Erin Lunsford | Vocalist of Erin & The Wildfire

My name is Erin Lunsford, lead singer of Charlottesville, VA band Erin & The Wildfire and I am a curvy woman! I want to share my journey (thus far) dealing with body image, weight loss, musicianship, and performance. My concerns about body image permeate my every day life down to the smallest moments, but I will try to keep this focused to my music career. I hope I can inspire young/femme artists as well as queer artists and others more marginalized than me to accept their bodies and accept others’ bodies as beautiful, without judgment. I still battle each day with my perceived body image and my physical presence on the stage. I am working to let go of the feeling that I need to change myself to be happy and to feel beautiful. BUT it’s getting easier! I’m getting way better at loving my body, accepting myself, and being comfortable in my skin. By becoming more comfy with my body, I have more energy to focus on my music and career.

I grew up as an overweight kid who didn’t have a strong understanding of nutrition and self-care. Typing this I feel like I’m already blaming my child-self. Of course I didn’t have a strong understanding of nutrition… I was 11! My lifestyle of inactivity and unhealthy eating was likely the main factor for my weight gain, but genetics played a role in my body type too. My family wasn’t especially active and rural southwest Virginia isn’t known for superb health and fitness.

Age 11: I remember hanging out with my neighbor Michael in his mother’s kitchen and he asked me and the other two kids how much we weighed. It was then that it dawned on me: I was heavy. Heavier than I was supposed to be. Heavier than Michael. Heaviest in that kitchen, even.

Age 12: I was wearing jeans that I was really digging – I was really feelin’ myself in these pants. They ripped down the inner thigh during social studies one day and I felt terribly shameful and embarrassed about it.

Age 13: I was jumping on a trampoline at my friend Kallie’s birthday party and another girl told me she could see all the “rolls in my stomach” when I jumped, she pointed and laughed.

Age 14: I felt absolutely mortified asking for and wearing the largest available size in the school’s gym shorts. I remember my mom taking me to the doctor that year to talk about my weight and lack of energy – ‘adolescent fatigue’ the doctor said?

Age 15: I made a stellar joke at the school lunch table and I somehow threatened the comedy-kingship of my childhood friend, Will, because he then called me “fatty” in front of our group. I ran to the bathroom to cry and one of my friends followed shortly after to comfort me. This event in particular curbed my self-confidence. I hadn’t been acutely aware of the cruelty I would endure because of other people’s expectations of my body. I felt shame.

Age 16: I was having SUCH a hard time finding clothes to fit. I had begun regularly performing as a duo with my mom, who always made me feel beautiful and fabulous, but I struggled to feel comfortable and confident on my own. I would fret over my show outfit until the last minute and usually pick something that felt more modest than I wanted, and maybe didn’t fit well anyway. Often, I would get in huge fights with my mom about what I was wearing because I was so frustrated (and also an emotional teenager). I felt hopelessly uncomfortable and unacceptable in my body. I felt limited by my body and how much physical activity I could stand.  Hair and makeup became a large part of my show “outfit.” Big curls, eye makeup, and jewelry made me feel dressed up even when my clothes didn’t take me there. I even started making jewelry and selling it in my mom’s guitar studio. In the beginning stages of my music career, my appearance was the main focus of my worries instead of my talent.

Age 17: Diet Program #1! My step mom, Kim, is a dietician and nutrition specialist. She’s passionate about healthy eating and healthy lifestyles and she invited me to participate in her weigh loss clinic.  I started the summer before my senior year of high school. The program taught healthy eating and portion control, but it began with very severe calorie reduction. You go hungry a lot, you learn to ignore cravings, etc. I lost 55 pounds in about a year. I felt energized and confident and newly proud of my body. 

Age 19: One day walking back to my dorm, an SUV full of boys yelled “You’re fat!” as they drove by. I was taken back to my 15-year-old self. I felt shame.

Age 20: Diet Program #2! By age 20, I had gained back about 25 pounds from drinking and overeating in college (who didn’t see that coming?). It was an interesting time because I felt more beautiful than ever, but also more aware of my body than ever before. I worked out regularly, really got in a routine of self-care and surrounded myself with people who supported my healthy habits (Shouts out to Sam and Steph). Enter: first long-term, serious relationship. This LTR was splendid except for the part where I stopped my self-care. I fell deep into a love spell and did everything I could to fuel that enchantment, including adopting the eating habits of my partner. I did manage to focus on my artistry quite a bit during this time, though mostly through the lens of my relationship. My partner and I would write and perform together and it was really fulfilling.  The security I felt from our bond allowed my body image battle to take a back burner. I know that’s a whole other problem to unpack, but we will leave it for now. #patriarchy #dependingonapartnerforselfworth

Age 22: Breakup – ouch! Emotional eating was my crutch. Age 22 through 24 I gained back weight and then some. I went through several phases of healthy eating, lost 15 pounds, gained back 20, lost 20, gained back 15, etc. I wasn’t active anymore and I had become so overweight that I only wore one style of clothes for work, performance, and otherwise. I was performing more often than ever- sometimes 4 shows a week, but my wardrobe was more limited than it had ever been. I solely wore dresses, belted, w/ pantyhose in the winter. Pants weren’t an option. I tried corsets for a while because they cinched the waist and were sexy, but I couldn’t breathe! When you’re a performer, people constantly comment on your clothes and your appearance. I got a lot of positive feedback for the corsets, so I kept trying them, but it was torture. Then I got comments about how people missed my dresses, so I switched back. I felt like I couldn’t please myself or anyone else with my performance clothes and shopping for a new option was so difficult because I was so curvy.  I also got comments from my family about how I might be more successful if I lost some weight, or I might engage the audience if I lost a few pounds and was able to more around more quickly. I would wear very low cut things because I felt like my chest was one of my only physical assets. Some shows were so difficult for me because I would try to wear something that I loved, but that was too small or would move around while I was singing; the whole performance I’d be focused on whether my tummy was showing or if my belt looked too tight or if the shirt was slipping too low on the neckline. It takes up so much brain space. Brain space that could be used to write a song or practice voice.                 

Age 27: I’ve lost 75 pounds over the last 2 years. I work out regularly and went through about a year and a half of serious calorie reduction to shed the pounds and gain muscle. It’s been my second largest lifestyle change (yet).  I feel more beautiful and in control, but I also have a huge fear of gaining the weight back. History would dictate that it’s likely to come back again. I believe this lifestyle change that I’ve made is maintainable whereas my past endeavors were quick fixes and not gradual enough to sustain. Performing seems easier these days – I feel more energetic, but mostly I feel more certain of myself on stage. I feel torn between excitement and grief. Excitement for losing weight and reinventing myself and grief that I couldn’t feel just as confident in my previous body.

I wanted to share all of these ups and downs to demonstrate how fluid body image can be, how often it comes up in daily life, and how sensitive people can be to comments about bodies. I’m not alone in this sensitivity, neither are you! I wish I could go to my 15, 22, 25 year old self and say you are so gorgeous, you are so loved, you are a queen. Don’t hold yourself back! I would tell myself that feeling healthy and having agency over your body is not about how you look. I would tell my younger self to follow curvy women and body positive accounts on Instagram. I would tell myself to stop giving energy and time to my fears and anxiety about body image and show outfits! I want to tell myself to allow myself a break from the standards and the scrutiny – wear whatever you want! I want to tell myself to answer this question when I’m struggling with my body image: Would I hold another woman to this standard of socially determined beauty? If not, why would I hold myself to this standard? Be kind to yourself, Erin!

There is so much (unfair) pressure on women and femmes to fit the rigid cultural standards of beauty and there is even more pressure on femme performers to fit a particular trope of beauty, size, shape, and style. I want to feel in control on stage in spite of these pressures. I want to feel beautiful, comfortable, powerful, and approachable. These days, I achieve those feelings by centering myself emotionally and physically before a performance via the process of getting ready and vocally warming up. I feel like I’m just skimming the surface of my body image journey in this essay – I didn’t even get into body hair, high heels, sweating, dancing, stretch marks, food choices on tour & at venues, makeup, shape-wear, performance photography, exercise, people telling me to sit, people telling me to stand, and people telling me to smile on AND off stage. I could write a book on all this stuff. In terms of physical expectations, women and femmes face obstacles that men and non-femmes just won't understand. Challenging the systems that produce and reiterate these obstacles feels insurmountable some days. BUT by talking about this issue and lifting each other up, we can reinvent these societal standards and annihilate so-called beauty norms. We get to decide for ourselves what we find beautiful!

In 2013 I wrote the song "Got Dem" about my curviness and about various patriarchal expectations I was tired of trying to meet. It touches on dancing, mom advice, dating, sex and of course, body image. Though our band's sound has changed a lot over the three years since the release of the song, it's still our most popular on Spotify by a long shot. Maybe it was luck, but I think it's because so many people can connect with the struggle to be comfortable and proud of their body. Go take a listen here and do yo thing girl:

*Big thanks to La Femme Collective for creating such a welcoming environment – I wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing without your openness.*

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