Tom Rasmussen, author of Diary of a Drag Queen, writes a personal essay on taking up space, and embracing themselves for who they are
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When I was 13, I stumbled across a TV show named The Biggest Loser. This was long before social media, long before I’d ever heard the words ‘body’ and ‘positivity’ used one after the other, and long before I realised that we live inside a constructed system that actively casts fat people as the exemplification of what happens when consumerism goes wrong.
At that age, I had no critical faculties to employ when watching this TV show. It was essentially weight loss porn, fat camp, body abuse; it deified the fat person who could lose the most weight in the quickest time, while chucking the person who lost the least weight each week off the show. All of this was set to the tragic and emotionally manipulative soundtrack of Coldplay’s deeply bleak “Fix You”.
The show ran for seven years, and I would consume season on season as readily as I’d consume McDonald’s and tinned sticky toffee puddings. Thirteen was also the same age at which I came out, at my Catholic state school in the north of England. There’s a quote going around on Instagram at the moment which reads, ‘To be visibly queer is to choose your own happiness over your own safety’ – imagine that, but in full action in the schoolyard.
I was fat, femme, ginger and spotty. That’s a real hot combo for terrified, mean-spirited teenagers to pick apart, like the insecurity-vultures we all were. Naturally, as I gorged on The Biggest Loser and ate Pizza Hut family meal deals to myself, my self-hatred towards both my body and my femininity grew.
It was that heady mix of my largeness and my femininity that bore so much of the abuse I’ve encountered. It’s seemed, through most of my life, that little men (both physically and metaphorically) couldn’t quite compute something bigger than them, more visible than them, being so camp, so floaty. And so a glitch in a system occurs, and instead of trying to understand, people hurled abuse to stop me, I dunno, crushing them. I was ultra-visible, because when you’re fat, you realise that most people are thin. When you’re femme and queer, you realise that most people are cis and het. The disjunct between my body and my gender expression seemed to create a glitch in the system that didn’t compute, one which men through my life have seemed to hone in on and want to punish. Men who I’m bigger than; who I could easily stamp out if I weren’t so afraid of chipping my gorgeous nails.
As a queer person, and someone from a working-class background, it’s hard to feel like you’re valuable enough to take up space – but I was somewhat forced to by my big body. So, as a defence mechanism, I became a performer. Everything was performed: from the tip of my hair to the soles of my heels, I would dress to stand out, speak to stand out, eat to stand out, have sex and tell everyone about it to stand out. I was good at it, and it oddly protected me too: I had made a show of myself so others would stop.
Then at university, I discovered drag (even though, really, I’d been dragging up alone in my room since that same year I came out). Drag was a place where all of this energy and confusion could be neatly and healthily funnelled. Where I would be celebrated, finally, for my femininity, my difference, my loud dress sense and my deep love of dreadful costume jewellery (big up Freedom at Topshop).
It was in drag that I learned rapidly that the expected role of a drag queen is to resiliently take up space, to show what a radical, political existence looks like when it is unencumbered by the strictures of society. We are your example of how to be brave, something which we’re often told by drunk white women who try to tug your wig off for an Instagram Story. But, if RuPaul has problematically taught us anything, it’s that to take up this space in drag successfully, one must successfully look the part. So I was met with a conundrum, right at the intersection of fat and class. There was nowhere online or the high street that produced a size 28 (other than Evans, which is great but not very drag TBQH); nor could I afford to get outfits made to measure from scratch.
“Of all my visibilities, the one which has caused perhaps the most damage is my fatness” – Tom Rasmussen
There’s a great drag website – which I won’t name, because I know they work very hard – which has reams and reams of dress options. If you’re thin. From that site, you can find everything from beaded bodysuits to Diana-inspired wedding dresses; you can be Katie Price, or you can be Zsa Zsa Gabor. Unless you’re like me. If you’re like me, or bigger than me, there’s a sub-section of the site for plus queens that stocks – no joke – ‘sack dresses’. One of them literally has a pizza printed on it.
This is how I came to spend a long time wearing, literally, sacks. I had this one black coat-sack that I found at a sample sale which was giant, but it made me look too visibly femme in the daytime, and I was too scared to wear it. So I wore it for every performance in drag for a year. I was that queen who repeated outfits, not once or twice, but 85 times.
I was lucky enough, last year, to raid a theatre costume store and have one dress made to measure for me. My costumes are better now – but only after a year of onlookers complimenting my voice or my humour, but telling me my look is bad, that they didn’t get it, or that I look like Adele.
Of all my visibilities, the one which has caused perhaps the most damage is my fatness. My body isn’t savaged in the way that fat women’s bodies are by society, but being fat and femme has created a personal dynamic which has made me unsuccessful on the gay scene, and intimidating or disgusting everywhere else.
Now, I’m privy to conversations about both fat positivity and space consumption as a radical act. This year I did a show with my drag troupe which ended in me stripping to my underwear, singing Shakira’s “Underneath Your Clothes”, and standing there with my massive belly out for all to behold. Clothes and presentation have always been very important to me: it’s how I assert my identity while also building a protective cover so nobody can see the Biggest Loser that still crumbles beneath my sequinned dresses or Balenciaga knock-off skirt. But taking them off for an audience somewhat pulled a ball back into my court, and allowed me to decree how my body was consumed.
“As a queer person, and someone from a working-class background, it’s hard to feel like you’re valuable enough to take up space” – Tom Rasmussen
A lot has changed. I have the gift of age, of hindsight. I am awake to self-care and self-love practices. I’ve been lucky enough to learn about concepts of consumerism and capitalism and both where my body sits in that framework, and that the framework is the problem – not my body. I am within a community that, for the most part, celebrates the different, uplifts the other. And I am better understood and loved by the people in my life.
Of course, I’m also aware that outside of this community, and those engaged with ideas of fat positivity, that there are people who still believe that fat and obese folk are disgusting, moral failures, people with no will power.
But what’s new? So much about me might be seen as failure to someone else – my gender, my sexuality, my lifestyle, the fact that I love Celine Dion so much I have a tattoo of her name on my bum – and I learned early on that these are the best things about me. It’s taking longer to learn this with my body, but every time I breathe in as I walk onto the tube, I don’t congratulate myself for remembering like I always used to; I correct myself, stick my stomach out, and stand resplendent in all my fat, squishy glory. This, of course, doesn’t erase fatphobes – but it does make them look like the Biggest Loser every time I see them staring.
Tom’s debut book, Diary of a Drag Queen, has just been published by Ebury