We’re Too Fat and Too Invisible to Have a Seat at Theatre’s Table, and Now Some of Us Don’t Eat
I am a woman performer who wears pant/dress size 10-12. In the eyes of directors, producers, choreographers, and theatre’s other decisionmakers, that means I am undeserving of romantic love, real friendships, dignity, and accurate representation in the characters I play. Instead, I am only deemed capable of portraying a plump mother, comedic relief, or someone obsessed with food or sex. Despite being demeaned and condescended to due to my size, I fight for curvy women to be seen in all types of roles.
The expectation for female performers to be thin starts at a young age and, unfortunately, is often reinforced in an educational setting. Young actors can develop serious mental, emotional, and physical issues with long-term effects. Within audition, education, and training settings, theatremakers frequently reinforce society’s message that women are only beautiful when they are thin and toned. That dangerous notion has kept women feeling unworthy and less than those around them; it tells them that they are too large to be talented, too large to be seen, and too large to be loved.
In my quest for body size equity on stage and screen, I contacted and interviewed many performing women who were also ridiculed and shamed for their body size. Emily Clemmer*, now a high school science and drama teacher, was a strong and beautiful dancer as a teenager. In high school, she was told she would only play the spunky or quirky side characters because her body type was not appropriate for romantic leads, and she was frequently cast in ensemble roles and as the odd characters that had been forecasted for her. By her junior year of a college acting program, Clemmer developed anorexia after being told by her college acting professor that she would not be considered for her dream role of Jo March in Little Women if she did not lose at least twenty pounds. She told me that nearly ten years later she still struggles with food and finding the motivation to eat.
One director informed her that she would have been perfect for the lead role of Mary in The Secret Garden if she was smaller. Instead, she was cast as the schoolmarm, who appears in one scene.
For Angela Danhouf, a performer with poly-cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), losing weight has always been a struggle. Due to her size, directors would either refuse to cast her or put her in maternal roles. One director informed her that she would have been perfect for the lead role of Mary in The Secret Garden if she was smaller. Instead, she was cast as the schoolmarm, who appears in one scene.
Anna Taylor was cast as Juliet in a college production of Romeo and Juliet. Although she was already cast and would have been considered thin by society’s standards, she did not think she looked as an ingenue should; her self-image was based on commentary made to others by leaders in the theatre department. Because of this expectation, she developed an eating disorder and an unhealthy relationship with food.
In middle school, Sarah Russell was a tall dancer who, because of her height, was heavier than the other girls. Her dance studio instructors told her to lose weight so she could perform the same skills as those lighter than her. She developed anorexia and bulimia at the age of thirteen, which led to her quitting dance by sixteen years old due to deteriorating health. It took her five years to feel like she finally reached a healthy relationship with food and her body. Russell has never officially returned to competitive dance.
I, Jasmine Anderson, have suffered from body image issues since I was twelve years old. At thirteen, I started skipping meals. In college, when I went without a real meal for days, I told myself it was because I could not afford food. It was still not enough for some of my college acting professors, who told me to lose weight if I wanted to be considered for more roles. At the height of my anorexia and excessive cardio exercise in 2014, I was finally cast as a romantic lead at that university.
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in musical theatre, I worked at a small theatre in southern Utah. I was lucky enough to have a producer who cast based on talent rather than body size. Hallelujah! After years of being told I was too fat, I finally had opportunities formerly inaccessible to me. I played Guinevere in Camelot, Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, Jerusha Abbott in Daddy Long Legs, and many other roles. As a woman with curves, eighteen-year-old characters like Jerusha are normally considered far outside my “range.” Yet when I played the role in 2018, an audience member approached me with tears in her eyes after a performance. She had stopped performing because her PCOS had made her gain weight, and she was so grateful to see me on stage. She did not think anyone would cast her, but seeing me perform gave her hope that she could perform again someday. Representation matters. We need to continue creating body-diverse casts to help other talented individuals see that they can be successful in whatever they aspire to do.
Against Weight Loss
Directors and instructors, producers, audiences, casting directors, and others with power in our field perpetuate fatphobia by praising actors who have lost weight. However, the barriers preventing performing women from achieving the “perfect” body that is expected of us reveal that these fatphobic standards uphold and are upheld by forms of monetary and genetic privilege.
Most performers battle the conflict of low pay and high expenses. In 2019, when I had the most work as an actor in a year as I had ever had, I made less than $30,000 including all of my necessary side gigs. As a young, aspiring performer I cannot afford fresh produce—which costs $1.50 more every day according to one Harvard School of Public Health study—when I do not know when my next paycheck is coming. I have regularly sacrificed buying groceries to ensure I can pay for rent, utility bills, and other necessities or emergencies. Emerging performers without generational wealth do not make enough money to pay for our necessities, a balanced diet, and a gym membership or personal training.
Additionally, larger women cannot simply change their genetic makeup. Studies have shown that “body surface features and body shape are genetically predetermined.” If your body shape is naturally an apple or a pear, you were genetically predisposed to be that apple or pear no matter how much you diet and exercise. Other conditions like PCOS or hypothyroidism can also make it difficult or impossible to lose weight. A woman should not have to feel like she cannot perform or must disclose her medical conditions to try and “excuse” her weight when in training or audition spaces.
Dismantling our fatphobic thoughts and practices also helps to dismantle misogyny, ableism, and racism. Fatphobic stigmas impact all women and actively sustain the marginalization of women of color and trans women. However, opening more roles to women of more diverse shapes, sizes, abilities, and races tells patriarchal systems that they are wrong.
Despite past abuses, I believe high school and college theatre programs are some of the most influential spaces for theatre artists. As directors and leaders of young people, they can aid students grow in their skills and confidence. Jennifer Scott-Mobley, the author of Female Bodies on the American Stage: Enter Fat Actress, states:
[U]niversity theatre could be an opportunity to model true body democracy and include all sizes as part of the world represented onstage, to practice “body-blind casting”... [it] is a prime venue to begin to change casting practices that adhere to rigid physical stereotypes and reshape what [we] view as “realistic” when it comes to female bodies in representation.
Mobley continues by saying, “if one function of university theatre is to cultivate future directors, playwrights, performers, designers, and filmmakers, then it is an opportunity to begin a cultural shift with the next generation of artists.” We can change what the future looks like for professional actors, directors, and more! If professors recruit, cast, and train according to talent rather than looks, they will see a difference in the physical makeup of their shows, programs, and futures.
Body positive experiences in theatre training environments have the potential to be monumental moments for plus-sized performers. Clemmer, who had developed an eating disorder due to commentary from high school and college theatre teachers, now directs middle and high school shows. She says that she does not consider or comment on the students’ sizes when she casts because she does not want them to go through the same experiences. She only considers the size of a student when a character description explicitly discusses size and the plot of the show requires it. Instead of perpetuating and continuing the problem, Clemmer now influences her students to see their peers’ talent instead of what pant size they wear.
Why is it considered unrealistic for a large woman to fall in love with a man who loves her in return? Why does the large woman have to be vulgar or obsessed with food or sex?
While Clemmer tries to change how casting affects youth at the high school level, leaders in the professional theatre and film world also need to be a part of the change by choosing more size diverse performers. The average pant size of the American woman is size sixteen to eighteen while the average size of leading women on stage and screen is between a zero and six. Leaders must analyze their own biases against fat people and start to unlearn them. As we break down our fatphobia to begin casting according to talent, we become more open to unironically casting a tall woman opposite a short man and to casting a woman with sharp, angular features as an ingenue rather than as the villain or sassy bitch. All types of women can and should play all types of women, including the leading lady.
One easy way leaders can begin this change is to remove qualifiers on attractiveness in their casting calls. For those who do not meet fatphobic conventional beauty standards, subjective terms like “attractive” and “beautiful” can create confusion and discouraging mental turmoil. Suddenly, they have to decide if this set of people will consider them “beautiful” or “attractive” or if they will be laughed out of the room for attending the audition. Including these qualifiers in casting calls reveals implicit fatphobia, and removing them opens the space to women who might otherwise be discouraged from auditioning. If a part requires a particular look, write a clear and specific casting call. But if you make this change and go on to cast a larger person in a leading role, do so knowing that their fat body is not symbol of your generosity and growth. Do not make yourself the hero.
Actors also have a role to play in creating a size-diverse industry. Actors, do not give up because you think you are too large. Keep auditioning. If a casting call asks for a beautiful and charming woman, break the stigma and audition for it. You are beautiful and charming! The worst that can happen is the casting director will tell you “no.” However, if you are told “no” and you are in a situation where you can, ask them questions about why you are not being considered for the role. Do not be afraid to make them uncomfortable by having them think about their biases and their reasoning their choice. Why is it considered unrealistic for a large woman to fall in love with a man who loves her in return? Why does the large woman have to be vulgar or obsessed with food or sex? I do not know whether this tactic will directly open doors for you, but by asking those in charge to confront their implicit bias you are beginning a conversation and challenging long-held prejudices.
Performing artists need to loudly declare the importance of representation of all kinds and fight for it. As we fight fatphobic standards, we need to share our stories from behind the scenes, stories of being ridiculed, succumbing to eating disorders, or developing mental and emotional health problems because of the pressure put on us to be thin by fatphobic directors, teachers, and others. We need to provide help and a voice when these issues come to light rather than trying to shove them under the proverbial rug. We need to stand up to our fatphobic professors, directors, and leaders and finally tell them “no” when they attempt to body shame us. As artists, we can choose the stories we wish to tell. Let us finally change the pattern of women falling prey to eating disorders for “the sake of their art” and recognize that fat women are human beings. It is about time we treat them as such on the stage and screen.
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Thank you for reading! I agree that it is far past time to talk about more than just our frustrations at the lack of representation in spaces other than those caregiver and villain roles, but to also show the harm that these fatphobic standards do to performers.
So excited to see this topic on Howlround! It's exhausting to see fat people play only caregiver or villain roles, but you also addressed eating disorders in theater, which is a topic desperately needing to be addressed.