There’s something joyful, powerful and free about Eloise Grills’s collection of illustrated essays and memoir. Across nine distinct pieces, Grills vivisects her life while dissecting size and beauty, fat women in art, the internet-beauty-industrial complex, her childhood, mental health and self-care in the age of planetary collapse and hypercapitalism, all the while wrestling with what exactly she’s trying to achieve by flaying herself open so unsparingly. One frame for Grills’s essays is Barbara L. Frederickson and Tomi-Ann Robert’s objectification theory: “girls are typically acculturated to internalise an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves”. big beautiful female theory shoots that perspective through a prism, throws it back, embraces it, lets it slide off like old skin. It’s a vital examination of the way women, and particularly big beautiful women, are looked at.
Some of the essays are combinations of text and illustrations (one neat repeated image is a line drawing of the philosophers and thinkers Grills quotes such as Foucoult, Judith Butler and Nicki Minaj). Others are completely illustrated like All The Real Thin Bodies, which includes a portrait of Dorian Gray very explicitly fucking his portrait, a delicious and hilarious depiction of self-love. The illustrations are stunning: rich, warm, colourful, funny and very sexy, occasionally devastating.
Perhaps my favourite is an interpretation of a photo by lesbian Chicana photographer Laura Aguilar. In Grills’s stunning grey-scale illustration a woman lies contentedly by a desert pool, her reflection perfectly mirrored in its dark surface. In the accompanying text Grills quotes art curator and historian Sybil Venegas, “Aguilar herself becomes the landscape” and then expands:
Aguilar does not dominate the land like a man
She is not a figure in the landscape
She is within and overflowing and jostling and cascading.
It’s a beautiful and soothing portrayal of being “of the world”. Grills plants ideas and then develops them in the interplay of text and image, letting them blossom and transform. In a Table Of Discontents she provides acronyms relating to big women, including TBLAN, “to-be-looked-at-ness”. This is later the caption for an illustration of a woman with her face mostly turned away, only a little of her nose, left cheek and eye lash visible. Later still, we get some more context; it’s a moment when a man exposed himself to Grills on the tram and she wonders what made him do so, contemplates the power of her desirability:
maybe he finds my eyelash in the fluorescent light coquettish
my cheek turned away like a sexy satellite dish.
It’s painful but also funny and defiant; throughout big beautiful female theory Grills resists the pull of abjection, “the me that is not me … different from uncanniness, more violent”, by toying with it. Much of this is in the language Grills uses, both visual and textual. Take for instance the “fat bitch” in the essay The Fat Bitch In Art in which Grills remixes art of fat bitches while building a hypothetical Museum of Fat Bitches Art. They’re harsh words but they’re also playful and powerful, like queers using the f-slur. Grills treats so much of her words and images like an exclamation mark. Much of her prose has the brilliant absurdity of the best pop and rap (as well as Minaj Grills heavily cites Lana Del Rey and Mean Girls) as in:
I’m an it girl
a twit girl
a big sweaty tit girl
Or “young, dumb and full of cum forever”, which has the same cadence as Lana’s “fresh out of fucks forever”, or her eyelash extensions that “reach out and tickle the universe like God’s pubes”, or “atonal screeching/atonal bleaching”, or just the electric idea of “fuckdancing”, which is both dancing like you don’t give a fuck and dancing like you might be about to fuck. Many of the images are similarly exclamatory, getting straight to the point, cutting through the bullshit: I challenge you not to hoot at a self-portrait of Grills in eye rolling pleasure as she’s gloriously titty-fucked. In many of these Grills is face on, returning the gaze. There are more whimsical moments too; there’s a particularly fine sequence involving the fantastically ugly Maribu Stork. Grills quotes novelist Kathy Acker, “the only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense”. Earlier, she puts a similar idea in her own words:
I think the logical response to this world is the kind of laugh that sounds you might be choking to death.
Throughout this book Grills struts this line between despair and hilarity, and leaves it confidently unresolved. Perhaps being exuberant and vulgar in your body is the most transgressive thing of all. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach says “fat is a way of saying “no” to powerlessness and self-denial”. Scholar Cecilia Hartley writes, “women who are fat are said to have “let themselves go”. The very phrase connotes a loosening of restraints”. In big beautiful female theory Grills throws off the restraints. The result is maybe a bit like what freedom might look like.
Gay rating: 4/5 for queer themes and sex.