I have been to Wonderland. At least, that’s what I thought when I was little and would pretend that I could access any of the Disney worlds. I didn’t need the theme parks or the impersonators; I could just close my eyes. But as I got older, I began to realize that my fantasies had some major flaws, and I don’t just mean my inability to transpose myself into cartoons. As I watched The Little Mermaid, my favorite fantasy world to dream about, I noticed that I would have a bit of a wardrobe issue once I went under the sea. Needless to say, I’m not sure they make seashells in my size.
But it turns out, I didn’t necessarily want to be Ariel; I just wanted to live in the sea. And for those of us who have been down the Disney rabbit hole, we know that there is another underwater woman who could not be held back by seashells. Ursula the sea witch may be the villain, but she certainly knows how to leave a lasting impression. So it came as no surprise when Button Poetry’s video of “Dear Ursula” took the internet by storm. The poem, written and performed by Melissa May, condemns a recent doll version of Ursula with a “size zero” waist. As I watched the video, unabashedly crying and cheering (despite hushes in the library), I knew that Melissa had captured the true power of Ursula’s “body language.”
After the obligatory Facebook stalking and Google searching, Melissa and I finally sat down to a Skype interview. As her grainy image appeared with a huge smile and a hookah mouth piece, I knew I was truly in Wonderland. I was facing a woman who had unearthed feelings I didn’t even know I had inside of me. She was the one who opened my eyes to the true power of Ursula. I essentially knew nothing about her, yet somehow she knew everything that I wanted to say. And there she was on my computer screen – the poet who embodied the power and grace of a character children had been taught to fear.
I was dying to dive into a joint Disney analysis, but I knew I wanted to start with Melissa’s own story. Melissa shared that since she was 18 months old, she has been labeled “plus size.” For most of her life, she has struggled with body image and the stigma that “somebody, somewhere, is gonna recognize that you’re fat.” She told me that her parents started talking about dieting when she was as young as four years old. Eventually, Melissa had had enough. She was tired of the assumption that “large-bodied” women are flawed because they’re “taking up too much space already.” Again and again, Melissa groaned at what she considers the “supposed” obesity epidemic in America. She insisted that the narrow ideal of beauty, or the “beauty industrial complex,” is yet another aspect of the “patriarchy.” As two women clearly invested in women’s and gender studies, we couldn’t help but laugh at the ever present image of “the man.”
With all this body image angst, Melissa knew she had to talk about these experiences, so she turned to slam poetry – a platform where she could use her own body to tell her story. Melissa described it as “choosing to step into [her] body.” She and two other slam poets, Rachel Wiley and Denise Jolly, formed a poetry group they called the Sassy Fat Girls. Based on a project of Denise Jolly, the three women wrote love letters to their bodies. Melissa shared, “I began to see my body in different ways.” Melissa continues to slam, and even has a book coming out with publisher Words Dance. The book’s title, SparkleFat: Poems That Intend to be Seen, captures Melissa’s core mantra: occupy with intention, the choice to be present in one’s body. And “Dear Ursula,” one of the pieces in the book, follows that theme exactly.
Melissa had stories to tell, but she needed a hook. For slam poetry, she explained, you need something well-known and relatable, especially since the judges are at “varying levels of intoxication” and you only have three minutes. Then, in 2013, as she was looking for inspiration for an Ursula Halloween costume, Melissa discovered Disney’s “Villains Designer Collection”: a set of dolls with the Disney villainesses in couture outfits. As she looked through the dolls, Melissa found a blaring issue – instead of Ursula’s belly and tentacles, there was a “cinched waist” and a poofy skirt (as if the ruffles made up for Ursula’s true size). At first, Melissa simply laughed at this mistranslation, but she soon realized the severity of this change and she knew that this was it – the hook she needed.
At this point, I couldn’t help but ask a question that had been bothering me: while Ursula’s body positivity was very inspiring, why could only villains be sexy and powerful? While Melissa agreed, she instantly asked: “Was she really that evil?” According to Melissa, Ursula’s self esteem is so admirable as to be heroic; Ursula is a shapeshifter who chose to be in this body. She didn’t need to learn to accept herself because she liked the way she looks. At one point, Ursula even laments losing weight. Despite these admirable qualities, Ursula was still cast as the villain. Melissa explained: “Women who are assertive, or show it with intention in their bodies, are villainized.” In fact, the villains are often the more developed characters – they are the only ones who can have a dark side.
As the interview began to wrap up, I asked Melissa if she thought our society was ready for a curvy princess. Melissa sighed, and eventually said, “Yes and no.” She then explained that, like her “Dear Ursula” video, a film with a curvy princess (or at least one who didn’t fit the “cookie cutter mold”) would be received with both hate and adoration. People still believe that showing people with larger body types is promoting an “unhealthy lifestyle.” But Melissa stood firm: no matter what, our society needs a curvier princess. She said, “It’s important for large-bodied people to see themselves represented on a screen larger than a tumblr blog.” Melissa then argued further: “I don’t think that the narrative is so different for people.” She then explained that her sister, who is considered much thinner, has also struggled with body image. Melissa observed, “We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate in our bodies and accept them.” But if this is a common battle, why is our society still so afraid of presenting larger body types? Melissa sighed. “Fat people are one of the last people everybody can hate together. It’s acceptable in society to shame fat people because it’s seen as something that they are holistically in control of.”
Suddenly, I was struck by the true power of this interview. Here we were, two women considered outsiders of the body image norm, discussing what actions need to be taken. We were taking control of our bodies and our representation. As Melissa said, “Every body is worthy of being seen.” And we are ready to fight.