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In 1997, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott released Supa Dupa Fly (you can check the whole thing out on YouTube), a debut studio album that quickly went platinum. It was pretty immediately recognized for the treasure that it was — and that it remains because if you listen to it now, it still sounds amazing. Every release met with the same enthusiastic accolades.
In fact, listening to all of Elliott's work proves her continued relevance and freshness, as so many people have discovered since her three(ish)-minute performance at last Sunday's Super Bowl. I have clicked on every article full of gifs and videos demonstrating why she is so awesome with no small amount of glee. Her sales have, according to Forbes, seen a 2,500% increase since those brief moments when we were so glad to see her again. Even NPR covered it.
Here's the thing: when Missy Elliott first hit, she was kind of fat. I don't know if she identified as fat or how she felt about her body back then, but plenty of people talked about it and there was, if absolutely nothing else, euphemistic discussion about how she was so much larger than her backup dancers. Some people were more polite than others but she got the usual shit from folks who hated to see a woman in the spotlight whose body didn't conform. (Regardless of how gorgeous she was and, oh, man, did I ever think she was gorgeous.)
1997 was the year I moved to Orlando. I'd had some family issues, and I had no freaking clue what I was going to end up doing with my life. I mostly came to this place that I would unexpectedly remain in basically forever (I'm still here, after all) because some friends were moving here; why not finish school where there was the comfort of a preexisting social group?
Of course, they all moved away after a semester but whatever. I stayed.
I was 19 and starting to get my feet under me, starting to push for the things I wanted more than for the things other people expected of me. And part of that process was identifying the things that I wanted.
The things — and the people. But I was still pretty messed up from a lot of years of hating my body (I wouldn't actively work against the futility of that for several more years) and while I was pretty confident that people liked me and thought I was funny, I accepted without question the idea that no one would ever be DTF, much less be interested in dating me.
Lifelong cultural messaging does this to people sometimes.
The result was that I kept myself very physically isolated. I didn't shake hands with new people even when they offered. I didn't sit next to people on couches (always the single chair in the corner). I didn't casually hug anyone, friends included. That thing where you casually touch the person with whom you are flirting? Nope.
In hindsight, no wonder I bawled my eyes out whenever I went to a festival and got a ten-minute massage at the ubiquitous massage tent.
It all went back to feeling like I was not, as a fat person, allowed desire. That if I dared, I'd be shamed for it because fat people weren't allowed to be sexual people.
Look, I learned this early. I remember Harrison in grade school with the whole fake going steady trick and I remember being fake broken up with by a dude named Taurus in middle school even though we weren't going out because I had the audacity to think we were friends. Fat people's fears are not based on air or fantasy, even if they don't have direct experience themselves. This is the kind of thing that happens.
So I learned to tune it all out. I drowned any hint of high school flirting — sorry, Mike, who danced with me at church dances and walked with me through the county fair — because the painful embarrassment of being mocked for desire was just too big a risk.
But then there was Missy Elliott.
Holy shit, was there ever Missy Elliott. Rapping about her own flyness but also about how her lovers were going to damn well treat her right. It was handled with humor, yeah, but it was not a joke. Missy Elliott was going to find the person she wanted and that person was going to recognize how goddamn lucky they were for the attention.
Have you ever realized that a thing you didn't even have a concept of was not only possible but that you, in fact, might be able to do it, too?
That was discovering Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly.
Of course it wasn't some sort of magical elixir — just add one album and cure a lifetime of body loathing and self-image woes. That just doesn't happen. But the proof that there was an alternative contributed a lot to my nascent body acceptance. I mean, I was reading Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight while listening to Missy Elliott; I'm not sure there's a way to come out of that without feeling like it's time to grab some of your own personal power back from compulsory diet culture and the patriarchy. Possibly through really good sex. Really good sex with no slut-shaming allowed either.
And it just kept getting better. Because Missy Elliott lost some weight (though never enough for the people hating her for her body) but she has never lost that attitude. And it's never stopped being one of the most empowering things ever to hear, especially when you contrast it with the bs about how fat women have voracious sexual appetites, like sexual appetite is a thing of which to be ashamed. Missy Elliott never showed us shame.
It's not imperative for people to have sex. Sometimes it's a thing people just aren't into and that's as valid as anything else. But I didn't avoid all human contact because I wasn't interested; I avoided all human contact in a self-protective shell meant to shield myself from the kind of mockery that causes long-lasting emotional trauma. Once I knew it was possible, I had to crawl out of that self-imposed isolation and that took so much work. Work that was, ultimately, worth every single minute because I do think sex is awesome. And I'd rather not be ashamed of wanting it.
I don't know if the Super Bowl appearance signals anything more than a profound cultural nostalgia for the 90s — there's nostalgia for every decade's style and music once a certain demographic reaches a certain age. But, damn, I hope Missy Elliott is about to surprise us with some more of her own music. I think we could use that confident woman back just as much as NPR thinks we need her incredible sound.
And whether we see any new music or not: Thank you, Missy Elliott. For the music and everything else.