A Body Project: Natalie Deltonya's Middle

Paddy McClave/Bustle

With award-winning photographer Substantia Jones of The Adipositivity Project and Manchester-based photographer Paddy McClave, Bustle is launching A Body Project. A Body Project aims to shed light on the reality that "body positivity" is not a button that, once pressed, will free an individual from being influenced or judged by toxic societal beauty standards. Even the most confident of humans has at least one body part that they struggle with. By bringing together self-identified body positive advocates, all of whom have experienced marginalization for their weight, race, gender identity, ability, sexuality, or otherwise, we hope to remind folks that it's OK to not feel confident 100 percent of the time, about 100 percent of your body. But that's no reason to stop trying.

When illustrator Natalie Deltonya Punter walks into a room, it's impossible not to stare. She's tall, she has bright pink hair, her voice is certainly not a whisper, and she's usually rocking some kind of vintage-inspired dress (one likely lined with tulle). Punter is, well, big. And everything about her aesthetic seems to imply that she's not trying to shrink.

As a Black, fat, queer femme, however, the many layers of her identity have intersected with her body type in ways that haven't exactly been conducive to self-love. Her middle section (breasts and tummy, in particular) has felt like a "problem area" on and off for years.

"I used to hate my boobs, I wanted them flatter," she tells Bustle. "Once I realized I was hella gay, I only saw white flat-chested lesbians everywhere. I used to sneak watch The L Word and Sugar Rush and they didn't have people that looked like me, really."

Paddy McClave/Bustle

Like most mainstream imagery of beauty, the queer imagery she was consuming in the earlier 2000s still seemed to operate on a few fundamental principles: Mainly, that to be attractive was still to be slender and fair-skinned. And that to be queer was to be butch or femme, while maintaining conventionally pretty Eurocentric features regardless. Punter was personally drawn to elements of classic femininity when it came to style, but she never felt that she was allowed to participate in them because of her gender, size, and sexuality.

"I used to feel very uncomfortable in my gender and thought I had to stay away from lots of types of clothes because I would get read as a girl," she remembers. "Girls are meant to be delicate and I was anything but. I felt like because I didn't look or feel like other girls, I had to make up for it by being one of the boys." So when all her friends at school were rocking frilly tops, bright colors, and bold patterns on their "perfect frames," Punter — with her rounder belly, softer arms, and fuller chest felt forced to sit it out. "I didn't think femininity was OK for me because my body wasn't close to [conventional] attractiveness. It always felt like I was denied access to being a girl."

Paddy McClave/Bustle
Paddy McClave/Bustle

Toxic messaging that suggested her body was somehow "wrong" was around well before Punter would sneak watch The L Word. When she was no older than 7, she and her cousins of a similar age were running around at a family gathering. She ended up falling onto one of the grownup's laps, who quickly asked, "Aren't you too big to be doing these things?" After a few moments, they added, "I guess you need plenty more running around to get a little smaller, though."

A couple of years later, Punter says she "woke up with some B cups one day." "I [was] already weary [about being a] fatty and, boom, now I'm growing a pair of tits that seem to attract nothing but comments on how 'I'm now a young lady' and 'do I know what that means? Now I have to stop acting like a boy and buy a bra and hide them [because] too much cleavage is too grown.' No more spaghetti straps [because] men would make comments about how attractive I am now."

Paddy McClave/Bustle
Paddy McClave/Bustle

Her questions and concerns regarding her body always seemed to come back to that middle section. To a tummy and breasts that made her a target regardless of what family, friend, or work circles she was in. To anyone under the impression that fat stigma doesn't exist in Black communities, Punter has a few things to say.

"What do Big Momma's House, Norbit, and Precious all have in common? They all use fat Black women as the punch line. They show that if you're fat and Black, you're probably angry. You're probably a mammy. You're unloveable. I used to be called 'Big Momma's House.' Not even the main character's name. The whole damn house, and people used to think it was funny. It's nothing new. Look at any media, historically, and how they represent fat, Black femmes and it's the same. It's like being fat and Black gives people something extra to hate about you. It makes you extra ugly in a lot of people's eyes."

Paddy McClave/Bustle

When it comes to tackling negative feelings about your body, Punter believes that starting small and being kind to yourself are the best places to begin. "Self-care is defiance in a world that seems like it's tryna stamp you out," she says. "I [now] treat my middle to things, be it tasty food or a cute bra or just moisturizing and [don't say] bad words about it."

But she also believes that maintaining a sense of realism is important. The world doesn't make it easy for most people to love themselves; their bodies, especially. When you exist at the intersection of more than one marginalized identity, it can be even more difficult.

"Sometimes I love [my middle] and I'll sit and stroke my tummy or happily just hold my boobs, but then some days I can't bear to catch myself in a reflection," she notes. "I wish detachable boobs were a thing. Some days I'm super femme and love sweetheart plunging necklines that flash just enough boob and feel fabulous, and love fabrics that cling to my tum and my VBO. And then some days I want to hide in a potato sack because being femme, Black, and fat is too hard."

The crucial thing is to try your best not to get stuck in the bad days. For Punter, "Sometimes all it takes is being able to see other people like me living their best life for me to start peaking again." At other times, all it takes is looking back at a photo in which she thought she looked incredible.

"When photographers/yourself take pictures and the light hits you just right, and you're glowing, and feeling extra pretty, you don't always see what other people are able to see," she tells Bustle. "It's like when you go on holiday and take loads of pictures to remember places because you thought they were amazing at that moment. You [can] take pictures when you feel hot and remember you think you're a total babe when you see them later on."

Ultimately, anything that reminds you that you're a total babe is worth holding onto. Especially when people are constantly trying to tell you otherwise.