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My Life as a Plus-Size Actress

I’ve been acting since I was six years old. Straight away I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I found my passion at the mere age of six! Not many people can say that. I have also been overweight since I was six. It didn’t affect me or my acting at that age. It’s cute to be a chubby child actress. It’s not a big deal, and it wasn’t a big deal for a little while. Until I hit the big age of eleven.

Ten-year old Bethany Hanna. Photo by Twisted Productions.

When I was eleven years old, I received my very first leading role. I was ecstatic! I couldn’t believe it. I can picture that moment so very clearly. The exact moment my mother told me I would be playing Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I lived on cloud nine that entire weekend. Nothing could spoil that moment for me. Until I went to drama class that following Monday night and met the people who would be playing my family. I noticed it almost immediately. “They’re all skinny,” I thought. I looked down at myself. Where I had stomach pudge, they did not. Where my thighs touched, theirs did not. Even so they were my new family, despite the fact that our bodies looked nothing alike. As it turned out, the show was a hit and I quickly forgot about my “body issue” for the time.

Skip forward a few years to the ripe age of fourteen. I had just started high school and immediately signed up for my high school’s drama program. In my first high school musical I was cast as a wife. I told myself that was normal. I was a lowly freshman, the bottom of the theatre food chain. But then I got a similar role in the next show, and the next show, and the next one. I looked at the people getting the all the leading roles, and they were all skinny. How could that be? Sure I wasn’t a size four, but I had just as much talent as the other girls getting the roles I was pining over. Why was this happening?

I went into a state of depression. My talent was being overlooked in favor of my body. I no longer fought for roles. I refused to audition. I wanted to stop going to that class all together. Any time someone would laugh in that class, I was certain they were laughing at me and my body. My mother didn’t know how to console me. I still continued to act at our performing arts studio and was perfectly fine, but the second the seventh period bell rang at school I was filled with dread.

There were moments during my dark times that I would snap out of it. I’d really get into a song, or my character would make someone laugh, and it would fill me with joy, and for a brief time I felt normal. But then someone would say, “You would make a great Tracy Turnblad.” If someone were to say that to me now, I would reply, “Heck yeah, I would! Where do I audition?” But when I was an insecure teenager, that one statement, that one observation would crush me. I’d smile and thank them on the outside, but on the inside I would be screaming, “You want me to play the fat girl? Is that all I am to you, ‘The fat girl’? Why can’t I play Rizzo, Millie, Belle, or anyone that isn’t known for being fat? Why am I so repulsive to you that you can’t see me for who I really am?”

You will be known for more than just your body. And you will finally be recognized for who you are.

“Baby with the Bathwater.” Photo courtesy of Bethany Hanna.

It took me a while to realize what I had been saying. “Why can’t you see me for who I really am?” Who was I? Who was Bethany? If you had asked me, (and I answered honestly) I would say that I was a bigger girl. I didn’t have a delicate physique or drop-dead gorgeous looks. My stomach would jiggle when I walked. If I looked down I would produce a double chin, and so on and so forth. Those were the only parts of me that I could see. I couldn’t see that I was incredibly talented. I couldn’t see that my comedic timing and facial expressions could make an audience cry with laughter, or that my singing voice was improving. Those were all things that I couldn’t see because I was so hung up on the fact that I wasn’t skinny.

If I had the chance to go back and speak to my middle and high school self, this is what I would say. I would say:

“You won’t get that role that you wanted so badly. You will cry about it in the shower for thirty minutes, and then the next day at school, you will congratulate the girl who got it instead. You won’t be able to be lifted and spun around in that particular song like all the other girls, and you will be incredibly embarrassed about it. But you will be OK. You will get your first role as a villain, and you will be so excited about it that you won’t care that you weren’t the ingénue. After your performance, three separate people will tell you that you reminded them of Carol Burnett. And when you finally get your upper singing register, you will be so happy. You will be so incredibly happy and people will tell you that they’ve never heard you sing that way before and that you brought them to tears. You’re going to be insecure a lot. You’re going to be sad a lot. You’re going to cry a lot. But you will be OK. You will be known for more than just your body. And you will finally be recognized for who you are.”

I still am a plus-sized actress. That part of me hasn’t changed. I have, however, gained a new confidence in myself. I refuse to be overlooked because of my weight. I speak to all of the actors and actresses who have gone through, or who are currently going through, what I went through. If there’s one thing that you take away from my story, I hope it’s this: You are more than your body. You are more than your looks. You have to believe that you can overcome what you’re feeling. And one day, when you’re older or have a better prospective, you can help other young actors with this very issue.

Bethany as Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Photo by Twisted Productions.

 

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This touched me. I am a fat woman who once was a fat girl. I wanted nothing more than to act and sing. Yet, what I saw in the mirror always stopped me. I was 350lbs in 2015 I lost 135lbs total and I must admit I at times feel it is not enough. I am going to start taking the bull by the horns and stop judging myself. I will push myself to reach my full potential.

Thank you so much for this! My high school does the same things with casting; they even casted a thin girl for our Tracy in last seasons performance of Hairspray! I've always felt like my body has limited me to the roles I can even audition for because my high school has such a bias towards certain individuals and body types. But I know when I get into the real world of theatre, it will be so much better :)

Just wanted to say I'm super happy I came across this article. It almost exactly reflects my experiences, right down to "you'd be a great Tracy Turnblad (or Martha Dunstock, or Nadia from Bare--canonically fat characters)!" In high school, the director was very frustrated when I didn't fit in any of the Grease angel dresses. The next year, after the best audition of my life, she cast me in four separate cameo roles, literally wearing a different colored sack for each. I used to work so hard not to draw attention to my size in the material I chose for performances and especially auditions. I'm 19, in theatre school, and only now am I becoming more willing to speak and speak up about it. I'm so happy you made this post and I will be sharing it on all kinds of social media! :)

At my high school I noticed the same casting patterns aswell. However, my director always chose plays where the ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ typewere the leads. I have always been on the skinnier-average side and I wasalways so frustrated because I would get cast as the “floozy girlfriend”. Inoticed many girls at my school who were involved with either theater orsinging (something that required them to get onstage) would go through crazydiets or even starve themselves before a show. My friend had to be lifted in achair on Fiddler on the Roof and she was so self-conscious of being too heavy shestopped eating for the most part. It is a shame the majority of the timeperformers are cast and categorized based on their body type. It is an evenbigger problem when young girls (and guys) feel the need to change their body tofeel comfortable onstage. Theater is supposed to be a system that brings peoplefrom different backgrounds, body-types, and skin color together.

You were never "the fat girl" to me. Casting high school performances is a slippery slope. I always simply wanted more confidence from you and felt like you were shy or scared. I felt like smaller roles would help you build that confidence. Then you started to vanish and I simply assumed high school theatre was something you didn't want to be a part of. You are and always have been a beautiful person to me inside and out. I am glad you have shared your journey and am so glad you have embraced yourself "warts and all".