Talking body politics, ethical fashion and Donald Trump with Beth Ditto

How to remedy body-shaming? Question yourself.

[B]eth Ditto has never subscribed to yours, or even society’s definition of what’s normal. A true punk, radical artist and counter-culture figure, her new collection openly challenges the ideas that the fashion industry prescribes to us as conventional. Over a few sodas in Soho, we talked about the inherently political act of owning a fat body in a body-shaming climate, the bigotry that has exposed itself in the wake of Trump’s campaign and the ethical see-saw of sweatshop-free fashion.

Beth’s new collection is now available at bethditto.com.

Hey Beth, so what is your collection about? Where is it from?

Well, this is it [she points to her white nightgown with a recurring eyelash motif]. It feels like a marshmallow on my skin and I love it. Look how easily I move in it (she moves, with ease, up and down a chaise lounge)

I didn’t go to business school, or design school but I knew what I wanted. Here’s the thing, when I did it with Evans, my biggest concern was where it was made. I did two of them and all the while feeling uncomfortable about where it was made, feeling guilty and bad.

Why?

Because sweatshops.

Oh right, so where was this collection made?

New York. It is a labour of love. It’s really difficult but the people are great. We visited the factories, the pattern-cutters. It’s not as easy as just sketching something out and sending it away to receive a huge bulk order. It was all a huge learning curve.

Cool. Can you remember a time when you first felt like you were reclaiming a space for yourself, in fashion, or just in general?

I can remember it dawning on me, that it had gone from oh “you’re just a kid” (I was always a chubby kid, I’ve always been big) to having a very adult awareness of your body. You know, your belly, your butt…that was actually a nickname as a kid, not even being mean but I was ‘bubble butt’!

You know, it wasn’t traumatising but it did give a very adult awareness of your body, that maybe thinner kids don’t have so much – although they are also subjected to their own things too…everybody is.

Anyway, I never wore a bikini even as a six-years old, I was told to cover up parts of my body, out of shame, not out of decency but literally out of shame. My mother thought she was doing me a favour, by teaching me all of these things to cope and blocking me from the public, and I’m actually really grateful for that too because, maybe, in her way, she was protecting me, you never know because people are cruel.

Yes, at a young age we are told that bodies have different values

Yes, in that moment, even at six years old I was being told “the way I am shaped isn’t right” and “there’s stuff for me to cover up”. People ask me “have you always been comfortable with your body?” and I’m like “well yeah, it was never me, it was always other people’s discomfort with my body” and I remember learning that really young.

In my teens I can remember seeing fat women on TV, and my mum (and remember this was peak 80s/early 90s diet culture) said “tell me if I ever get that big”. Anyway, I repeated a similar comment to my friend (we were both getting into punk, feminism, and riot grrl at the same time) and she said “you know, I don’t see anything wrong with it and you maybe you should think about why you feel that way”

And I was like “oh my god, you’re right”. And I began to delve deeper into body politics, and how that related to feminism, women, the patriarchy, it goes on and on, but it made complete sense to me, because I was like that is my complete experience.

I feel like exposing flesh and your body, at all odds against society’s wishes, is actually one of the most punk things you can do

It was the most punk thing I ever did.

And you can do it without saying anything

Without a word ! and just existing. That’s the thing about punk, the way they looked was exactly what they were saying. That why I think I felt such a strong relationship to punk. Punk saved my life.

The minute you start to react out of fear, be it because of your body, or other people, is when you start asking yourself “why am I afraid?”, “why am I feeling anger?” Ask yourself why.

What other designers do you think are being progressive with regards to body-shaming culture?

On a big level, I can’t think of anyone and I think it’s been pointed out before. There are designers who will make things bigger, and maybe I’m giving them too much credit in that I will always find something. Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier will always make something.

But for me, it wasn’t about trying to join the industry, it was about doing something for myself. It’s a weird place to be caught in, especially because of the price point, which is set purely because of where it’s made and what it’s made from.

 

A lot of people would prefer to shop ethical fashion no?

I think it’s hard. A lot of people don’t. and a lot of people do.

 

Is that because of ignorance?

Yes, just like I was I don’t think people really do realise what goes into making something and why it’s so expensive.

It was either make it and let it be affordable or make it and let it be ethical. There was no middle ground at all. I really don’t think there’s another option available at the moment.

How do you think we can remedy body-shaming culture?

Question yourself. If I see something I don’t like…”that lamp is ugly… I ask myself why I think that, then I can put it into a context where I can think it’s amazing. Maybe it’s not my favourite, but I get it.

So that would be the main thing. Question yourself. Why do you have these negative feelings or connotations? Do they come from fear? You have to de-program yourself because it’s stuffed down your fucking throat. Especially, in British and American culture, especially fucking now, there’s all this blatant shit happening right now, some of it will seep through subliminally.

The minute you start to react out of fear, be it because of your body, or other people, is when you start asking yourself “why am I afraid?”, “why am I feeling anger?” Ask yourself why.

 

What are you going to do if Donald trump is elected?

I am honestly frightened. I think the world should be. I think it’s been bigotry’s “coming out” year, maybe they [the bigots] were feeling oppressed “we can’t hate the way we want to!”

I mean, we made it through the Reagan administration, you guys made it through Margaret Thatcher, I feel like it’s the 80s all over again but now there’s social media which gives a voice to the slack-jawed assholes who can speak about racism. It’s so dangerous and they feel empowered and nobody has to be hateful in secret anymore. Bigotry is just really “in” this year.

What do you want to see more of in the world ?

Empathy. Get your shit together and walk in somebody else’s shoes. If there’s still hate in your heart then I don’t understand.

And less?

The Kardashians? I’m joking! They’ve had a very rough year. I really don’t mean that in a personal way, I’m just ready for more scripted television. Good scripted television. We need more Downtown Abbeys.

Cool. thanks so much Beth!

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