Beth Ditto talks bodies, Waffle House and her new solo album, ‘Fake Sugar.’
Beth Ditto graced the stage with her dance-punk group Gossip at Vino’s Brewpub in 2009. Her booking agent had advised against the late October stop, no doubt because the crusty pizzeria’s tiny back room wasn’t exactly commensurate to the other venues on the band’s “Music For Men” tour: San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom, The Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in LA, sprawling English lawns for the Leeds and Reading festivals in the U.K. The set list at Vino’s was frenetic, the eyeliner was heavy and fans were sweaty. Waves of enthusiasm rippled from the front of the room — packed to the gills with cousins and aunts and uncles from Kensett and West Point and Georgetown and Judsonia, White County kin who knew her when she was called Mary Beth Patterson and not yet self-describing as a “fat, feminist lesbian from Arkansas.” Earlier that year, Ditto had launched a collection of plus-size clothing for a British retailer called Evans, having been cast as an icon of body positivity after posing nude on the covers of NME and Love magazines a couple of years prior. Nearly nine years later, the Judsonia native returns to Little Rock for a show at the Rev Room with SSION in support of her full-length solo debut, “Fake Sugar.” I talked with her ahead of that March 7 concert, which, for anyone who knows the words to “Dimestore Diamond,” is a must-see gem on the calendar of music in Central Arkansas this spring.
You’ve had this sort of coming-to-terms with being from Arkansas. That resonates with me and, I think, a lot of people our age who are from here. What do you miss?
When I go home, I like to go back to Judsonia and just drive around. If I’m with someone who’s never been there, I like to tell them all the stories. You know, Judsonia has such a cool, weird history, and I really love history. Like, at one time there was an all-women’s college there, and it was a really bustlin’ little town and then the tornado blew it away, and it just kinda was never the same. It also has the only Union soldiers’ cemetery in Arkansas. So, I like to drive around and look at those things. My aunt’s buried there, and I like to go visit her grave. My dad’s down in Georgetown and I like to go visit his grave. I don’t do anything fancy. I like to go to the Waffle House, because we don’t have those up here, and I spent so much time there as a teenager.
So, you’ve been challenging sexuality and body norms for longer than we’ve had internet memes and slogans to help us wrap our minds around ideas of body positivity, like getting used to the idea that “fat” is just a descriptor and not a derogatory word. What’s the next frontier?
I think it’s happened. You know, Ashley Graham’s on the cover of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated! And I don’t think that’s the most important thing — you know, patriarchal male acceptance of sexuality — but I think it was such a telling time about where we are in the timeline of women’s bodies, what’s being accepted and how we’ve actually changed something. To get people to notice that “Hey, this is a woman’s body, too,” and that this is more of an average woman’s body. And we’re sort of just not taking “no” for an answer. We’re just not gonna lay down and let people decide what is beautiful for us.
And having a social platform like the internet, it took so much power away from huge corporations. We used to only see images of one person, and now we see images of people all the time. And when you have that, it makes it much easier. People can actually see what other people’s bodies are like and it’s not edited. It’s not done for profit, it’s done for just sharing. And that is so powerful.
What’s next? I think we’re gonna see this incredible evolution of people accepting their bodies in all kinds of ways, and kind of saying “no” to the female body being limited for profit. It’s just capitalism. I always have to bring it back to capitalism. It makes a lot of money telling women that they need to buy things. … But when you have something like Instagram or Facebook, or people’s blogs, it’s taking the power back into their hands.
There’s all these images we have access to that we never had before. Being young back then, it was really interesting and it could feel really lonely and isolated. You couldn’t have a community at your fingertips, you had to wait for it to come in the mail. Now you can just open your phone. It’s the most inspiring thing for me to see people reaching out to each other and discussing body image and weight and even class, and how all these things play into our body image and our self-esteem. I mean, 18 year olds are like twenty years younger than us, basically, so it’s nice to see how things have changed so much for them. It’s the best.
Yeah. That they don’t grow up thinking their body is a problem and needs to be “fixed.”
Because who are you fixing it for? It’s not for yourself. I remember once I was doing a juice fast, and I was telling myself I was doing it for health, and after I’d done it for a few days — successfully didn’t eat for two days — I was like, “This isn’t about health.” This is so full of shit. Like, I had to call myself out on it.
That’s refreshing, because it’s easy for somebody struggling with body issues to look at somebody like you and think you’ve got it all figured out.
No one has it all figured out. I think that’s the most important thing — to realize that it’s a struggle for the rest of your life, to be happy with yourself. Not just with your body but with your brain and your job and your talents. It’s always evolving. When things are changing all the time, you have to adjust to them. Age is another thing. And there’s race, and there’s body type, and there’s weight and body shape. And ability, too. All of those things play into body image and they’re all really personal. It’s all a calculation of yourself. Do you know what I mean? I can go really deep on this.
So you’re in this Gus Van Sant movie “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” that people are really loving at Sundance. Can you talk about it?
Yeah! I was in LA working, and this casting director, Francine Maisler, called me and she was like, “Gus Van Sant wants you to come try out for this part. We think you’d be really good for it.” And I was up against Gwendolyn Christie for it; she’s in “Game of Thrones,” she’s the tall blonde. So I was like, “I’m not gonna get the part.” But the part was — she’s a “quote, unquote, redneck woman” who probably would be from the backwoods or something. Her character was just really warm. And country. Oh, her name is Reba, too. So I was in there reading and I didn’t have time to prepare for it, so I was just like, “This is what I think Reba sounds like. She has the mannerisms of my mom, but she talks like my aunt Linda Gayle.” And they were, like, “Perfect.” So I just pretended I was my aunt Linda Gayle, and I got it.
When you made the decision to do a solo record, “Fake Sugar,” you mentioned that this was a way to get out from under this notion that somehow you didn’t have as much to offer to Gossip as you did. I mean, so much of that band was your identity. Have your old bandmates heard it?
Yeah! I know Nathan [Howdeshell] is really proud of it. We support each other still. We love each other. He’s my brother from another mother and I’m his sister from another mister. We just aren’t always eye-to-eye. So there’s a lot of things where we’re like, “I wish you the best. Do your thing, but I can’t do that.” And our favorite karaoke songs were always “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” so the day the record came out, he just sent me a YouTube link for “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” We speak to each other in jokes. Nathan’s always been like that. When I told him that I wanted to do a record and that I was gonna quit Gossip, his words were “Let that baby fly.” My dad used to say, “Let that baby eat.” So it was a play on that.
“Let that baby eat?”
My dad would get mad, like, if I wanted to eat and my brother and sisters were making fun of me, he’d say, “Let her eat. Let that baby eat!”
This interview has been edited and condensed. Check out the full interview on our arts and entertainment blog, Rock Candy.