REVIEW: big beautiful female theory
By Kat Vella
I don’t know why I am reviewing this book.
I feel grossly unqualified to review anything with even the suggestion it belongs to the ‘art world’, and big beautiful female theory by Eloise Grills definitely triggered my sense of art inferiority. I changed my mind on page two however when I read this:
“I’m wasting away but not in the conventional sense
in the sense that I am wasting my life thinking my body’s all wrong
and if I spent less time hating it I coulda been a female astronaut
I coulda been a female physicist a female doctor a female brain surgeon which of course is just a surgeon except it’s not”
Coming to this book in my late thirties, I cringe at the reality of my twenties wasted in gyms, eating liquid meals, pretending to myself that it was about ‘health’. I coulda been…. an interesting person to talk to.
Big beautiful female theory is a memoir, extended essay, comic artwork and art history critique by Eloise Grills. It explores how the female body, particularly the fat female body has been idealized, fetishized, demonized in perpetual cycles and how the legacy of this history plays out today from the personal to the universal. It took me a month to read in its entirety, but I have to say, despite my ignorance of art, it asked confronting and uncomfortable questions for me that I think all women should ask themselves. Or not, don’t listen to me, I know nothing. But trust me, you’ve got to read this book.
Grills is an artist and writer hailing from Bendigo, on Dja Dja Wurrung land in Victoria. She has won countless awards and featured in many outstanding publications. I first came across her work thanks to Instagram’s algorithm and immediately became obsessed with her comics and illustrations for their gritty truths.
From the first few pages of the opening essay, reading quotes from Barbara L. Frederickson, Roxanne Gay, Laura Mulvey and Nicki Minaj, I felt personally attacked as a mindless perpetrator of body shaming, yet simultaneously seen and acknowledged as a victim of it travelling through each scribbled page.
I live in a thin body, which is at least one criterion I meet of the ridiculous standards set for what a woman’s body should be, and yet I have hated it for most of my (reasonably) young life. Grills writes in the opening piece titled big beautiful female theory, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by body positivity’. I have attempted to love my body, to call myself ‘hot’, ‘sexy’, ‘queen’ (vomit*), I’ve tried not to tie my worth to my body and I have failed again and again. As much as I try to convince myself that my grown-out armpit hair is enough to say I don’t conform to this world of beauty bullshit anymore, it’s just rubbish, I totally do, and Grills has helped me understand why.
In the essay the fat bitch in art, Grills invites us into seeing art from her perspective as she idles through an art gallery. She recounts how the fat female body has been obsessed over, consumed and spat out by centuries of old, white men and our culture’s obedience to their “genius”. Grills asks,
‘Is it possible to learn from history, let alone rewrite it? I am trying to embrace the fat body, to love the fat body, to reverse these entrenched notions and how they have influenced me, subconsciously and not.’
It’s about here that I put the book down for a good couple of weeks because I’d had this revelation, that honestly shouldn’t have been 'a revelation' because it's pretty fucking obvious to any woman but to me it was hard to swallow. I fear fatness. I fear being fat and I call myself a supposed feminist. Perhaps I’m late to the party, but I was paralysed by the shame this produced in me. It disgusted me. The real kicker for me though is that it revealed that the love and respect I have for myself is absolutely conditional on me staying thin. And that’s fucking shit.
The revelations continued as I got deeper into the book. From Grills’ reflections on her own mental health recovery in radical self care to criticism of the ‘likeable-but-messy girl, complex and creative good-girl/bad girl’ confessional, Grills reminded me again and again that there is no stage of a woman’s life where she can live without the public and personal scrutiny of her identity, be it physical or otherwise. Grills is simultaneously exposing and liberating with her uncompromising honesty and gifted story telling.
For me, big beautiful female theory is a blazing example of the overwhelming power of personal stories. Grills showed me how the examination of our own experiences can illuminate how culture and community push and pull us in all sorts of directions. After reading this book I feel I understand myself a little better; all the unloved bits, the ‘suits’ I wear to prove I’m worthy to others, why I’m definitely okay with getting Botox before I’m 40, and also not.
In my unqualified opinion it is a must read for all 21st Century feminists. Fuck it, all 21st Century women. Period. Enjoy!
To purchase a copy head to Booktopia or Readings. To learn more about Eloise Grills and to purchase more of her work, head to her website.