Thicc Strip is the independent event raising money for homeless women while combating the idea that fat bodies are undesirable or asexual
Alison Stevenson describes herself as “a fat slut”. She’s not being self-deprecating; in fact, Stevenson considers this self-identification a point of pride, frequently posting semi-nude thirst traps on Instagram that intentionally capture her body from “unflattering” angles. As a writer and comedian in Los Angeles, much of her work centres on body positivity and fat acceptance, but she recognizes a disconnect between internet body positivity – which often begins and ends with a faux-inspirational hashtag – and true fat acceptance offline. “So much of my personal body positive stuff is on the internet, and there is something to bringing it to life and making people see it,” Stevenson tells Dazed.
She began collaborating with body positive advocate Linda Douglas and community organiser Elizabeth Flores on a live interactive event that would bring online body positive activism to life in an unapologetic, provocative showcase. Stevenson, Flores, and Douglas wanted to reclaim the body positive narrative, moving away from the idea that merely existing in a body that isn’t thin is “brave” or “inspirational”. The three also share a love of strip clubs and strippers, which is rooted firmly in sex and sex work positivity, but felt that a typical strip club might not offer them a chance to actually be one.
In 2018, the three co-founded Thicc Strip, a live strip show in Los Angeles celebrating shameless sexuality and body positivity. “On Instagram, everybody can see you from the one angle that you like, and you know that you look good on your left side, and you know you look good with certain lighting,” Douglas tells Dazed. “Onstage, you're stripped down. You're completely showing yourself.”
Early on, Flores, Stevenson and Douglas shared concerns about maintaining a safe creative space for the dancers, both physically and emotionally. “We wanted to make sure this was a positive platform. We didn't want people coming in thinking it was a joke,” Flores says. “What we’re doing isn’t funny. It’s not comic relief.” At a performance last December, 13 dancers took to the stage at a downtown LA art space, twerking, flashing, and spinning on the pole while audience members packed shoulder-to-shoulder screamed in excitement and tossed dollar bills toward the stage with abandon. A portion of the proceeds went to Los Angeles’ Downtown Women’s Center, and dancers took home enough tips to fill entire garbage bags. “The money was insane,” Stevenson says.
Far from a coy burlesque show or dainty striptease, performers in various states of undress danced with cellulite and body hair of all kinds on full display, a complete departure from the faux-inspirational messaging body acceptance posturing prevalent in many body positive circles. “This is gritty, sweaty, on-the-floor twerking. My armpit hair, all of it is out there,” Douglas says. Thicc Strip is an overt and explicitly sexual performance collective working to actively counter the social and cultural messaging that fat bodies are undesirable or asexual. The dancers on stage command the audience’s gaze, and refuse to be desexualised. “We’re stripping physically, but we're also stripping all the negative things that we tell ourselves about why we shouldn't be allowed to be up on stage.”
Many of Thicc Strip’s performers are amateur or first-time dancers, though a few are seasoned professionals with experience navigating the exotic dance industry. Marie Rolla is a pole performer and instructor who feels that larger-bodied strippers aren’t always welcome in traditional venues, and sometimes worries about covering up certain parts of her body while she dances. She dances at pole shows, burlesque performances, and similar events, but doesn’t feel comfortable auditioning at a typical strip club. “Being plus-size in the stripping industry is a whole different beast. It's a whole different standard in a strip club,” Rolla explains. “In order to make money, you need to look a certain way. I know that if I go into the strip club, I'm just not going to do well. Either people aren't going to want to tip me, or I'm not even going to get hired in the first place.” Hara Lim, a sex worker and Thicc Strip performer, got her first job at a club that hired her on the spot without an audition. Lim liked her boss and made decent money, but she remembers other staff at the club who refused to schedule plus-size dancers for shifts.
Some strip clubs are certainly friendlier and more open to hiring larger-bodied dancers than others. Thriving BBW scenes in cities like Houston and Atlanta point to a demand for greater body representation in the industry and an appreciation for plus-size dancers. However, the term “BBW” carries fetishistic, derogatory connotations, and as Lim points out, body positivity and fat fetishism are vastly different. “Body positivity is an entire movement to make space for the plus size community in a world where people don’t tend to us. Fat fetishism is a sexual infatuation,” she says.
Thicc Strip represents a community effort toward greater body representation, a celebration of sexuality outside the confines of fetishism, and for Rolla, an expression of self-love. “I went out there and let everything hang out. I knew that when I crawled around, my belly was going be swinging around. I didn't want to have to cover that up for this show,” she says. “I'm happy the way I am.” Flores recalled audience members who left a show in December 2018 in tears. “I had a lot of girls tell me that they've never seen their bodies represented like that on the stage, and that they never knew they could be sexy. It blew my mind.”
“I knew how impactful showcasing my body type would be, there is power when people finally see themselves celebrated while being represented at the same time,” Lim said. “I always refused to believe there wasn’t a seat for me at this table.”