I love Frida Kahlo. Love her. Love her artwork, love her story, love her general sassy bad-assery. To say that she inspires me would be a major understatement. I’ve learned scads of life lessons from her, useful things that run the gamut from realizing what a powerful role art can play in the social justice movement to learning that it’s possible to give zero fucks about what anyone else thinks of you and your appearance. If I could sum Frida Kahlo up in two words, they would be: The. Best.
Frida Kahlo is, as the kids these days say, my homegirl.
You can imagine, then, how thrilled I was when the Art Gallery of Ontario announced a major Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit for the fall of 2012. I tweeted at them that I was going to express my excitement by lighting something on fire; they, in turn, re-tweeted me, which I took as a silent endorsement of my arsonist tendencies. Leading up to the October 20th opening date of the show, I obnoxiously reminded my friends on a regular basis how many days were left until all my dreams would come true.
We have a family membership at the AGO, which means that my husband and I were able to see Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting at a special members-only preview, a few days before the show opened to the general public. That night was the first time I’d ever seen Kahlo’s paintings in person. To say that I was excited would be like saying that the Pope is Catholic, by which I mean, HELL YEAH I WAS.
I have to admit, though, that I did have a few concerns when entering the gallery that first time. Like fellow Shameless writer Sarah Mortimer, I worried that people would use this exhibit as an opportunity to mock Frida for her appearance - specifically, for her iconic unibrow. Would the rest of the crowd understand why she refrained from waxing or plucking the hair on her face? Would they notice and appreciate the fact that Frida actually emphasized her unibrow and mustache in her paintings, making them thicker and darker than they were in real life? Would they realize how radically subversive she was?
Would they see how beautiful she was?
I was thankful to discover that the answer to those questions was a resounding yes. All around me, I heard people muttering about how lovely she was, how graceful and strong. Not one single person made a remark critical of her appearance. For once, I was happy to be proven wrong.
Unfortunately, I did not hear the same type of comments about Frida’s husband, Diego Rivera.
I’ve been to the Frida & Diego exhibit seven or eight times now, and on every single visit I’ve heard almost exactly the same thing from many, many people:
As if no one, especially a skinny person, especially a beautiful person, could ever love someone who was fat.
As if being fat is the worst, least attractive thing that anyone could be.
As if a person is worth no more than their physical appearance.
Look, I’ll be honest: a harsh reminder of society’s increasing fatphobia didn’t exactly top the list of things I hoped to take away from an evening at the art gallery.
And yet, here we are.
The thing is, as a culture, we talk a lot about body size. You only have to glance at the cover of just about any magazine in the supermarket checkout line to see the contradictory messages about food and health that are being thrown at us: How to drop the weight and keep it off! How To Work Off Those Holidays Treats! 10 Super Foods That Will Make You Drop 10 Lbs! Celebrities Who Are Too Fat! Celebrities Who Are Scary Skinny! 5 Tips For A Flat Tummy! Get Ready For Bikini Season!
And while skinny people aren’t exempt from having their bodies criticized - usually in the form of people making remarks that they look ill, or must be suffering from eating disorders - those whose bodies fall on the larger end of the spectrum have it far worse. They have to endure a whole range of cruel, hateful and downright misinformed opinions, often at the hands of people they should be able to trust, like doctors, teachers and even friends and family members. Worse than that, total strangers seem to think that it’s their place to say something - I remember an occasion when I was eating at McDonald’s with a plus-sized friend and a man that she didn’t know actually came up to her and told her that at her size, she shouldn’t be eating fast food. Meanwhile, they had nothing to say to me and my skinny ass, even though I was eating the same, equally unhealthy food as my friend.
Why would anyone ever think that something like this is okay to do?
I mean, first of all, do people actually think that a fat person doesn’t know that they’re fat?
And second of all, has it ever occurred to anyone that someone who’s fat has been told all that stuff about healthy eating, exercise and weight loss about a million times already?
Third of all, why does no one ever seem to stop and consider that many fat people do, in fact, eat well and exercise? And that being “healthy” isn’t necessarily related to a person’s weight or BMI?
Before you comment on someone’s weight, you should understand that there are many reasons why someone might be fat. It could be what and how eat, yes, but it could also be genetics, or a medical condition, or a whole range of other things. Unfortunately, our society has decided that people are fat (and victims of the so-called “obesity epidemic”) solely because they eat badly and are too lazy to ever leave their couch. In fact, nearly every single one of my fat friends have told me identical stories about visiting the doctor for something totally unrelated to their size, only to have the doctor advise them to lose weight before they try anything else.
What many people don’t seem to want to acknowledge is that you can be healthy at any size. In fact, there’s an entire movement dedicated to that idea called Healthy At Every Size. And no, I’m not saying that all fat people are healthy, just like I would never say that all thin people are healthy. What I’m saying is that you can’t look at a person and know, based on their size, what the state of their health is. You can’t tell their blood pressure, or their cholesterol levels, or any of that science-y stuff. So unless you are someone’s doctor and are basing what you’re saying on extensive medical testing, you don’t get to say anything about their weight or their health.
In fact, according to Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera, Diego Rivera didn’t begin suffering from chronic health problems until after he’d started a strict diet (on a Detroit doctor’s recommendation) and lost quite a bit of weight:
“… his drastic diet in Detroit had left him shrunken and saggy, prey to glandular disorders, hypochondria, and extreme irritability. (Finally, in 1936 a doctor treating him for an infection of the tear duct of his right eye ordered him to be “reinflated.”) He was “weak, thin, yellow, and morally exhausted,” wrote Frida to Ella Wolfe in July [of 1936].”- Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
Now, obviously I don’t know all the details, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s definitely interesting that Rivera seemed to generally be in better health when his weight was higher.
And the fact is that no matter what size Diego Rivera was, Frida Kahlo loved him.
In an essay that Frida Kahlo wrote for the catalogue of a Diego River retrospective, she said,
“His enormous stomach, drawn tight and smooth as a sphere, rests upon his strong legs, beautiful columns, that end in large feet pointing outward at an obtuse angle as if to embrace all the word and to support himself invincibly on the earth like an antediluvian being from which emerges, from the waist up, and example of future humanity, distant from us by two or three thousand years.” - Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
To Frida, Diego was beautiful, not just in spite of his size, but because of it. She loved every aspect of the way he looked, from his the circumference of his waist to the splayed angle of his stance. She was, for the entirety of her adult life, deeply, viscerally attracted to this man who most of the patrons of the AGO thought was too fat to love.
The sad fact is that, for a crowd who had come to witness the varying, brilliant, subversive ways that Frida Kahlo saw and reflected the world around her, very, very few of them were able to open their minds enough to understand just how, exactly, she saw her fat, “ugly” husband: strong, vital and, yes, beautiful.