The art of the self: Eloise Grills’ big beautiful female theory

If I could send one book back in space­–time to reach that bulimic self who covered her bedroom walls with images of Kate Moss circa 1993 and tell that girl, maybe you don’t want to be Kate Moss, you just want to smoosh against her like your Barbies, Eloise Grills’ big beautiful female theory  would be that book. I would prescribe this pink-edged volume as antidote to diet culture, internalised misogyny and body dysmorphia. Equal parts beautiful monster and cyborg fantasy, pop culture and high theory, Grills’ collection of illustrated essays is a joyride for people who’ve felt like aliens in their own bodies. Fuck body positivity: like Grills’ proposed Museum of Fat Bitches’ Art, this work is ‘not designed to magnify your comfort or discomfort’ but rather ‘to reflect the world outside its walls.’ It’s a manifesto for say-it-like-it-is body neutrality.

Forget the Bechdel test, while we’re at it. I want to know whether a work of literature will pass the big beautiful female theory test: is there a self-aware female or gender non-conforming narrator who confesses to their body’s abjected secretions with a non-sexualised matter-of-factness? Here is Self-Objectification Theory at its finest, where the objectifier­ collaborates in the glorification of their much-too-muchness. In her essay ‘In Praise of Navel Gazing’, Melissa Febos describes how centring the body in personal narrative is frowned on by the patriarchal dominant who dismiss corporeal writing as narcissistic and self-serving. Following a tradition of literary activism where the personal is made political, Febos asks us to see this minimisation of bodily experience for what it is: a way to preserve the toxic status quo.

Grills puts (disturbingly common) traumatic experiences into perspective through lenses of feminist, psychoanalytic and critical theories. She writes her humiliation onto the page and suddenly I’m under the covers with my childhood best friend whispering about the first time we saw (unwanted) dicks, losing our virginity to boys who wanted thirty-one extra flavours. Grills paints it all in watercolour: ‘naked crying, fucking, masturbating, pissing, kissing, lounging, bathing.’

Film theorist Laura Mulvey talks about how the masks of fetishistic defence we wear are red herrings for psychological trauma. In a society where women’s suffering is met with disbelief, our fetishistic armour might grow to carnivalesque proportions. We expose ourselves in order to be seen and accepted in spite of. As a result of the trauma which is inherent to living in a female (cis or trans) body, we witness Grills hovering outside her body, dissociated. She writes

When I was fourteen, I embarrassed myself so bad I split into a new person, caught embarrassment by proxy

Grills acknowledges the complexity of the competing desires of her split selves:

When I was fourteen, I wanted more than anything to be desired.
When I was fourteen, I didn’t want anyone to fucken touch me.

Where she maps her pain to specific body parts in ‘huge sweeping meaninglessness of life with human body, for sale’ I’m reminded of early hypertext pioneer Shelley Jackson’s stitched-together cartography exhibited in Patchwork Girl (1995). I want to name this artistic discipline Abject Impressionism—where the most reviled parts of self are inscribed upon the representation of the artist’s body, demanding to-be-gazed-at-ness. The practice of re-constructing a self out of reviled, abjected parts also speaks to transqueer academic Quinn Eades’s work on écriture matière—literally: writing matter—wherein he calls for all bodies—not just female bodies—to write themselves onto the page.

With an awareness of the limits of binary categorisation, Grills questions her ‘gendered superficiality’ and asks whether by ‘positioning fat femme artists as a worthy cultural category’ she is ‘liposuctioning their value.’ Considering that thinness has been marketed, bottled and shoved down our throats, our self-worth reduced to the dial on a scale, the question is rhetorical. In a searing attack on thinness, Blueberries author Ellena Savage demands to know, ‘What did getting on your knees to disappear ever get anyone?’ while Eating with My Mouth Open’s Sam van Zweden sums up the devastating punishments that accompany such acts of disappearance:

‘Willpower’ is peddled as an inexhaustible resource, and one that reflects personal worth. All that’s required is perfection – accompanied by shame, and absolute repentance for the body’s continual weakness and failures.

Deciding to take up as much space as you require and being unwilling to cede the borderlands of physical embodiment is a profound decision that requires conscious effort and mental retraining. In So Sad Today, Melissa Broder describes herself as a feminist who is a hypocrite because she lusts after zaftig bodies yet keeps her own under joyless discipline. One of my favourite Instagram accounts is that of Los Angeles-based illustrator Theresa Baxter, who became comfortable taking up space after sketching other bodies ‘as they are’, translated in vibrant look-at-me hues which refuse to fade into the background.

It’s hard work combating the lies we’ve been sold around body size, promiscuity and worth—lies that devalue us and distract us from Real issues all at once. In ‘The Fat Bitch in Art,’ Grills traces the fear of fatness to ‘racist ideas about physiognomy’ that were used as justification for colonial violence. She writes against these entrenched notions which serve to subjugate the fat, Black and/or queer Other, being mindful of her white privilege. Much as Ingo Musico reclaims the word ‘cunt’, Grills’ self-identification as a ‘fat bitch’ comes as an artist’s prerogative.

In addition to addressing issues around fatness and body neutrality, big beautiful female theory dishes up a searing take on artistry under capitalism, wherein artists commodify suffering for loose change. In Chelsea Hodson’s delicious essay ‘Pity the Animal’ she weighs the value of her body as commodity and finds that ‘If I’m sold as an object, then I’m no longer a threat.’ But is less neatly packaged objectification any less threatening? Grills, ‘Patron Saint of wanking inwardly,’ questions whether ‘messy, ugly art adequately resists the spanking we receive across the arse by the powers that be.’ Ultimately, however, like ugly crying, ugly-beautiful art serves as salve for those of us who write against the abyss, as antidote to depression and self-harm. Grills advises

Write what makes you want to tear your skin off like tissue paper
Write what makes you want to DIE
But then don’t die
And write some more

Five years in the making, big beautiful female theory is a labour of love that defies our fast-paced, extractive culture—more slofie than selfie. Grills is artist, writer and comic, but just because these illustrated memoirs are side-splitting landmines for laughter—

My pussy’s the sorcerer’s apprentice’s broom
It fucks and it fucks and it floods the whole room

—doesn’t mean they should be mistaken for comics. Grills hand-painted each of the countless artworks in big beautiful female theory in watercolour. The hand-written captions lend one the feeling of peeking inside an artist’s notebooks where the secrets are so wet and juicy as to demand a padlock and a warning: KEEP OUT. She reconfigures aphorisms—‘Beauty fades but young, dumb and full of come is forever’—into hard-hitting meme-worthy truisms whose meanings magnify when juxtaposed with painterly closeups: in this case of her lips injected to jellyfish proportions.

Grills admits to wanting ‘to live in a boudoir painting, always reclining, always naked’, gazing over mountainous breasts and far away. Although weather conditions in Victoria make this aesthetic ideation a fantasy, what Grills has achieved in her ‘erotics of art’ (à la Susan Sontag) is an amalgam of ‘fat bitch’ artist-cum-nude-model-cum-cultural-critic.

On Instagram I study the windows Grills has hand-painted: one looks in on her pretty pink books displayed in a store; others look out from her studio at home in the country. Forget the male gaze: these colourfully inked lenses are a celebration of female desire in all its monstrosity and ordinariness. Picture line art that intrudes on everyday scenes of domesticity: pastel dicks entering mouths against a backdrop of Netflix and chill. These windows are both meta- and pastiche, like American Splendour but more whimsical and femme. Their playfulness belies the core issues at the heart of Grills’ work and therein lies the charm of this Sexy Female Murderess. What beats subversiveness served up like a dozen frosted cupcakes on a velvet platter? Two dozen, maybe, and a knife to the guts.

Jenny Hedley

Jenny Hedley is a neurodivergent writer, PhD student and Writeability mentor whose work appears in Archer, Cordite, Crawlspace, Diagram, Mascara, Overland, Rabbit, TEXT, The Suburban Review, Verity La, Westerly, and the anthologies Admissions: Voices in Mental Health and Verge. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Website:

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