I never really understood this idiom. When I was growing up, female opera singers were powerful and larger than life. I saw this as a positive so why a fat lady singing was the sign of impending doom escaped me.
I sang in a choir from the time I was in the fifth grade to first year university. My choir directors constantly reminded us to take big breaths, to bring power from the belly through the diaphragm so we could make our big sounds, hit the high or low notes, and sustain long notes to the final finish.
Size was not something that was ever mentioned in choir. Ballerinas were svelte and graceful, but anyone could be a singer if they could carry a tune and show up to choir practice. My memories of choir are positive, unlike my memories of gym and dodgeball.
So imagine you have a talent for music. Imagine you can sing and decide you will make a career of it. Imagine you land a juicy role not long after the birth of your first child. The reviews are glowing, wonderful, in fact. Except for one.
Are you lauded for your fabulous range? your skill in interpreting the role? your passion for executing the director’s vision?
No, you are not. Instead the reviewer focuses on your size, how you look in the costumes, and the appropriateness of presenting a woman of size in a sexual role.
If I were that singer, I would be angry. I am not the singer, but I am angry n her behalf. This was the recent experience of American opera singer Kathryn Lewek. She took to social media to call out the fat shaming, the body trolling, and the veiled misogyny she received.
This isn’t the first time an opera singer’s size has been referenced in reviews and other media. Back in 2014, Tara Erraught was slammed by critics, not for her voice, but for her size. Head’s up: some nasty comments are reprinted below:
- “… a chubby bundle of puppy-fat.” — Andrew Clark, the Financial Times
- “It’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman’s plausible lover.” — Andrew Clements, The Guardian
- “This Octavian has the demeanor of a scullery-maid.” — Michael Church, The Independent
- “Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing.” — Richard Morrison in The Times of London
- “Tara Erraught is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?” — Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph
Here’s a thought: Let’s not comment on a human’s size, fat or thin. The fact these attitudes prevail is shocking. It’s not surprising that fitspo continues to promote the trope fat as unfit, when even female opera singers can’t do their work without someone erasing their talents and skills through body shaming.
Good for Lewek for speaking up and out about this behaviour.
What do you think? How does body shaming in art and sport affect us all generally, and women in particular?
MarthaFitAt55 is a writer and powerlifter in training.