering for post-show drinks. Despite their own bravery, I didn’t have the nerve to go over and congratulate them. I felt as though they might look at the slim, boringly-dressed middle-aged woman standing in front of them and wonder why I was there at all.
Then, as I left the theatre, I saw one of them lighting up a cigarette outside.
“I know you’re probably sick of hearing this, but I just wanted to say…you were brilliant,” I said, in a dizzying flash of courage.
His face lit up. “I’ll never get sick of hearing that!” he said, beaming, just as my cab arrived and I got in.
As the cab rolled away, I resolved that one day I’ll be as brave and as honest and as kind as I just watched him be on that stage. Whatever size I end up, and however I look.