by Reagan Jackson
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Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, rapper, flutist, and all-around icon Melissa Jefferson, aka Lizzo, just released a reality TV series called Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls that is 100% bingeworthy. Talented, ratchet, authentic, hilarious, and strong, when Lizzo brings her outlandish outfits and bigger-than-life personality to the screen, you cannot look away. The show begins with 13 dancers invited to do a private audition for Lizzo to perform onstage with her at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
“I asked dance agencies for big girl dancers, and they gave me nothing. Girls like me simply don’t get representation,” explained Lizzo on Season 1, Episode 1. Now that she is a headliner, Lizzo hoped to add 10 more dancers to her six-girl crew, but not just any dancers — dancers like her who have been overlooked and might not have gotten the opportunity to shine because of their size.
“I’ve scoured the country to find the best full-figured dancers with talent who deserve the world stage, and the response was unbelievable,” she said. “Thousands of girls submitted their auditions. Girls who looked like me who can really dance and who can also bring their stories to the stage.”
It’s not enough to just have the look or the attitude. Lizzo made it clear that she was looking for professional dancers with clean lines, stamina, versatility, and the ability to perform under pressure. “When I hit the stage, I hit the stage,” said Lizzo. “We hit them with the best big girl dancers in America, and we make the crowd go crazy.”
During the first episode, we are introduced to Kiana, Kimberley, Crystal, Charity, Kiara, Moesha, Ashley, Arianna, Isabel, Jasmine, Asia, Jayla, and Sydney. At the end of the first episode, Kiana and Kimberley are eliminated, but in an emotional plot twist, Lizzo anoints Crystal an official Big Grrrl on the spot and invites her to bypass participating in the entire show to join rehearsals for the tour.
From there, 10 women flew to LA to live in a house where they continued to audition, build community, learn choreography, and go through a series of different challenges designed to get them mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to live into their dreams of touring with Lizzo. Lizzo gathered a team to support the selection process. This included dancer and choreographer Shirlene Quigley, Chawnta’ Marie Van (an original Big Grrrl), creative director and choreographer Tanisha Scott, Grace Holden, sensual-movement coach Rashida KhanBey Miller, choreographer Charm La’Donna, and superstar SZA.
While I expected to enjoy this show — I mean, who doesn’t love Lizzo? — I did not expect it to impact me the way it did. I was in it for some levity, a distraction from the daily realities of a high-stress job and surviving in a pandemic (and it delivered that), but by the end of the first episode, I was ugly crying. It felt personal. I identify as a thick Black woman and I saw myself in those dancers, in their struggles, in their triumphs, in their gorgeous clothes and their jiggly bodies. I saw them in all of their self-hatred and their self-acceptance. I saw them in their ambitions, their dreams, their heartbreak and vulnerability, and it stunned me, because these are stories I haven’t seen told in public or collectively this way.
This was a reminder for me about how important representation is. I know this. I think about it in my work with Young Women Empowered every time I hire a teaching artist or select a mentor. I want our youth to see themselves reflected in the pool of adult allies we curate to support them. What Lizzo is doing is so much more than just a TV show; she’s doing what Black women have been doing for generations … making a way out of no way, and I am HERE FOR IT.
Every step of this process is a revolution in and of itself, beginning with Lizzo choosing to hire full-figured dancers and not accepting the industry’s narrow definition of who should have the opportunity to perform onstage and be visible. Having faced and shattered this glass ceiling with her stardom, Lizzo leverages her success into a pathway for others that goes beyond just a job opportunity, but is an extension of the body positivity movement in a bold new way. Through this show, she is literally changing who is hirable. She’s posing the question, “Why not?” If Lizzo can put out a social media blast and have a thousand plus-size dancers show up, and show up fiercely and fabulously, why can’t thick dancers be in the next Beyoncé video? Or the next Swan Lake production? Watch Out for the Big Grrrls is an invitation to really see what is possible.
After the first episode, Lizzo makes it clear that though it is a competition, the dancers are not competing against each other but rather against their own insecurities and limitations. There are spots available for each of them, but they have to show up to their dream. This is a subtle but critical distinction from the one-winner-takes-all reality shows we’re accustomed to that reward toxic behavior and encourage participants to tear each other down.
It made me think about the fake scarcity of tokenism. How many times have I been pitted against my BIPOC friends for jobs or internships, particularly in industries that espouse the desire to be more diverse, yet only create a pathway for one Person of Color or one woman to participate, and then expect high praise for making an effort? This is not how systemic change happens. In fact, this approach perpetuates internalized oppression and increases conflict, because we are asked to buy into the false narrative that only one of us can make it. Lizzo sets up a completely different paradigm that also accounts for the trauma many of these dancers have had to endure and sets them up to build a supportive community where all of them can live their dreams.
As thick Women of Color, these dancers are intimately familiar with the haters. Isabel talks about posting a video of herself and it being used for meanspo, which is short for “mean inspiration.” People were using her as a motivational tool to discourage them from getting fat.
“It’s hard to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back,” Lizzo shared with the group, letting a few tears slip as she acknowledged the ways in which her journey to success has been fraught with haters demanding she conform to who they want her to be. Big girls shouldn’t wear skimpy clothing. Big girls shouldn’t dance provocatively or be sexy. They should be ashamed to take up so much space. Lizzo and all of the contestants on Watch Out for the Big Grrrls break the silences surrounding all of the fatphobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, body shame, and internalized oppression they’ve had to navigate daily before even making it to the dance floor.
Through the show, we get to know these women. They share stories about their families, their lives, what motivates them to dance, and all the obstacles they’ve had to conquer to get through this moment. There is Asia, whose father was murdered in front of her when she was a child, who then became a praise dancer in her church to overcome her grief. Charity shared about being shamed for being dark-skinned. Jayla talked about body dysmorphia and never feeling masculine or feminine enough on their trans journey. Jasmine is a mother of two who wants her daughters to live in a world where they won’t be judged or limited by the color of their skin or the size of clothing they wear. Each woman is so relatable. They feel like our sisters, our friends. They make us want them to win. We want to see them standing in their fullness and thriving.
“We belong here today. We belong in the dance room.” Reiterates dancer and choreographer Shirlene Quigley. It can’t be said enough, because for far too long, all of these dancers have heard the opposite.
I was also struck by Lizzo’s representational leadership. Rarely do you see Black women as leaders on TV, and when you do, they don’t often look like Lizzo or conduct themselves in ways that feel culturally authentic. Lizzo was kind and affirming, transparent, and exacting. She lovingly held everyone accountable to the high standard she set, and when she had to let folks go, she did so in a way that didn’t diminish or shame them. This was the Black feminist leadership tutorial the world didn’t even know it needed.
“We come with the energy, the stamina, the flexibility. Big girls are doing it, honey!” said Lizzo. I’m ready for Season 2. Whatever Lizzo does next, I’m here for it.
Reagan Jackson is an award-winning journalist, multi-genre writer, activist, artist, and international educator with an abiding love of justice, spirituality, and creating community. She is the co-executive director of Young Women Empowered and the co-founder of Blackout Healing. Find out more at www.reaganjackson.com.
📸 Featured Image: Illustration of Lizzo by artist Haley Williams.
Haley Williams is an illustrator and designer who lives in the Brighton neighborhood. She owns Cafe Red and in her spare time enjoys going to shows and playing with other peoples’ dogs. Follow her on Instagram @Hopscotch_Seattle.
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