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Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

of Body Weight and Society
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Drawing on Burlesque: Excessive Display

and Fat Desire in the Work of Cristina
Jamie Ratliff
Published online: 22 May 2013.

To cite this article: Jamie Ratliff (2013) Drawing on Burlesque: Excessive Display and Fat Desire in
the Work of Cristina Vela, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, 2:2,
118-131, DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2013.779557

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2013.779557


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Fat Studies, 2:118–131, 2013
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 2160-4851 print/2160-486X online
DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2013.779557

Drawing on Burlesque: Excessive Display and

Fat Desire in the Work of Cristina Vela

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Often viewed as asexual, the fat female subject has been

discursively excluded from traditional expressions of fantasy, a
cultural failing that has led to a paucity of empowering represen-
tations of fat sexuality. Contemporary performances of burlesque
provide the stage for redefining the fat performer as a desiring sub-
ject. Fat burlesque also finds two-dimensional representation in
the drawings of Cristina Vela, small-scale illustrations of fat bod-
ies engaged in erotic and playful striptease known as Las Gordas,
a translation that critically engages the politics of imaging fat
burlesque as a means of imagining fat agency through a discourse
of excess.

KEYWORDS burlesque, carnival, excess, gordas, Vela

Born in 1983, Cristina Vela is a Spanish artist and illustrator from Jáen, a
city in southern Spain. She studied fine arts at the University of Sevilla,
graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2008, and since then has
won a number of regional and national (Spanish) awards and art prizes for
her illustrations and comics. She is most well known for a graphic novel
she penned (literally with Bic ink) called Medusas y Ballenas (Jellyfish and
Whales, 2009, published by Bizancio Ediciones), a story about a woman’s
exploration of eroticism and memory.
Vela has also gained some notoriety in Spain for a series of small fig-
ural drawings completed in 2010–2011 that showcase the fat female body
as an object of corporeal desire. Known collectively as Las Gordas (The Fat
Women), this series features a parade of fat ladies, alone or in groups, naked
or scantily clad in minimal lingerie, striking striptease poses as they strut and
shake on an invisible stage. An installation view from a collective exhibit in

Address correspondence to Jamie Ratliff, 126 Wysteria Lane, Georgetown, KY 40324.

E-mail: jamie.ratliff.79@gmail.com

Drawing on Burlesque 119

which Vela participated at the Murnau Art Gallery in Sevilla, Spain, in 2011
(Figure 1) displays the various ways these gorditas are deployed across Vela’s
paper canvases: chorus lines of corpulent bunnies, swinging pole dancers,
feline doms with leather tails, and spectacular stripteasers whose fleshy bel-
lies, thighs, and breasts are decorated with lacy stockings, frilly panties, and
pasties. Part Willendorf “Venuses,” part Lili St. Cyr, these linear drawings joy-
fully jiggle in ways that defy current Western standards of ideal femininity
and eroticism that have denied such pleasures to the fat female subject.
Often viewed as asexual, or desexualized, the fat female subject has
been discursively excluded from traditional expressions of fantasy, a cul-
tural failing that accounts for the virtual lack of positive and empowering
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visual representations of fat sexuality.1 The recent revival of contempo-

rary forms of burlesque performance, particularly the growing interest in
fat neo-burlesque, however, provides the stage for one popular pursuit that,
according to social activist D. Lacy Asbill, “redefines the fat body as an object
of sexual desire and as home to a desiring sexual subject.”2 Predicated on the
sensual revelation of the body through erotic striptease dancing and the cel-
ebration of the large female form, the physical performance of fat burlesque
has found two-dimensional representation in Vela’s drawings, a translation

FIGURE 1 Christina Vela, Las Gordas, 2010–11. (Reprinted with permission by the artist)
(color figure available online).
120 J. Ratliff

that can be used to critically engage the politics of imaging fat burlesque as
a means of imagining fat agency. This essay analyzes Vela’s Las Gordas as
images that provide entry into theorizing fat burlesque, both on the stage and
on the page, as a distinctly subversive representational strategy of corporeal
Burlesque, both in its historical and contemporary forms, is an asser-
tion of the sexual and erotic self. Originally a form of musical theater
parody, burlesque as a performance began as a nineteenth-century British
phenomenon, brought to the United States in the 1860s. Defined as a
type of variety show that comically mocked theatrical and literary texts as
well as current events, according to Maria Elena Buszek, the show’s “focal
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point was [often] not the drama itself, but the performances of scandalously
clad actresses and . . . modern-day ‘chorus girls.’”3 By most accounts, neo-
burlesque is closer to traditional striptease than the theatrical tableaux of
its historical antecedents, but it still retains much of the original spirit of
the sensual extravaganza.4 Many of these qualities can be seen in Vela’s
Figure 2 is a drawing from an exhibit of Vela’s Las Gordas at the Galeria
Trindade in Oporto, Portugal (June, 2011). It pictures three performers wear-
ing frilly underwear, striped thigh-high stockings, and high-heeled dance
shoes. Standing full-frontal, they display their voluptuous bodies for the
viewer. The two flanking dancers’ bodies mirror each other with chore-
ographed symmetry, each with one hip cocked to raise a knee and expose
a plump inner thigh, their exterior hands seductively tapping their top hats.
The middle dancer seems to float between them, her (jazz) hands joyously
raised to the sky as if they have just released the shower of pink confetti
that dots the white space above them. The drawing demonstrates the kind of
bawdy playfulness that characterizes the atmosphere of a burlesque cabaret.
The titillating give-and-take of flesh that excites the audience to whistle and
hoot is matched here by the use of craft materials such as pink pearls and red
heart-shaped stickers to conceal, yet call attention to, the dancers’ nipples.
Neo-burlesque tends to draw heavily from its historical format, in terms
of costumes, routines, and content, allusions that are also present within the
Las Gordas series.5 In Figure 2, the striped stockings are reminiscent of can-
can dancers, and the top hats a nod to the fact that in the “old” burlesque
form, women performers routinely acted out both male and female roles, an
historical remnant that may be related to the “cross-dressing” that is often
included in newer shows: top hats, men’s boxers, and white starched shirts
giving way to unsheathed tresses, frilly thongs, and lacy bras or pasties.6
Elsewhere the gorditas, or little fat women, wear early-twentieth-century
bathing costumes, mid-century Playboy bunny outfits, and pin-up garb that
all read as vintage. These costumes are mixed with more contemporary lin-
gerie and bondage outfits that give the series a wide temporal scope among
the assortment of its many “acts.” Taken as a whole, the series—with its
Drawing on Burlesque 121
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FIGURE 2 Christina Vela, Las Gordas, 2010–11. (Reprinted with permission by the artist)
(color figure available online).

magicians with top hats and wands frolicking alongside “magically” appear-
ing rabbits, more sexually aggressive performers in shiny black leather or
vinyl catsuits with whips, and women sitting on trapeze swings, binding
each other with ropes, or sneaking kisses behind hats—showcases a range
of erotic expressions while re-enacting the original variety show format.
These formal references to burlesque carry with them the meaning
of burlesque as a potentially subversive act, as well: one that attempts to
recode femininity by simultaneously embracing certain tenets of historical
femininity and yet exposing those same tenets to be socially constructed by
adopting a model of excessive gender performativity. As Buszek notes, even
early examples of burlesque were viewed in the nineteenth century by crit-
ics as disruptive to societal expectations of femininity. The dancer, whose
public sexuality was accepted by bourgeois society as an “embodiment of
ideal female beauty” offered a model of femininity that existed outside the
dichotomous extremes of the good, domestic woman and the maligned pros-
titute; thus, burlesque provided a site for staging “transgressive identities that
were celebrated and made visible in the theater.”7 And while visibility is
essential for the affirmation of alternative identities, what originally made
burlesque women an “unsettling” spectacle was “not simply their presence
on the stage, but the spectacle of their conscious contemporaneity and sexual
122 J. Ratliff
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FIGURE 3 Christina Vela, Las Gordas, 2010–11. (Reprinted with permission by the artist)
(color figure available online).

The consciousness of the performer is also on display in drawings such

as Teiboleras (Figure 3), which shows six “strippers” or “table-dancers” strik-
ing an array of sexual, coquettish poses.9 Their bodies are turned at various
angles to the viewer, ranging from a forward stance to profile views, and yet
their faces, although blank, are all turned to “face” outward. They meet and
return the gaze of the viewer not with their eyes, but with their bodies, an
action that is most clearly demonstrated by the first performer in the line-up,
to the far left of the composition. Dressed only in black tights, high heels,
and pasties, she stands full frontal, one foot firmly planted, giving her wide
hips a weighty sway to one side. With both arms raised above her head
to grasp a whip, she defiantly exposes the full expanse of her body. Such
“awarishness” is the hallmark of burlesque performance and what allows it
to still function within the realm of parody. The dances are characterized by
the interaction between the dancer and members of the audience, who are
directly acknowledged through gestures like eye contact, smiles, winks, and
even the singling out of specific spectators with flirty expressions.10 Despite
the lack of facial expressions, these gestures are still communicated by the
teiboleras. The second dancer bends over in profile, as if presenting her
buttocks to be lashed by the whip-wielding vamp on the left. Her face, how-
ever, looks outward to her audience, a gloved hand reaching up before her
face in a motion that communicates as much expression as if her face were
fully drawn. One finger positioned as if in front of pursed lips, a coy move
Drawing on Burlesque 123

that in conjunction with innocently “smizing” eyes conventionally signals a

bad girl, about to be punished.11 Such interactions, both on the page and
the stage, break down barriers between the audience and performer, and
problematize the traditional subject-object relations that would render the
performer passive before the scopophilic gaze of a patriarchal audience.12
The social dynamic of visual dominance is also flaunted in Teiboleras. The
six performers are arranged in pairs that act out power relations: the sexy
dom about to whip her coy submissive; the middle performer who stands
over and steps upon her floored companion; and the final dancer whose
hands are tied above her head as her mate parades her assets tantalizingly
out of the reach of her bound partner and the viewer. These women take
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on both active and passive roles, performing just as much for each other
as they do for an audience that is similarly invited to look, but not touch.
The difference, of course, is that the burlesque dancer looks back rendering
the domineering gaze of the viewer, in many ways, nullified. Indeed, “the
‘payoff’ in new burlesque is the mutually constitutive pleasure of performer
and audience.”13
Much of this “payoff” comes from the fact that, in recent years, Neo-
burlesque has catered to a crowd that differs from its original audience.
Claire Nally and Jacki Wilson each argue that the shows generally perform
to a predominantly female spectatorship, who make up as much as 70–75%
of the audience, depending on the venue.14 Such an audience is significant
to the transgressive potential of burlesque because it creates a space where
women find pleasure in the act of spectatorship, because both performer and
audience are in on the “joke,” as burlesque caricatures the constructed nature
of gender and sexuality.15 The sensual striptease, the explicit sexuality, the
references to vintage femininity, and the unabashed return of the gaze are
all factors that many scholars have termed as the “excessive femininity” on
display in neo-burlesque.
According to Deborah Ferreday, the new performance “parodies fem-
ininity not through self-hating mockery, but through the production of
an excessive feminine self that is experienced as a source of pleasure.”16
Ferreday has identified the thick, red lipstick worn by performers such as
Dita von Teese as a fetishized signifier of the high-maintenance expecta-
tions of femininity that is employed to expose the artifice of beauty ideals.17
Similarly, Nally discusses the corset as a restrictive patriarchal device that
has historically shaped women’s bodies into impossible forms; yet when
worn by the self-aware dancer, it becomes a revaluated garment of female
satire.18 Reclaiming such artifacts can be a challenge to the idea of feminin-
ity as passive. The lineup of varying acts, distinguished by their costumes
and adornment, exposes the artifice of a monolithic ideal that is inscribed
upon the female body, a critique that can also be read into Teiboleras, as
the form of a heeled shoe and a diamond are physically imprinted into the
paper, directly over of the bodies of the performers. The identification of
124 J. Ratliff

the dancers as the site of embodied femininity is furthered by the subtle

repetition of the objects’ shapes by the posed bodies themselves: the first
two pairs are both posed in such a way as to mimic the profile silhouette
of the shoe, the first dancer’s whip even echoing the ankle strap; and the
body of the bound dancer on the right roughly recalls the diamond in which
she is enclosed. Similar to the corset and the red lipstick, the shoe and the
diamond are clichéd markers of femininity worn on the body to shape it
and call attention to it. However, if employed excessively, perhaps the gaze
can once again be neutralized to focus on female agency. The use of the
stage-show diamond even brings to mind the song Diamonds, the signature
tune from Gentleman Prefer Blondes, a Hollywood classic movie that has
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been read “against the grain” of a heterosexual romance to emphasize the

strong relationship of friendship between two women who manage to resist
(and parody) male objectification.19 The song reminds us that diamonds are
a girl’s best friend, “but square cut or pear shape, these rocks don’t lose
their shape,” lyrics that may recall the commodification of the female body20
but within the context of the burlesque also offer a coincidental reference
to the square- and pear-cut diamond fatties on the right whose fat-positive
attitudes show no interest in “losing” anything. The women flaunt their sex-
uality while the “cultural paraphernalia of femininity” float around them.21
Surrounded by a gold, decorative frame adorned with flowers, Teiboleras
becomes a twee, precious object despite the explicit sexuality on display.
It is this type of overdetermined femininity, identified as “excessive,” that
characterizes the spirit of burlesque and has led several scholars to expound
on its subversive character. Focusing on parody, neo-burlesque has been
identified as inherently queer because it problematizes traditional notions of
femininity, and read as a form of camp, female-to-female cross-dressing, and
even drag, as both Ferreday and Nally contend.22 I would argue that this
type of performance is also aligned with the theory of masquerade which, as
a form of self-representation, according to film theorist Mary Anne Doane,
similarly relies on performing clichés and stereotypes in order to expose
femininity as a mask that is socially constructed.23 Building upon Doane’s
discussions, feminist scholar Mary Russo has stated that for a woman to “act
like a woman” is “the critical and hopeful power of the masquerade . For
a woman, a . . . flaunting of the feminine is a take-it-and-leave-it possibility.
To put on femininity with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off.”24
The attempts to use feminist and queer theory to reclaim burlesque as
a form of female pleasure reveal the problematic nature of burlesque, which
is readily acknowledged and discussed by its scholars: there is a fine line
between parodying femininity, or performing it “excessively,” and simply
reinscribing the objectification of women as sexual beings. The danger in
identifying neo-burlesque as a form of drag is the potential for it to be read
as a type of “drag that heterosexual culture produces for itself.”25 Thus, it can
be interrogated for its complicity in the construction of traditional feminine
Drawing on Burlesque 125

ideals; in the end, it runs the risk of upholding them, once again, as the
ultimate objects of patriarchal desire. While a number of burlesque shows
demonstrate a wider range of bodily shapes and sizes than generally offered
by popular media and fine art representations, most of the well-known
dancers—Von Teese, Kitten DeVille, Immodesty Blaize, Michelle L’amour,
The World-Famous ∗ BOB∗ —do not necessarily fall outside of pervasive mod-
els. An exception is the New York-based dancer Dirty Martini, “an icon for
voluptuous women,” as she is called in a video interview with the website
PinUPassion.com.26 Her exceptional status is echoed in an editorial published
on the online version of the British magazine, Burlesque Bible, written by the
self-proclaimed “Grandmother of Burlesque,” Nanny Dora, who laments the
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lack of large participants on the stage, despite the genre’s concern with bod-
ily difference and its celebration.27 Thus, when burlesque is identified as a
form of drag that is meant to identify and subvert the construction and nat-
uralization of gender norms, it must be questioned as to whether the new,
popular performances actually constitute an effective form of parody. For
as Judith Butler has stated, “parody by itself is not subversive” and when it
falls back onto the “normal” or “original” it claims to be mocking, it becomes
nothing more than pastiche, a “blank” or “neutral” parody.28 Perhaps for
burlesque to truly “enact and reveal the performativity in a way that desta-
bilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire” then it should be
executed in a manner that more directly calls attention to the constructedness
of so-called “naturalized” definitions of desire.29
I would argue that the key to performing (and viewing) the neo-
burlesque subject as a subversive body should be located within the idea
of “excess,” as it rehearses exaggerated femininity, but also as it is impli-
cated by the body of the performer herself. When Ferreday expounds on
burlesque as a “queering of normative beauty ideals,” perhaps it is no coin-
cidence that she moves to a discussion of fat burlesque, citing the 2007 short
film Fat Burlesque (directed by Cookie Tuff).30 The film, which features
the San Francisco–based Chainsaw Chubbettes, as well as commentary by
Asbill, describes the pleasure of the fat performer that is taken in claim-
ing and occupying physical space, building confidence, and expressions of
fat-positive sexuality. Ferreday re-emphasizes the importance of performer-
audience interaction, and the atmosphere of a burlesque community as an
essential aspect of its effectiveness in rewriting femininity. However, per-
haps she misses an opportunity to note that she is also discussing a type of
burlesque that is part of a fat-positive community and thus warrants being
distinguished as fat burlesque.
This is not to pit variances of “otherness” against one another; to
promote divisiveness amongst activists—feminist, fat, queer, or otherwise—
would be misdirected. However, because “the feminine body” and “the
fat, female body” are two distinct discursively-constructed entities (how-
ever related), and because female fatness has at times been constructed as
126 J. Ratliff

specifically non-feminine, within a performance of “excessive femininity”

such as burlesque, the size and appearance of the performer’s body and
the crowd to whom it performs is a significant enough alteration to warrant
differing degrees of transgression.31 Even more significant is the subversive
character of the specifically fat-identified burlesque performer who acknowl-
edges the political importance of visible fatness as an activist social position.
As Wilson states, “the contemporary burlesque performer does not necessar-
ily depart from masculine ideas of sexiness but embraces and appropriates
the many sexualized clichéd codes and stereotypes embedded in our visual
culture.”32 The self-aware, fat-identified burlesque performer, however, does
depart from those ideas and does so “with a vengeance” because of her own
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culturally constructed excessiveness.

Fat Burlesque has enjoyed increasing popularity since the debut of
the late fat activist and performer Heather McAllister, founder of the San
Francisco troupe Big Burlesque and The Original Fat-Bottom Revue, whose
members were prominently featured in Leonard Nimoy’s photographic book,
The Full Body Project (2007). Although body size/shape is discussed as
a major concern of this genre of performance in general, the discourse
rarely distinguishes between neo-burlesque and fat burlesque, with the noted
exception of Asbill, who states that fat burlesque as a distinct type of per-
formance offers a culturally unique opportunity in allowing “fat performers
[to] locate a particular set of social conditions that allow them to experi-
ence their bodies as desirable and affirming.”33 The public nature of such
explicit sexuality “[functions] to support a new, positive vision of fat sexual
I would argue that the drawings of Cristina Vela also offer such a vision
of fat sexual embodiment, in a two-dimensional format. A kind of corporeal
liberation is on display throughout the Las Gordas, but is never more joy-
ous as in Figure 4, another entry from the previously mentioned exhibit in
Portugal. This illustration features four bodies that are read as one subject,
performing a series of movements from left to right as if in a narrative. She
demonstrates a complete ease in blissfully swaying her body, her pendulous
breasts swinging as easily as the fringe on her thong, propelling her pink
star-shaped pasties skyward, before boldly planting herself squarely before
her audience, her hands squeezing her now naked chest, a classic example
of the burlesque give-and-take tease.
The visibility that fat burlesque offers to the performer further acts as
a significant political statement especially “in a culture that stigmatizes fat
women and relegates their sexuality to invisibility.”35 As such, Fat Burlesque
holds great potential for critiquing hegemonic understandings of sexuality
and femininity, particularly given the destabilizing nature of the sexualized
fat body, and the fact that it generally performs to a more queer audience
than “mainstream” burlesque; perhaps it could also be read as a form of
drag.36 However, because of its particular body politics, I contend that fat
Drawing on Burlesque 127
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FIGURE 4 Christina Vela, Las Gordas, 2010–11. (Reprinted with permission by the artist)
(color figure available online).

burlesque might be better suited to be read within a framework similarly

predicated on excess—what Kathleen Rowe refers to as “unruliness.”
Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, which is itself a the-
ory of excess, the “unruly woman,” deliberately turns to parody, humor, and
laughter to “help loosen the bitter hold of . . . social and cultural strictures.”37
According to Rowe, the power of unruliness “reverberates whenever women
disrupt the norms of femininity and the social hierarchy of male over female
through excess and outrageousness.”38 She identifies a number of bodily
and behavioral markers, tropes that characterize the “unruly woman”; these
qualities may include a domineering attitude, excessive and loud speech,
a tendency to laugh at herself and joke freely, an androgynous demeanor,
Bakhtinian grotesqueness that would paint her as “old or a masculinized
crone,” sexually loose and occasionally whorish, pregnant, and/or associated
with “dirt, liminality, and taboo.”39 Also on this list (prominently included
at #2) is a reference to corpulence: “Her body is excessive or fat, suggest-
ing her unwillingness or inability to control her physical appetites.”40 The
unruly woman makes a public spectacle of her herself, because her voice,
her laughter, and especially her body, are simply too much.
128 J. Ratliff

As the body functions as a site of control, bodies out of control can

be read as dangerous to the social order, deemed “unruly” when they are
“set loose in the public sphere.”41 However, the unruly woman is also a
“prototype of woman as subject—transgressive above all when she lays
claim to her own desire.”42 For the embodied subject, the body is a site
of negotiation between personal or psychic identification, lived experience,
the social, and the cultural; the body is the text onto which all of these
inscriptions are written. The fat burlesque dancer, amidst parody, masquer-
ade, carnival, and unruliness, embodies a perfect storm of excessive desires.
Her corporeal excess, or fatness, which overrides her sexuality and ren-
ders it invisible, is matched by the excessive femininity that she adopts by
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performing burlesque. Thus, she embodies two contradictory discourses of

corporeality while participating in an act of gender performance that is meant
to parody female objectification. Doing so allows the fat burlesque subject
to subvert the very process through which the female body comes to signify
by performing recoded embodiments of femininity, sexuality, and fatness,
creating a space where these things co-exist in a nexus (or excess) of desire.
The fat burlesque performer occupies a feminist—and fat activist—
position, a role that is celebrated by Cristina Vela’s Las Gordas series. The
formal qualities of the drawings work alongside the performance, draw-
ing significance from it, to similarly critique how the represented female
body has been coded by art and visual culture. However, it must also be
noted that the artist’s drawings are inherently different from the live per-
formance, most noticeably in their inability to fully represent the physical
embodiment and actual presence of the dancer, whose personal interaction
between with the audience is essential to the success of burlesque itself. Yet,
elements of design and curatorial display are specifically employed by Vela
to acknowledge, and even emphasize, this distinction.
Despite the physical absence of the burlesque body, the series approx-
imates an informal audience interaction through size and display. The
small-scale and linear quality of the drawings force the viewer into close
proximity to the bodies, creating a sense of physical intimacy with these
contradictorily-scaled bodies. No more than 4–5 inches tall in most cases,
these gorditas stand in stark contrast to the dimensions of a fat dancer and
yet their small scale disrupts the imagined consumption of their size. In the
end, the small scale reinforces the fatness of the bodies on display. Their
representational uniformity, in appearance and body shape, similarly dis-
tances the drawn burlesque dancer from the embodied fat burlesque dancers,
whose bodies represent a markedly contrasting range of size and shape.
This, plus their endless repetition, performs its own sense of excess, best
demonstrated in XXL, a work whose composition is packed with the entire
array of Las Gordas, a compilation of black-and-white figures interrupted
only by the fuchsia-colored costumes of certain bodies, arranged to spell
out the title across the page. This excess, as well as that found in the use
Drawing on Burlesque 129

of stereotypically feminine and kitschy materials such as hearts and stars,

red glitter, pink stickers and confetti, and frames that are gold, heart-shaped,
flowered with pink garlands, hung with tassels, etc., still communicates a
liberatory parody.
Las Gordas are isolated against a blank white background, devoid of
any other objects to which to relate, which allows them to function beyond
a world of what Lesleigh Owens calls “spatial discrimination,” whereby the
fat body is made to feel out of place by the scale of objects and spaces
designed to accommodate “normal-sized” bodies.43 Yet, Vela’s fat bodies are
also contained by the frames in which they are enclosed. Mounted in the
types of frames commonly found in homes and displayed in clusters around
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the gallery, Las Gordas consists of carefully curated collections of eclectic

styles, displayed as if in a home “gallery wall,” often seen promoted in inte-
rior living magazines and blogs, rather than the sterile space of a modernist
white cube gallery. This curatorial strategy makes the gordas seem decorative
but also brings their significance to bear on the quotidian, a seemingly private
display to complement the public spectacle of the performances themselves.
It also engages the noticeable lack of fat-positive “fine art” representations,
as well as public media representations given Vela’s career as an illustrator
and graphic novelist. Ultimately, what is achieved in Las Gordas, on the page
and in the gallery, is a reinscription of fat burlesque as an embodied expe-
rience that is only reinforced by the (excessively) formal corporeal contrasts
that are embraced, even exaggerated, by Vela.
Thus, Las Gordas speaks to the presence, and absence, of the fat female
body in contemporary visual culture, its visibility as well as its invisibility,
and also the representational processes through which the fat, female body
has been constructed. Vela’s series relates to, and draws power from, a con-
temporary genre of performance whose presence is growing, on the stage,
on the internet, in popular culture, and among fat communities. As a femi-
nist and size-positive spectacle, fat burlesque takes advantage of parody and
excess in order to embody femininity and fatness together, a visual interven-
tion that is similarly imagined in Las Gordas, a set of images that powerfully
celebrate, promote, and represent the fat body, in all its glorious excess.44

1. See Stefanie Snider, “Fat Girls and Size Queens: Alternative Publications and the Visualizing of
Fat and Queer Eroto-politics in Contemporary American Culture,” in The Fat Studies Reader, ed. Esther
Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 223–30; and Kathleen
LeBesco, Revolting Bodies?: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Press, 2004), 40–53.
2. D. Lacy Asbill, “‘I’m Allowed to Be a Sexual Being:’ The Distinctive Social Conditions of the
Fat Burlesque Stage,” in The Fat Studies Reader, ed. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York:
New York University, 2009), 300; Jacki Wilson cites 1994 as the approximate date of the neo-burlesque
revival and specifically notes the emergence and popularity of Dita von Teese as a primary factor in its
130 J. Ratliff

resurgence. Jacki Wilson, The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque (London: I.B.
Tauris, 2008). 18.
3. Maria-Elena Buszek, “Representing ‘Awarishness’: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the
19th-Century Pin-Up,” TDR 43, no. 4 (1999): 144. For a thorough history of 19th and early 20th
Century burlesque, see Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
4. Here, “traditional striptease” is defined as an erotic performance of disrobing meant to seduce
or titillate an audience. Debra Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” Feminist Theory 9, no. 1
(2008): 47–8; Wilson, The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque: 18.
5. Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” 50.
6. Buszek, “Representing ‘Awarishness’: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-Century
Pin-Up,” 142.
7. Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” 50.
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8. Buszek, “Representing ‘Awarishness’: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-Century

Pin-Up,” 149.
9. The word teibolera has no direct translation into English; it is a transliteration that refers to
those who dance on tables (teibols).
10. Claire Nally, “Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque and the performance of gender,” Textual
Practice 23, no. 4 (2009): 639.
11. To smize is to “smile with one’s eyes,” a term coined by Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top
12. For a discussion of scopophilia and the patriarchal gaze, see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure
and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6–18.
13. Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” 59.
14. Nally, “Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque and the performance of gender,” 637; Wilson, The
Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque: 124.
15. Laura Dougherty, “Fraudulent Undressings: Bawdy Politics in Burlesque Performance,” St. John’s
University Humanities Review 8, no. 1 (2009): 28.
16. Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” 60.
17. Ibid., 55–7.
18. Nally, “Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque and the performance of gender,” 629–30.
19. Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca, “Pre-Text and Text in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in Issues in
Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 112–25.
20. Wilson, The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque: 124.
21. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press, 1993). 182.
22. Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” 60; Nally, “Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque
and the performance of gender,” 625.
23. See Mary Ann Doane, “Film and Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” in Writing on
the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 176–94.
24. Mary Russo, “Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory,” in Writing on the Body: Female
Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1997), 331. Rowe cites Roseanne (formerly Arnold) and her domestic god-
dess characterization as an example, one that exploits well-known assumptions about the working-class,
American housewife.
25. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge,
1993). 176. Butler quotes Frederic Jameson’s definition of pastiche as “blank” or “neutral.”
26. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1990). 126.
27. Nanny Dora, “Confessions of a Plus Size Perfomer,” Burlesque Bible Online (2012), http://www.
28. Burlesque Star - Dirty Martini Reveals all on Body Image, Body Sizes and Confidence (http://
www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KWWzr9IdDY: 2011). In the video, Dirty Martini herself talks around the
term “fat,” and simply talks about alternative sizes such as a 16, or 22, or “even beyond.”
29. Ibid., 177. It is important to note that Butler does not include fatness in her discussions of
performativity, an omission that contributes to its discursive invisibility.
30. Ferreday, “‘Showing the girl’: The new burlesque,” 59–60.
Drawing on Burlesque 131

31. For a brief discussion of cultural representations of the fat, female body, see Kathleen LeBesco’s
chapter entitled “Sexy/Beautiful/Fat” in LeBesco, Revolting Bodies?: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity:
32. Wilson, The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque: 46.
33. Asbill, “‘I’m Allowed to Be a Sexual Being’: The Distinctive Social Conditions of the Fat
Burlesque Stage,” 300.
34. Ibid.
35. Cookie Tuff, Fat Burlesque, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMI7EJCd2Rs: 2007), video.
36. Kathleen LeBesco quotes Hanne Blank as stating, “any sex involving a fat person is by definition
‘queer,’ no matter what the genders of any of the partners involved,” LeBesco, Revolting Bodies?: The
Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity: 88–89. Asbill discusses fat performances as appealing especially to lesbian
and queer subjects, in Asbill, “‘I’m Allowed to Be a Sexual Being’: The Distinctive Social Conditions of
the Fat Burlesque Stage,” 299–304.
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37. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); as
Mulvey states, “carnival inverted the normal experience of daily life, celebrating excess for its own sake
in pleasure, food, drink, and sex,” Laura Mulvey, “Changes: Thought on Myth, Narrative and Historical
Experience,” History Workshop 23(1987): 11; Kathleen Rowe, Unruly Women: Gender and the Genres of
Laughter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 3.
38. Rowe, Unruly Women: Gender and the Genres of Laughter: 30.
39. Ibid., 31.
40. Ibid.
41. Russo, “Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory,” 320.
42. Rowe, Unruly Women: Gender and the Genres of Laughter: 31.
43. Lesleigh Owen, “Living fat in a thin-centric world: Effects of spatial discrimination on fat bodies
and selves,” Feminism & Psychology 22, no. 3 (2012): 290–306.


Jamie Ratliff holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Louisville.
Her research focuses on feminist art and representations of the female body,
particularly in Latin America.