Selina Thompson in Chewing the Fat - Photo credit to This is Ruler
Selina Thompson does not do anything by halves. In her work as a performance artist she has constructed an eight foot high tumbleweave, built a replica job centre and been personally transformed into a giant cake. Currently preparing for a national tour of her one woman show Chewing the Fat I am curious what creative wonders lie in store. A native Brummie, Thompson is incredibly driven in her work and reveals that a lot of her performances have been inspired by her own life experiences.
Chewing the Fat is the first of a two part body of work titled The Edible Woman which the artist describes as an exploration of body image and food. In an age where fat is a four letter word, Thompson’s show challenges the ideals and pressures that have infiltrated our society. An absolute joy to interview, Thompson is passionate and astute as we discuss her show and the rather weighty issue of self-acceptance.
What inspired you to create this act?
In my final year of uni, everybody had to make an end of year performance. Within my year a few of the girls, myself included had eating disorders or toxic relationships with their bodies. I think a lot of girls go through that and I think university intensifies and exaggerates that. I noticed that lots of conversations were happening about other people’s bodies or eating habits, but people didn’t seem confident to talk about their own. I wanted to find a way of talking about how I felt about my body and my relationship with food authentically and honestly. It’s difficult to explain that slight feeling of crazy that people can get when they’re on diets and it’s hard to talk about binge eating and how out of control that can feel. So I wanted to make something that would hopefully make people laugh but would also oil the wheels to get those conversations happening.
I think people are made to feel that being fat is a bad moral choice, that it’s disgusting. There’s also this perception that a bigger body means poor health, which I 100 per cent refute.
What form does Chewing the Fat take? It sounds sort of like a giant food fight.
(Laughs.) Kind of; a food fight with myself. It’s a one woman show; it’s got elements of stand up, storytelling, and monologue and there’s snacks and some people throw rice pudding around. It’s all quite warm and quite chatty. It’s a collection of these stories from my life and me representing all of the research that I’ve done.
What do you think has led to such a huge issue around food and body image?
I think it’s always been there. When I was researching I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf which I think demonstrates this need to keep women obsessed with their bodies. I think it has intensified in the last 30 years. Maybe that’s got something to do with the rise in celebrity culture. Maybe it’s got something to do with social media; so you’re constantly presenting yourself for scrutiny, for ‘likes’. I think we also talk about food in a weird way and food can be this weird fashionable thing as well. ‘Are you eating quinoa and chia seeds?’ ‘Let’s put taxes on pasties but let’s not put taxes on foie gras.’ All this talk about an obesity crisis as well; I think people are made to feel that being fat is a bad moral choice, that it’s disgusting. There’s also this perception that a bigger body means poor health, which I 100 per cent refute. There’s just this swirling intensity.
What other research did you do for this piece?
I used to go to Weight Watchers and Slimming World groups, and interview the women afterwards. I think there’s something a little bit dangerous about people running diet programmes for profit, as obviously their business models are gonna be most successful and continuous if that diet fails. The work’s heavily based on my autobiography so I spoke to my mum a lot about what my relationship has been like with my body as someone on the outside looking in. In Bradford I did some work in a school talking to children about their perceptions of fat. I also did a bit of work in a nursing home; a couple of days there speaking to people who were as old as 92, about their body image and where they feel those changes in body image have come in during the last 50 years. I also spoke to academics, I spoke to a couple of personal trainers, asked them how they approach larger clients. So I spoke to a lot of people. I was obsessed and fixated on it for a long time. I think maybe part of it was me letting go of defining my body by the way that other people looked at it. The more conversations I had, the more I began to set my terms of beauty for myself. I think it was an important, redemptive time for me.
You spent time in a school. What age group were the children?
They were year one and reception. So we used flash cards of two identical people; one fat, and one thin and asked the children which one they thought was happier and why. Which one was cleverer and why. Which one was more beautiful and why. It was seeing what their language around that was and asking them to draw a fat person and asking them what fat was to them.
Did they lean more positively towards one image than the other?
The answers were more varied which I found hopeful. Every now and then you would get an answer that would be upsetting. There was one little girl who wanted to be a dancer and who kept saying how a fat person couldn’t be a dancer and that she was worried because she could see that she was fat already. But there was one little girl called Molly who I talk about in the show and she said “I like fat people. Santa’s fat and he’s great. My dad’s fat and he’s my favourite.” I found that often when there were children who thought fat was a bad thing that was ingrained but a lot of them had not started to think in those terms yet. I wonder if it’s a household thing. If you’re in a family where people are dieting maybe your relationship with your body starts to develop in a tricky way quite early. It was interesting to see where these thought are forming and to see that they were just as prevalent in boys as they were in girls.
Selina Thompson in Chewing the Fat - Photo credit to This is Ruler
Originally your family is from the Caribbean. In your experience, do you think the African- Caribbean attitude to body image differs from that in the West?
I think it varies. Both my parents were born here but my mother’s family is from Monserrat and my dad’s family is from Jamaica. It’s difficult in black British culture because you’re caught between the two. But I buy a lot of dresses from Africa and it’s so easy to find my size, but if I look for that here it’s completely unheard of. Also the language around bigger bodies in Caribbean and African dialects feels more open. There’s more words for it and the words seem more accepting. I think it’s probably easier to be a big black girl than a big white girl. If that’s OK to say?!
Absolutely OK to say if that’s your opinion! Do you mean that it’s easier in Britain?
In general. Because I think that culturally there’s this figure of a big black woman that exits already, although it’s rubbish to be boxed into that stereotype and I think it’s a desexualised one. But weirdly I think people gravitate towards it in a way that I don’t think they do if you’re a bigger white woman. I found that the way that bigger white women spoke about their bodies was different from the way that bigger black women spoke about their bodies. I’m making a show about black British identity next year and I’ll probably interrogate it more then.
Aside from The Edible Woman, are you working on anything else?
We all have days where we look in the mirror and nothing seems to be how we want it to look. I think it’s good to take an hour out of your day to sit down and explore that.
Yes. At the beginning of this year I made a show called Dark and Lovely which was about Afro hair; that oft discussed and still thorny issue. So I built a giant tumbleweave and the performance took place inside that. I was resident at hairdressers and retailers in Chapeltown in Leeds so I learnt to weave, perm, braid and cut afro hair. Again I was engaged in lots of debates with people about black hair and a lot of it was about respectability actually. So next year I’m going to be touring that work; finding out how I can build a tumbleweave in every venue without it taking five days! I’ve also made a body of work called It Burns it all Clean which is looking at unemployment and job centres. That involves building a job centre and playing the employment system like it was a game. So that involved me spending a lot of time in job centres and talking to people who had been unemployed for a long period of time. There’s something really odd about job centres ’cos you come face to face with your government and how they feel about often the most vulnerable people in society. It’s not a very pretty thing to come into contact with so I wanted to explore that.
Is most of your work as a performance artist inspired by your own experiences?
Yes, it is. After uni I was unemployed for a while as many people are, so I was applying for jobs and going to the job centre every week with my form filled out perfectly. My advisor and I got on really well, so often we’d just talk about his job and what struck me as how angry he was. Looking around you could see the anger in other people. Job centres are strange places; people are moved from one waiting area to another to avoid pockets of tension building up. So I wanted to know if it was incidental or if it was engineered that way. So that inspired that show. With Dark and Lovely, well I shaved my hair off at 16 because it was so relaxed and damaged I just thought ‘Let’s start again’ and the response was mental. A lot of people thought I’d done it for attention but I just did it because it seemed the most sensible thing to do.
I was suspended from school for three weeks. When it grew back and it was natural, I noticed the way people spoke about my hair was different. Even though I’ve had my hair like this for eight years, sometimes some of my cousins will say I only get away with it because I’m an artist and don’t need a real haircut. I’ve got nothing against relaxers or weaves per-say but its strange when you think there’s only one way we can wear our hair and I want to explore why we feel that. So whenever the context is right there’s many things I want to explore.
Why should people come and see Chewing the Fat?
First and foremost because it’s entertaining. It’s fun and in places it’s even beautiful. Also it’s about something that affects us all. We all have days where we look in the mirror and nothing seems to be how we want it to look. I think it’s good to take an hour out of your day to sit down and explore that. Also people should come along because I made it for them and I want them to see it.