When the original version of “Hairspray” came out in 1988, I had only turned 19 the year before. I was just starting to develop my adult personality and strengths. There was a lot of those that I struggled with, including the ability to look the rest of the world in the eye and tell them I am beautiful, even if they didn’t think so.
I was introduced to John Waters’ films by friends at the time. Yes, these were also the friends who introduced me to Rocky Horror. The films I watched were this one, “Crybaby,” and “Serial Mom.” I have refused to watch some of his earlier movies, not because of his satire and outrageous view of stereotypes, but because even for me some of the older movies just turned my stomach. “Hairspray” was also the first introduction I had to the concept of a drag queen.
But, particularly “Hairspray” and “Crybaby,” both of which starred Ricki Lake as a central character, impacted my life heavily. Her characters in both of those movies were unashamed of their bodies (or, at least, from my perspective they were), and offered a view of a larger girl that did not match the typical fat girl stereotype. Their personalities were just as in-your-face that I wanted to be, and frankly some of which I chose to integrate in myself.
There’s a scene in “Hairspray” where the character of Tracy Turnblad is expected to lead the Ladies’ Choice dance. In it, she walks down a line of the boys from the show to choose the guy she wants to dance with. There was a boy she had already danced with (and made out with) at a dance earlier in the movie. But, she had a crush on a different guy, and chose him.
While there were rude and cruel remarks when she auditioned for the dance show, none of the guys avoided her looking at them, nor did they look disgusted. The two guys she had to choose between looked happy that they might be chosen. And when she chose the guy she had the crush on, he became her boyfriend.
There were two subjects that Waters was satirizing, racism and size-ism. He set it in the ’60s in order to satirize the racists who were fighting against integration (including some of their very short-sighted and stupid claims). But, there was just as much hatred of those who are fat (particularly those who are considered “supersized”). Divine, the drag queen – who played both Tracy’s mother, and the owner of the TV station who was opposing integration – spoke repeatedly about her diet pills. The growing fashion industry had been making their models smaller and more boyish looking since the end of WWI. It got extreme in the early ’60s with the advent of Twiggy being considered an “ideal model.”
Diet pills, during that time, were almost all amphetamines, with other things added in such as thyroid hormone, diuretics and laxatives. Like ephedra and fen-phen in the 70s, these all caused heart issues, and numerous deaths.
Tracy’s friend Penny, whose story was important as well as she fell in love with an African-American boy in the movie and her parents forced a so-called psychiatrist on her, to “cure” of her supposedly sick attraction to him (no different from the so-called therapists who believe they can “cure” those who are LGBTQ), was also much thinner than the rest of the girls as well. She is portrayed as socially awkward and a product of her parents attempting to keep her supposedly innocent of anything other than their beliefs.
Just the thought of there being a beautiful girl in Hollywood, who I could use as a role model for my own burgeoning self-worth. I was crushed when Ricki Lake was expected to lose weight in order to host her own talk show.
But that right there was the beginning of my belief that body size does not dictate your attractiveness, regardless of whether you are smaller or larger than the supposed “norms” of our society.