This essay was originally published in Spoiler Space, August 31st, 2008.
On Being the Bigger Barda
Two years ago, several of my friends and I planned to attend a party at WisCon (a feminist sci-fi convention) dressed as various members of the Birds of Prey. I chose to be Big Barda, partly because I love her kick-butt style, and partly because she is one of the few heroines to appear in Birds of Prey comics who wears a costume that’s more armor than spandex. I’m five foot five, and currently weigh in at around two hundred pounds; I am a little self-conscious about the way my body looks when encased in skin-tight, shiny, colored fabric.
Of course, since I couldn’t rig up some scale mail, I ended up wearing a spandex body-suit anyway (and one covered with sequins, at that!), but I got really creative in putting together the rest of the costume. My husband and I created a breastplate out of plaster cloth, spackle and spray paint. I made over a pair of neon-orange galoshes into golden superhero boots. My mega-rod was formed out of a piece of plumbing pipe. Separately, each piece of my costume looked absurd, but when I put it all together on the night of the party, it was awesome.
The other Birds of Prey and I were a huge hit, and dozens of people complimented us and asked us to pose for photographs. When I saw the pictures popping up on flickr after the con, I winced a little bit at every shot that showed my spandex-clad thighs, or my rounded belly. But at the same time, I was proud of the way I looked in those photos. I’m a martial artist, and though plenty of my bulk is chubbiness, a lot of it is muscle. I’m very, very strong – like Barda! Well, not that strong. But the fact remains that my body, which looks nothing like most of the bodies that artists draw for Barda, is the body of a powerful woman. And posing for photos while wearing a blue, sequined unitard, next to my beautiful friends whose bodies aren’t perfect four-color heroine bodies, either, was a way of owning that power.
After WisCon this year, some trolls in an internet forum, alerted to the existence of the con by a woman who attended with, apparently, the sole purpose of making fun of people, went looking for images from previous cons to mock. Several photos of me in my Barda costume came under fire, predictably enough. A chubby woman wearing tight clothing in public? Oh, the shame!
I made a cryptic post in my LiveJournal about what was going on, and flippantly said something about how my costume was badass (which, in case there’s any doubt, it totally was!), no matter what anyone else thinks, and in a flash my words were being torn apart on the forum right next to my images. I also started getting abusive comments on my LiveJournal posts, mostly castigating me for my weight and suggesting that my heaviness is some kind of reflection of internal moral corruption, or even – my favorite comment of them all – that I am almost single-handedly ruining the world because I have big thighs.
I’ve been a woman on the internet for years, so this wasn’t an entirely new experience for me. But this time, my anonymous attackers were using photos against me that I had previously associated with self-confidence and power. It hurt. It hurt a lot more than the time some stranger told me to “get [my] vagina out of a knot.” It upset me more than the creepy come-ons and outright rape threats I used to receive when I was a MUD-playing teenager. It felt a lot more real, and a lot more personal.
But you know what? It wasn’t. It wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about my body. It was about our societal disgust with women, with fat people, and with anyone who dares to appear in public with an imperfect body and not feel shame for it. It was about the way our misogynist culture conditions people to react to confident women, particularly those whose bodies are judged unattractive, with hostility.
Does our visual media have something to do with this? Hell yes. Would it help if the Barda in the comics was actually as Big as I am? I don’t know. Maybe. But it sure couldn’t hurt.
In the meantime, I don’t mind being the Bigger Barda. I may not be able to lift canons or knock bad guys through walls, but I’m pretty awesome. Even when I’m wearing spandex.