Carina Shero is a German born, Chicago based artist active in the body positive movement. She is a plus size model and body positive activist who until April 2018 had an Instagram account @unskinnyhero which had over four-hundred thousand followers. This is the eighth time Instagram has done this. Unfortunately, this appears to be a broader issue at the social media site, where plus size women have been targeted with harassment and then ultimately having their accounts unexpectedly deleted. Shero is one of the founding members of the Chicago plus size only burlesque troupe The Femme FATales, and vows she will continue to fight for the body positive movement, saying the fight for full representation of all bodies is too important to give up. She sat down with TERSE.’s assistant editor Wes Bishop on April 15, 2018 to talk more about her work, her current issues with Instagram, and why the body positive movement is so important.
Wes Bishop: First of all thank you for taking the time to talk with us. To begin could you explain how you first got into modeling, performance art, and the body positive movement?
Carina Shero: So, I began modeling when I was twelve years old and living in Germany. At fourteen I was scouted by a model agent in L.A. and was told that I need to lose weight, which at that time I was still very skinny. My dad said absolutely not. He said, “If you want to sign her you can only do it if you are not going to try and change her.” So I did not go forward with modeling at that point. Then when I moved to America, my cousin who was a photographer at the time used me as a model and test subject, and I began playing with photography and self-portraiture on my own. I just began uploading images myself on sites like MySpace. Very quickly it began to garner a lot of attention. And then it really took off when I began posting to Tumblr about ten years ago. And at that point when I was posting photos I had gained a significant amount of weight and was definitely “plus size.” And those photos were definitely in the range of more “sensual” and “sexy.” Because I wasn’t seeing those kinds of images and representations anywhere else. It was a form of self-expression a way to get to know my body better. And once I began posting on Tumblr, within a month, my photos went viral. To the point that other friends who were on Tumblr were seeing me on their dash, and the images weren’t coming from me. So that showed me there was a demand for a plus size woman showing the world that she could own her body and be unapologetic about it. And it was content that was sensual and sexy, but not sexually explicit, which is what I have been doing this entire time now. Two years ago I went full time with modeling and creating these videos I sell. I really never aspired to be a model. I have a degree in interior architecture and design, and I worked as a nanny for a long time. All the things that go along with modeling don’t really interest me. I don’t know anything about make-up. I actually hate it. I don’t care for fashion like that. I am not interested in getting my hair and nails done. It is all a chore. But I know I have to keep on trucking, because there aren’t a lot of people doing what I am doing. And I want and need to create this representation. I guess I feel a lot of times like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings when he is riding on his horse back and forth, yelling and motivating the rest of the army to go into battle. I feel like that is me every day online, putting myself out there, doing this thing that people think is so taboo. You know because there is this idea in society that fat people should just hide, not be seen, just disappear and die. So, I fight every day for us to have representation and to show that we can do whatever we want to do. To prove that the opinions of others do not matter.
WB: Going off of that, what do you think are the broader goals and ideas of the body positive movement?
CS: I have to preface this by saying there are many people who claim to be for body positivity, but actually are not. So a lot of times body positivity gets diluted. The core of body positivity is to show that every BODY is perfect. Society is constantly telling us that there is something inherently wrong with ourselves in order to sell us things to feel better about ourselves, to make ourselves feel “more perfect.” The body positive movement in my take really is just a drive to teach people that this is all incorrect. Body positivity is actually getting us to understand we are all already perfect. Obviously this is going to take a lot of time because we have to unlearn what society has taught us. I honestly think if people grew up isolated from society, like on a deserted island, they would not have body issues. We’ve been taught to be concerned with things that just don’t matter. So, it is also an unlearning process. The body positive movement in essence is about freedom. I know for myself that when I got to the point that I realized the opinion of others did not matter it was liberating. I realized that my opinion about my body is the only one that matters. That gave me so much freedom. And, look, I still have work to do. There are parts of my body that I am still working on fully accepting. And I know that is because I have learned to not like certain parts of my body. But it’s an unlearning process, it will take time, but I know I will get there eventually. I think one of the reasons the body positive movement has not gotten the push it needs and is still working to be understood is because it is a threat to large industries, like Cosmopolitan and the teeny magazines, which are based on selling products that try to get people to change themselves to be “better” and “more perfect.”
WB: Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say some claim to be “body positive,” but actually aren’t working in the body positive movement?
CS: For instance take Ashley Graham. You’ll see multiple magazines saying “Ashley Graham is a Body Positive Icon” when she really is not a beacon for the body positive community. She gave an interview once where she said, “Oh, there are some mornings when I feel fat.” Well, news flash, we actually are fat. Every single day. This is nothing we can escape. This is just who we are. So the way people like Graham and others frame bodies is through a negative frame. And she has gained her notoriety off of the backs of actual fat people who for years and years have been putting themselves out there for body positivity and a huge part of her fan base are people who are actually fat. Her being a person who is an “inbetweenie” size, who therefore has a privilege of being on all these magazine covers because she is “acceptable,” and then shitting all over her fan base is the antithesis of what the body positive movement should be about. For example, Graham is currently on a TV show called Revenge Body which is a program that in essence tells you there is something inherently wrong with certain types of bodies that you then have to move away from to get a “better body.” There is nothing wrong with anyone’s body. Ever. You know?
WB: Yes. Well said.
CS: So that goes against the entire idea of body positivity. And so, I could name many other people who have done similar things where they have said “Oh, body positive!” but in actuality, no. If we really want to dissect this false presentation, it is not only NOT body positivity, but is harming the whole message of body positivity. And then there are a lot of people who are in the fat community who claim to be body positive and then say things like, “Fat girls do it better than skinny girls!” And again, that is wrong. At that point we are shaming an entire type of body for what it is when body positivity is not just for fat people. It is not just for a specific type of body. It is for everybody. It means we are all inherently perfect. And there is also a whole range of people who claim to be body positive who work in the realm of “fitness” and what they perceive as “health.” They think body positivity should only be for “healthy bodies,” so your body is only good if it is “healthy.” I find this very ableist. There are a lot of people who don’t have that privilege of being “healthy.” Because, again, there is nothing wrong with you if your body is not classified as perfectly healthy.
WB: That makes a lot of sense. I agree. Could you talk a little bit about your performance group The Femme FATales? How it got started, what are its goals, and who is in the troupe?
CS: The idea came in early 2014. I had gone to some burlesque shows in Chicago and I noticed that there was always almost only skinny performers with once in a while plus size performers sprinkled in there. What I noticed is that you could always see the audience’s reaction would shift when a plus size performer would come on stage. It would always be this feeling of “Oh, is this person going to take off their clothes? Oh… okay.” And then there would be this kind of forced applause. And I just thought it was so disheartening because everybody should be championed the same way based on their talents, and not on the size of their body. Especially in burlesque which is a platform that people have used to claim self-expression and empowerment, which to me is part of the broader goal of body positivity. So I was even asked to join a troupe. It was a troupe that had just one other inbetweenie performer, and I had to really think about whether I wanted to put myself in that kind of position where I would have been this afterthought. It would have been this position where my existence was only humored, but not really championed. I wanted to challenge that. I had a lot of professional dance training from when I was in Germany, but nothing specifically in burlesque. So I ended up becoming really good friends with Iridessence (note: Iridessence is a Chicago artist, model, and performer also part of the body positive movement), we met through Tumblr, and I told her this idea of wanting to create a plus size burlesque. But I had no idea how to go about doing that. So it was something we played with, we would talk about it here and there, and then she took me to this ice cream social at Vaudezilla which is one of the main troupes in Chicago. Vaudezilla was created by and is owned by Red Hot Annie who is an international burlesque performer and a star. It was at that meeting that I got to speak to her and pitch the idea, and she said, “You know what? This is really needed. I will support you all in any way.” She then provided us space, and reviews, and told us that we had to follow through with the idea. And that was really the fuel that we needed. Two months later we had our first big troupe meeting. We had a lot of people who joined through Tumblr and word of mouth. We ended up with thirteen people in our living room, that were all plus size, and of varying genders. We have some who are gender non-conforming, non-binary… just no cis-white men [laughs.]
WB: [laughing] Good idea.
CS: So after a couple of months we put on our very first show. It was sold out. We got a standing ovation. And we have not looked back since. I really consider our troupe members a family. Actually as I am giving this interview, we have rehearsals going on in my living room. We are getting ready for a late summer show, and this is really our lives now. In terms of the troupe, we strive for diversity in terms of race, body size, age, gender— we are always working on finding more representation and diversity. We do this because the main goal of our shows is for the viewer to experience seeing themselves. They don’t necessarily need to see themselves on stage performing, but what we want to convey to the viewer is that they can be as free and as in love with themselves as we are. Because when we are on that stage we are just so free, and just having so much fun, and are so in tune with our bodies. That is just not something you get to see, and burlesque for me is just a vehicle of offering an opportunity for people to see body positivity in motion. It is right in front of them. We have had offers of being on TV and whatnot, but so far we have been turning those down. So for example we were offered to be on America’s Got Talent but we have veered away from those things for the time being because many times our bodies are sensationalized. So for myself I have done a couple of TV appearances and one of those was in Germany, and it was supposed to be a segment on body positivity/body image. But then they actually took the majority of what I said about body positivity out of the final segment and focused instead on how I make money online. Then they sold all the segments they filmed with me to another show without my permission, and so now I am on a show called Ten Freakiest Bodies. It has aired multiple times in Germany and Austria, and just two nights ago it was on TV again, which is partially why I think I got deleted from Instagram because so many people who saw that show reported my account. I have not wanted to put my troupe in the same position.
WB: I’m really sorry to hear about the German show, Carina. That is really horrible.
CS: Oh, pssh. It has happened so many times now that I just… yeah.
WB: Well, I’m glad you have that attitude and are moving forward with your work, and are using the experience to help protect the others in your troupe, but still what the show did is disgusting. It’s the worst kind of exhibitionism. It’s like the shit someone like P.T. Barnum would have done. It’s very exploitative, very disrespectful, and purposefully misrepresents what you said and what you stand for.
WB: Well, that moves us to what happened with Instagram. So what was the issue with Instagram, what happened, and why do you think the site decided to delete your account?
CS: This is the seventh or eighth time Instagram has deleted me. The first was when I was at thirty-thousand, then it was when I hit sixty-thousand, then it was when my account hit one hundred and thirty-thousand. So this is the largest amount of followers I’ve ever had and this account was up the longest (note: the most recent account was @unskinnyhero). I had really hoped we had moved past this issue of fat phobia on Instagram, but apparently the company is at the moment deleting pretty much every plus size Instagram model that is working in lingerie or just generally in the realm of sexy or seductive. Which for me is devastating. I have been working at this for ten years, and for the past two years have been working to make content for my Patreon and for Instagram. This is my job. So without my account I am currently jobless. I still have my Patreon and my other platforms, but Instagram has been my main hub to show my work, to get sponsors, and to guide people to my other sites. I’ve also spent the most time curating my presence on Instagram and so without that profile to lead people to places like my Patreon I just don’t have a job. And it has been horrible because I have sponsors who have been contacting me wondering why I haven’t been posting the products they have sent me. Also, I am appearing in a movie in two weeks and I am supposed to be posting the trailers, and the producers just called me yesterday and were like, “Uh… hey we are really worried. What’s going on with your account? Are you going to be able to get it back?” Because they are banking on me as one of the main personalities in the film, and I am supposed to be advertising and leading people to the film. So there are a lot of aspects that are just really scary to me this time around losing my account. Every other time I have lost my account I have had some other job to fall back on, but now this is all I got. So it is really frustrating… especially since after all of these years I have stuck strong to my belief that I can get my message across without revealing all of my body. I have always wanted to be a representative of this middle ground where I show that fat women can be attractive, sensual, and sexy without having to show everything and fall into a fetish category. And that is something I’ve done even on my Patreon. I don’t show my nipples. I don’t show my vagina. Everything I post would be within the community guidelines of places like YouTube, and are in the realm of Instagram’s supposed rules. However, in terms of body size, I am one of the largest bodied models, and the larger you are the more your body is sexualized when you appear in shoots with lingerie. And I get that people are not used to seeing this, seeing these kind of bodies in this kind of light. But that is why I keep doing what I am doing, so people do get used to seeing my type of body. And seeing a body that has cellulite. And seeing a body that has stretch marks. And seeing a body that has extra rolls. My body is much larger than anything you are going to see on any type of billboard, on any kind of music video, and any kind of movie. Think about it. How many movies do you know where there is a main character that is my size and the movie is not about their weight? Not one of those films that a skinny girl wakes up in a fat girl’s body, and the movie is about her freaking out. Or that is not about the person being comedic relief. There is no movie where there is someone my size and it is not specifically about their size. It’s just not a thing.
WB: You are absolutely right. The only movies that come readily to mind are films like Shallow Hal or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And you are absolutely right because in both cases the people being depicted are either tragic or sensationalized comedy.
CS: I remember watching Empire for the first time and seeing Gabourey Sidibe in a bomb ass outfit looking so fine, and seeing how they had given her the best wardrobe, and seeing that they would represent this fat woman of color in the best way possible… the first time I ever saw something like that on TV I was just like, “Hell. Fucking. Yes.” And that is why I have to keep doing this because I want to try and give others the same experience. I see how in any comment section there are people just ripping Sidibe apart… just for existing. We have to keep going so there isn’t just one person. Hopefully my job eventually becomes obsolete. I can’t wait to just retire, maybe have a modeling agency, or produce a burlesque show from behind the scenes. I am ready for there to be so many fat women in entertainment and modeling that we won’t even be able to think of all their names.
WB: Moving forward what can you and readers do about what Instagram has done?
CS: There are a couple of things that are being done. I filed an appeal with Instagram. But I am not really sure if that is going to work. I’ve had people make false accounts using my likeness and material before, and Instagram really did nothing about it. One case was particularly horrible because this guy set up an account and was using it to solicit nude photos from underage girls, so he was trafficking in child pornography, and he was using my likeness to do it. It was up for five months. Instagram didn’t really care, didn’t do much about it. Instagram never apologized to me, they never really even emailed me about the situation. They just finally gave me access to the account, and I had to spend all this time writing to people explaining the situation, shutting down the site, etc. It was several weeks of work. And it’s not like you can just call Instagram and ask to speak to a manager. I hope the appeal will work. We will have to see. I have hired a PR person, which costs five hundred dollars, but has no guarantee that it will actually work. They’ve told me that even if it doesn’t work then at least we can use part of that money to help boost my new account. But that isn’t the issue. I’ve restarted accounts before. I can do it again. But I need the stability of the account, and all of those conversations, all of the community I have worked to be a part of on the site is now gone. A few people have suggested putting a petition together with the hope that will attract Instagram’s attention. I am playing with that idea right now, because I am at my wit’s end. I feel like I am yelling into the abyss saying “Please give me my lifeline back!” and all the while I have no idea if anybody is hearing me over at Instagram and if they are hearing me if they even care. Because they didn’t even care when this guy was using my images to get child porn. If they didn’t even care about that I kind of doubt that they are care about me losing my job. The sad irony is that when I look up my name there are four fake accounts with my name, they have all been reported, but none of them have been taken down. Meanwhile, I am just like, “OH MY GOD,” you won’t take down an impersonation account but you will delete me? Okay.
WB: That’s bull shit. Well. I am rooting for you, as are many people. There are many people who appreciate the way you fuse politics into your art. I don’t know if this is any consolation, but your message is getting out to people.
CS: Thank you. That’s what keeps me going. I appreciate hearing that people are getting the message. Even if just a few people hear it that is all that matters.
To follow Carina Shero at her new account on Instagram please go to @carina_shero and follow her. Also, the Femme FATales can be followed @thefemmefatalesburlesque. Please sign Carina’s petition to help artists like her continue breaking ground in the body positivity movement.