Bodies are hard. We are constantly ashamed of them, constantly trying to hide them, constantly letting them keep us from living our lives as fully as we might. This is why so many people take inspiration from Lena Dunham. Hardly a season of Girls goes by without someone writing a dozen essays on Slate about how she’s broken some body image wall or taught young women not to be ashamed of their eating by tweeting pictures of herself eating cake by the handful. And she deserves that praise. Lena Dunham is a serious talent doing serious work. While so much of our cultural product tells young women that their bodies need to meet unreasonable standards to even be allowed into decent society, she’s placed her lumpy, bookish body front and center in her work, showing once and for all that reasonably-shaped women can have a powerful sexual agency of their own provided that they’re—well—also immensely talented, fiercely intelligent, and cool.
At its core, what Lena Dunham did for young women was separate desirability from the body. She made it about who you are, not what you look like. Lena Dunham did not achieve this victory for body positivity alone, however. She stood on the shoulders of a giant—of a person who, before Lena Dunham was even old enough to drive, was smashing body-norms left and right like they were the testicles of his enemies.
That giant was the rapper Rick Ross, the greatest body positive hero of the 21st century.
Rick Ross is an enormously fat man. He’s fat in way only a man can be fat. The fatness of a woman has a sensuousness to it, a softness, but Rick Ross’s obesity is a brutal obesity. His musculature forces his breasts to ooze out of his chest. His spherical stomach protrudes like a planet. If you touched it, doubtless, it would feel like a wall. When he moves, his body undulates like a water bed.
In the time before the Lena Dunham revolution, the modern reasonably-shaped woman, at least, has some societal sexual agency. She is allowed to have sex. That sex must happen behind closed doors. The lights must be off. There must be n enjoyment. But it’s there. And yet who is denied sexual agency completely? Who is rejected entirely even when the lights are out and there’s money sitting on the table? The morbidly obese man. Or at least he was until Rick Ross liberated him by taking off his shirt.
Not since the untimely death of Big Pun from a chicken overdose has there been a body in popular music more offensive to traditional values of male beauty, a body our norms more desperately wish was covered up in a dozen layers of clothes.
Rick Ross, however, does not give a shit about our norms or our desires or our ideas of what a man’s body should or shouldn’t be. As Lena Dunham shows off her body in most every episode of Girls, Rick Ross shows his off almost everywhere he goes. He takes off his shirt in music video after music video. He appears on magazine covers without a shirt. He performs at the BET awards without a shirt, his uncovered body there for millions of people to behold like he were LL Cool J or D’Angelo or David Beckham.
This is why Rick Ross is an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt ashamed of their body. He feels no shame.
When you think of morbidly obese men, you think of them as stationary. Like women can never eat, men must always be bounding about in fields, jumping, laughing, throwing or kicking various balls. To sit, for an obese man, is to reach the pinnacle of revulsion. His breasts dangle like deflated udders. His stomach curls up into putrid folds. His genitals are subsumed like the head of a retreating turtle. When Lena Dunham sits down naked on a bed, she at least gets to stay a human being, but for an obese man to show that putrefaction to others—to be shirtless while sitting—is to cease to become nothing but an amorphous, undulating blob of flesh completely incapable of being sexually desirable to anyone.
And yet Rick Ross does just that in the video for his remix of the Wacka Flocka Flame song “Hard in da Paint,” entitled “Hard in the Paint.” He not only takes off his shirt, as he always heroically does, but sits in a chair positioned in front of a window. We see his profile (the worst of all obesity angles!) dark like a shadow against the skyline of Las Vegas. There is the city with its teaming millions. There are all its beautiful bodies, its show girls, its concierges, its blackjack dealers, all glaring up through the flickering lights and marijuana smoke at Rick Ross’ elephantine body. Does Rick Ross cover himself in embarrassment? Does he clutch at his breasts so as to not show his nipples? Does he quickly pull a shirt over his head? No. He dances. He throws his arms into the air and dances in his chair, his breasts bouncing freely.
He looks right into the camera and asserts that he too is a sexual being.
Can you imagine a more body positive act? To be completely exposed—in the eyes of society—as this bulbous lump of revolting flesh, and then break into celebration! As if all those vicious eyes of the city and of his audience (oh how we judge him! oh how we snicker to each other about how can’t ever keep his shirt on!) were nothing to him, as if he had transcended all of us in one luminous, naked leap.
If a hero is someone who, when society says they can’t, does, then Rick Ross is a truly a body hero. Like Lena Dunham takes the idea that young women with a bookish bodies can’t be sexual on TV and hurls it back in the face of society, Rick Ross hurls back the idea that being morbidly obese means he has to be reviled, hidden away, a leper.
In the video for the single Hold Me Back, Rick Ross unleashes his body like a hurricane across the ravaged slums of New Orleans. His tattoos gleam in the sun, his breasts bounce like gelatin, his stomach dangles below his waist like a wheelbarrow, all in gruesome black and white. Everything in that video is ugly. The women he gathers around himself to dance are branded and scared. The men he brandishes behind himself are lumpy and ominous. The buildings they stand in front of are rundown, if not abandoned. In “Hold Me Back,” Rick Ross places himself where “he belongs,” down in the muck and mire, down in the bottom sewers of his society. But “Hold Me Back” isn’t a song of resignation. It’s not a song about being put in your place. It’s not a song about feeling sorry for yourself. It’s not a song about how society hates me and is right to hate me because I am a bulbous monster.
Listen to it.
In “Hold Me Back,” Rick Ross refrains, “These niggas try and hold me back… the niggas can’t hold me back.” He is referring, obviously, to many people, his enemies in the drug game, his enemies in the rap game, his friends who aren’t really his friends but leeches sucking his blood, but among them is also society as a whole. Society has told Rick Ross that his body prevents him from being what he wants to be, a sexually empowered man, an important man, a powerful man, but Rick Ross will not—cannot—doesn’t even know how to let them hold him back.
“Hold Me Back” is song of triumph. It’s a song about how Rick Ross went from nothing—from poverty—from eating “soup”—to wealth and power and “steak” thanks to his preternatural leadership abilities in organizing a drug cartel. It’s about how all of them there have triumphed together through his cartel and now are celebrating. They bounce up and down. They feast. They dance. Fat men never dance in public. Certainly not without wearing a shirt. But Rick Ross dances ecstatically. Together, he and his cohorts have gone beyond everything. Together, they have made their ugliness the source of their power. Their ugliness and poverty separated him and his cohorts from the world. We hate the poor. We hate the ugly. We herd them into ghettos. We shoo them off our screens. Yet this morbidly obese man has risen up and made himself and his body inescapable and imperial.
When Lena Dunham was photographed by Vogue Magazine, her photographs were modest. She had made it to the pinnacle—she had forced Vogue Magazine, the flagship of the armada of American magazines that promote terrible body images for women, to accept her—to place her side by side with all the tall, emaciated sex symbols that have been sex symbols so long as anyone can remember, but the palace coup was a bloodless one. All her lumps were famously pared away with Photoshop. Where was her “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt? Where was the marker that Vogue had always been wrong?
This is where Rick Ross goes beyond Lena Dunham. Lena Dunham is only a liberal. She wants, of course, to improve the system, but she still believes in the fundamental validity of that system, still craves its approval even if that approval means having to be photographed with a humiliating bird on her head. Rick Ross is a revolutionary. He doesn’t want acceptance. He wants the annihilation of the old order of thinness. When he had the same chance as Lena Dunham—when Rolling Stone sent out Terry Richardson to photograph him—he refused to be co-opted, he stood his heroic ground.
Presumably, the photo shoot was joke. Of all the photographers in the world, Richardson is famous for being the most sexually exploitative. He’s the man who made the Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball” video. He’s the man who is constantly reviled for turning fashion shoots into sleazy pornography. You can hear the Rolling Stone editors joking about how funny it would be to have a man like Richardson photograph Rick Ross—about how he could make Rick Ross spread his thunder thighs like a girl in one of Richardson’s legendary American Apparel ads.
But the old, conservative men at Rolling Stone underestimated Rick Ross. He didn’t try to look cute for Richardson. He didn’t go out and buy a new tailored suit. He didn’t throw down some of his millions on some Armani to make him look slimmer, flatter, more like what society expected him to be. Rick Ross just took off his shirt. Instead of being exploited by Richardson, Rick Ross exploited Richardson. He took off his shirt and used the photographer’s camera to show off the slopes and curves of his body. He showed him his tattoos, his teeth, the fat of his arms. He showed him that his body didn’t make him a cripple. It made him powerful.
Lean Dunham just hasn’t reached that level yet. She’s still young. She still sees her body as a burden, as something in need of approval. But she’ll get there. She’s a brilliant young woman. One day, like Rick Ross, she’ll realize that true body positivity isn’t about accepting your body, nor is it about getting society to accept your body. It isn’t about overcoming the doubts that stem from the imperfections in your body. It isn’t about learning to be comfortable with what you are. True body positivity is about loving your body. It’s about drawing power from your body. It’s about making your body the star around which the world revolves.
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