35.9% of Americans in 2009-2010 were considered “obese” by the CDC. An additional 33.3% were categorized as “overweight.” That means at that moment, 69.2% of the country is heavier than “normal.”
When we go to the theater what are we looking to see ourselves reflected in the stories portrayed on stage?
If so, why don’t two thirds of them look like two thirds of the country? If not, are they the images we wish ourselves to be? Or are they simply supposed to be the strongest creator available for the role, and if that’s the case, why are so many more of them than us so much thinner?
Do you notice how carefully I’m wording things here? I do. Have you noticed that I haven’t used the “F” word yet? I do. It’s hard to write objectively about this. This is such a tricky subject. It is so sensitive. But it dominates so thoroughly the vision of our stages that I’m going to stop dancing around and just say it:
It is hard to be a fat actor.
It is hard if you are not fat, but a little heavy. It is hard if you aren’t fat but could be and fear becoming so. It is especially hard if you are a woman.
There might be a few reasons that don’t point toward malicious bias. Heavily dance or physicality based works are going to require a higher level of physical strength and endurance and result in a larger expenditure of energy. While that does not exclude a heavier performer, I think it makes some logical sense that you’ll get a higher proportion of people who are thinner, which is probably somewhat correlated to long days of exercise and physical activity.
Being fat might make it harder to do your job… maybe. But it might not. And I think it’s rarely the full reason that certain kinds of roles are off limits to certain BMI’s.
Because that argument just doesn’t fly when it comes to a lot of theater. It is possible to be in tune with one’s body even with “extra” weight. And if the performer doesn’t limit themselves, why do we limit the roles that are open to them? Why are we instinctively so nervous about seeing certain shapes do certain things onstage? Are we grossed out, worried, upset? What is it? Forget the gender gap, the racial paucity; I defy you to find me a show full of “fat” actors in Philly. You will not be able to.
If you are doing Grapes of Wrath and everyone is starving, fine, I understand. But show me where it says that Emily Webb from Our Town has to be skinny. Yet I’d stake my savings that 9 times (or more) out of 10 the thin girl gets the role.
Look, I don’t pretend to be objective here.
I have a long and complicated history with weight, one that has spanned both ends of the size spectrum. At 13, I probably weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 or 190. I don’t really know, because I didn’t go near a scale if I could help it. My grandmother used to chide me with reminders like, “Fat girls don’t get married.” An aunt once remarked, “Adrienne eats like it’s war.”
By my own admission, I was not happy with my body. I hated it. And to compensate I retreated into my brain. I was at war with the free and uninhibited person I felt like on the inside and the tight, closed off and frustratingly clunky form I had on the outside. Which was why late in my 14th year my mom intervened, told me that she loved me no matter what but that if I wanted, she would help me develop a healthier set of eating habits.
Which I did. Sort of.
That summer I started paying attention to the things I put in my body. I stopped housing bags of Doritos absent mindedly. I started exercising on a consistent basis for the first time ever. I learned to really enjoy cardiovascular work outs. I realized that it helped allay my natural tendency toward anxiety. I felt better. I liked how I looked. I was proud of myself for doing it.
Then I went back to high school. I felt so much better, I was so much more excited to be seen. I got the only female lead, as a sophomore, in the first play of the year. I was bumped into a higher level choir and auditioned and was selected for the state competition. I got a boyfriend, which I’d never had. People suddenly paid attention to me. I got friends in the older kid crowd. I felt on top of the world. The change was so sudden and so total and so completely timed with the shift in outward form that it seemed impossible to extricate the experiences of that year from the process of losing all that weight.
The truth is of course not so simple. Yes my outer self had changed, and because of that I allowed more of the person I really felt myself to be to shine through. All the confidence and brazenness and smartness and silliness I always had suddenly seemed like it had a venue to be shown. I had just finally given myself permission.
But of course at the time I associated my new-found creative and personal successes with being beautiful. And I associated that beauty with being thin. And so when I had to wear a bathing suit onstage, I lost another 15 pounds. And when I played Wendy in Peter Pan and was told to try and look younger, I lost another 10. It became a game, the weight loss. One that I assumed would just continue to result in rewards, in a better and better version of myself.
I would go out with friends and eat watermelon for dinner to save on calories. I worked out a couple hours after donating blood in 90 degree heat. (PS, I didn’t eat the cookies). I was obsessed with food and thought about it ALL THE TIME. I fixated on my “big hips” which I couldn’t do a damn thing about because I had whittled them down to jutting bones. I want to look back at 18 year old Adrienne and say, “You actually can’t workout your way to a smaller pants size if you have a wide skeletal pelvis. Maybe put some of that energy into learning your lines.”
At my thinnest, I was somewhere around 104 or 105 depending on how much water I’d had that day.
I’m 5’6” by the way.
And that was the point at which my mom said I was done losing weight. If you consider the standard BMI measurement useful (which is super questionable) I started just on the cusp of officially “Obese” and plummeted down well below “Underweight.”
I got over it. College food helped. Learning to love weight lifting helped. I work hard to focus on feeling strong, quick and agile rather than simply thin.
This blog isn’t an autobiography. And I don’t bring up this story for sympathy, though I bet many people reading this who can sympathize. But my story is not the same as many others. There are people who are beautifully in tune with their bodies regardless of their body fat index. Who are graceful and flexible and could be called fat. In fact just this afternoon I was talking to a friend who said that gaining a bunch of weight after having a kid helped her to realize that her creative talent wasn’t dependent on her staying small.
The point is that I felt able to embrace and believe in a fuller vision of myself as a creative person when I thinned up. Until that point, I’d always loved theater. I participated in middle school and my first year of high school. I’d had lovely, nearly transcendent, experiences. But I didn’t believe that I was eventually going to be one of those seniors that got out front and center. Based on the things I’d been cast as before – Mrs. Hannigan, the mom in Music Man, Golem in the Hobbit, ensemble member in Godspell – I figured I’d find a niche in the strong character roles that I’d seen other heavy girls play.
When I came back that summer lighter, I was so upset that they’d switched the fall play from Arsenic and Old Lace to a Neil Simon romantic comedy. I knew I could kill at those funny old ladies I’d been practicing all summer. But it didn’t occur to me that my lovely voice, passion for acting and intelligent incisive attack of text could put me front and center.
I couldn’t be a leading lady. Not if I was fat. And in my head I still was.
I auditioned for that show’s sole female part – an ingénue role – with little expectation. But during the audition process, I began to realize that people saw me differently now. And no doubt, the confidence that blossomed that show, that year, had to do with the fact that for the first time, I believed myself capable of ANY kind of role, ANY kind of creation. I could make people laugh or cry or sigh. I felt like I had control over my creative destiny. And I assumed all of that had to do with the new exterior through which those things were expressed.
I believe with every fiber of my being that there is no way I would have gotten that part if I hadn’t been thinner than the year before. And some days I really wonder if I hadn’t lost all that weight if I would have believed in myself with the same vehemence and confidence. And without that, I wonder if I’d have bothered continuing with acting, found directing and do what I’m doing today.
Two thirds of people in this country are “heavier” than “normal.” How many of those people do we see on the stage? How many stories do we tell that can include that perspective? And more importantly, how many kinds of characters do we unconsciously limit the size of, regardless of the actor’s ability to embody the role.
When was the last time you saw a heavy Juliet or a pudgy Romeo?
I’m left with lots of questions and not a lot of answers. Is this inevitable? Who’s driving it? Why does it happen?
And if it bothers us, what can we do about it?