Each spring, the MCA Denver's Feminism & Co. series offers interactive lectures touching on topics related to women and gender. This season has already featured programs on infidelity, female chefs and women’s roles in the military — and tonight, Andrea Moore will focus on body image. The poet, activist and actor explores her size and the evolution of her thoughts about her body in a performance titled Big Woman. Moore describes the one-woman piece as a cabaret-style examination, one that will move back and forth between performance and direct conversation with the audience. In advance of the engagement, Moore spoke with Westword about how the work came about and why she chooses to talk about the experience of being in her body.
Westword: What is your performance Big Woman going to be like?
Andrea Moore: The basic idea is that it's going to be a combination of performance and conversation. There are two main performance poems that I have in my collection that are about specifically this idea of body image and physical identity. The first one is called "Big Woman" — which this whole piece is named after — and after reading that, I'll transition into talking directly with the audience. There's no fourth wall; this is why it is sort of billed as a cabaret-style performance.
When I first wrote the poem "Big Woman," I was much bigger than I am now. I was thirty at the time when I wrote it; I was 25 when I first started writing it and was unable to finish it. I wasn't really ready to deal with some of the issues that were brought up, so I wrote a few lines and put it away for five years. When I was thirty and I was ready, I brought it back out. At that time I was almost 300 pounds and I'm 5'11" and I'm very big in many ways. So I wrote this poem sort of claiming and owning my bigness.
It was a response to an experience I had in Thailand — I was traveling with my family. My brother and I were shopping in this touristy place and this very small shopkeeper — who was a little younger than me, about 5'4" and like, a size two, just a tiny little thing — kept putting her hands on me. She kept stroking my body and then she took both of her hands and put them on my stomach and was holding onto my stomach. It happened so fast and my brother was just standing there watching like, what is happening?
She just kept saying to me "so cute, so cute." With both of her hands on my stomach, she looked up at me and said, "I want to look like you." It was so jarring. I think being a big woman, being an American woman and being a white woman, I've never thought of myself as anything "right" or anything enviable, certainly physically. It really affected me in that moment because it wasn't so much like "Wow, I could be pretty!," it was more like "Oh, wow, this is all so stupid." It was just this moment of realizing that people — and mostly in my culture, women — are spending a tremendous amount of time wishing we looked like someone else.
That experience sort of gave me the courage to go back in and write that piece. Then what ended up happening after I wrote "Big Woman" is that it freed me in some way — it jarred something loose. I ended up joining Weight Watchers and I lost a hundred pounds. Of course, now I've gained a little of it back, l but now when perform Big Woman — and this is kind of where the show will be a conversation piece — people don't know that I was bigger. My experience has been that people have had a lot of judgments about me performing this piece — like I'm not big "enough" to call myself a big woman anymore.
So I'll perform this piece and then the conversation will be around my past weight loss and my weight shifting and these questions — am I big enough? Am I too big? How big do you have to be to be a "big woman"? What does bigness really mean? From there I will transition into a new piece that I have called "Mercy" — it is around a lot of similar themes, but it is a little bit mature. It's sort of about Lake Steam Baths over on West Colfax: I started going there a couple of years ago and that's probably the best thing that I've ever done for my body image in terms of just really learning how to be around other women of all shapes and sizes, colors and experiences.
This piece is really about exposing and the literal exposure to being naked in a room full of other women, but also exposing my own life. For many, many years I was unwilling to look at bigness and size as an identity issue at all; I thought I was too smart for that. I had all of these ideas about how it was something only "silly" women think about; women who are serious can't be bothered by this — it was something only certain women would worry about and I'm not one of those women. They were really ultimately these misogynistic views, I think, about women.
So the transition in the piece is sort of about this idea of begging for mercy — and there's actually a woman at Lake Steam Baths who does body scrubs there and she's probably in her early seventies and her name is Mercy. That's really her real name. The piece is about waiting and begging for Mercy. Begging to be touched and waiting to be rubbed and scrubbed and salted and sweated — this idea of being made real.
My intention as an artist is not to answer questions as much as to hold sacred space for questions and illuminate some of the things — and really, illuminate my own experience. My hope is that it will touch on something for other people, but my goal is really just to be very — I don't know, what is the word for when you're holding a scalpel? (Laughs.) I'm trying to get to the heart of what my experience is, and I guess I'm not afraid to show the stumbling along the way.
The way this performance ended up being marketed, the word "unapologetic" was used — and it made me laugh. That is absolutely not what I am. (Laughs.) I love the idea of that and it's a very pretty way of advertising something and some people may call me that. But the truth of my experience is much messier than that. There's a lot of apologizing for being big in my history. A lot. A lot of trying to behave small and trying to shrink. A lot of "Oh, I'm sorry" and "Am I too loud?" I'm also a theater person, so I am very loud and very present — there is a lot of bigness here.
I feel like whenever I'm presented with the writing or work or art of a woman from the "big" perspective, she's supposed to not be sorry because she's "finally" coming forward. You're "finally" telling the truth of "what it's like" — it's never presented as, well, here I am, as a person and this is my experience.
You're so right. And at that point, you're right, there's nothing to apologize for. Once we get to the place where we are finally ready to tell our story, it's like, this is it.
In seeing pictures of you, I had the very reaction to the idea of you as a "big woman" that you describe — thinking like, she doesn't look that big. I am very embarrassed to admit that. And then I thought — what is that even about? Why am I even having these thoughts? It's not my place to think that.
I love it. That is so exactly why I am excited about this piece — because I know people are thinking that. I think that all the time. Constantly. It's about carrying this badge or whatever. There are so many conversations like this — race, historically. Like how dark or light someone is. I know that for people of color, that is definitely a conversation that people are having and it comes up in so many ways — the gradient. How uncomfortable we are with the gradient. And also just the difference between feeling and being.
When I lost the weight, that was a whole other thing. I've spoken about this to people who have had this experience, but disorienting doesn't even begin to describe the experience of losing a large amount of weight but not having the mental experience change. I was still the same person, but my body looked different. In the world I was having all of these experiences that I had never had before — I started getting catcalled by white men. I had only even been catcalled by men of color — which is a whole other thing. Then I started really liking it and getting the value of it and really wanting more of it. Then I had all of these questions about shame— here I had been craving this attention my whole life but does it make me cheap? Does it make me shallow? There were all of these identity questions.
One of the weirdest things that happened to me happened when I was in Europe — I was traveling and I met an American guy who was beautiful. He started saying things to me about other tourists, bigger tourists; I think he was only saying them to me because he was seeing me as a skinny person. They were things that were really cruel and inappropriate — things about their shape and their bodies. A couple of things happened. One, I was so horrified. I was also astonished because I thought, oh my god, he doesn't see me as that, which is why he is telling me this. This led to the next realization: Some of my worst fears were actually true. My worst fears about how people might have been thinking about me — they weren't even just true, they were exceeded. So people are actually that cruel and it is that much of big deal to them. It's real: People have horrible things to say about other people's physical shape and experience.
Initially, when I first lost the weight, to be honest, I kind of freaked out a little bit and just needed time to mentally catch up. It took me forty pounds of weight loss before I even noticed a difference in myself. Other people were reflecting it in comments, but I didn't see it because I never thought I was as big as I was — ever. The next forty pounds, I couldn't see it either. I still felt big. I remember the first time I went shopping in the not-plus size — I had a hard time even picking out smaller sizes that fit me. I couldn't believe I was a 14; I hadn't worn that size since high school. Then I got down to the 12s and 10s — it was mind-blowing. I kept thinking, maybe I should go look in the plus sizes just in case. But there was literally nothing there that fit me anymore.
After a couple of years I got frustrated and quit Weight Watchers — I got sick of tracking everything. I've been single my entire life — I've never had a long-term reciprocal relationship, just lots of entanglements. But there I was, having lost all of this weight and thinking, I still don't have a boyfriend. It exposed another layer — I totally believed that if I ever finally lost the weight that it would solve that problem. I absolutely did. I started looking around and seeing bigger women with boyfriends and it confused me.
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More than anything, it's the terror of the judgment — looking at another woman's body in the exact way I did not want to be looked at and feeling myself judging her. That's why it was important to get in there and call it out; that's why I'm grateful to have art and have that as a message. When I find these shadowy places, I want to illuminate them. I want to shine a light and draw it out and talk about it.
Tonight's edition of Feminism & Co. with Andrea Moore begins with a reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by the performance at 7 p.m. at the MCA Denver. Tickets are $10, or $5 for museum members. For more on the program or to purchase tickets, visit the MCA's website or call 303-298-7554; for more on the artist, v
isit her website.