DISCLAIMER: I am not a health professional, for mental or physical health. I have done research and am providing relevant links, and I'm also experienced in advocacy and non-violent communication, which is really the focus of this blog.
CONTENT WARNING: This blog contains frank discussions of body image and disordered eating, including examples of harmful things that are sometimes said about bodies and examples of negative inner monologues. I invite readers to practice self-care and discretion in reading, and offer the option of skipping the examples written in orange text.
|Image: A dim picture of an empty dressing room, with lighted mirrors. |
(via Travel Salem on Flickr)
Hello my friends! Before I start this blog, I want to be transparent about the fact that for most of my life, I've been thin. My body has grown somewhat in the last several years, and nowadays I've got a bigger and softer tummy and a proper double chin. But I haven't personally experienced a lot of fatphobia or disordered eating or body image issues. This makes it easy for me to stand up and say "Hey, let's all love our bodies!" with very little baggage. But the amount of baggage I have or don't have doesn't have anything to do with my willpower or character. I just got lucky. I won a genetic lottery and got a body type that happens to be valued in my society and a family that doesn't have too many issues around body image. All of us humans have grown up in this culture, and all of us have internalized messages about fat, about age, about appearance. No one should be shamed for how much those messages affect them. For all my positive body talk, I also still have plenty of moments when those messages get to me, too. This blog entry is about why I do my best to consciously undermine those messages, and some practical ideas about how to do it. It's a skill that has to be learned and practiced.
Now that more people are vaccinated (for the love of Osiris, if you can get vaccinated but haven't yet, PLEASE GET VACCINATED), we have more opportunities to do live theatre safely! And with that comes something I had literally completely forgotten about: the negative body talk that gets thrown around in women’s dressing rooms.
I don’t know what happens in men’s dressing rooms, and it’s been a while since I’ve been in a universal dressing room. But I’d like to invite everyone, regardless of the dressing rooms you’re in, to move away from this kind of talk. The last year and a half has further radicalized me into working for all kinds of equity and compassion, and the dressing room is one place where I can do that work. Come join me!
WHAT IT IS
Negative body talk is any negative comment about your own body, someone else’s body, or bodies in general. It may include comments about weight, shape, age, or appearance. Sometimes negative body talk comes in sneaky forms, like praising people for weight loss, or assigning moral value to certain foods.
Here are a few examples:
- “Ugh, this costume makes my butt look huge.”
- “These crow’s feet around my eyes are driving me crazy.”
- “I was so bad today. I ate like five cookies.”
- “Okay, time to put on makeup. Because no one wants to see this face without makeup.”
- “I’m gonna have to go to the gym for an extra hour to work off that lunch.”
- “I hate having such tiny boobs!”
- “I felt so bad for him, trying to do that lift with her.”
- “You’ve lost so much weight! You look amazing!”
- “Time to put on my Spanx. Gotta tuck all of these saggy bits in.”
- “These gray hairs look just awful.”
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO SHIFT AWAY FROM IT
(My radicalization is gonna show here…)
Negative body talk upholds the patriarchy
It’s the patriarchy that says “women are valuable because of their looks.” It’s the patriarchy that says “Men should look a certain way to get women to date them, because that’s where men get their value from.” It’s the patriarchy that says that women’s jobs are to be ornamental, decorative, and make others comfortable. It’s the patriarchy that makes no room for queerness or anything outside of the gender binary. It’s the patriarchy that says only pretty people can be romantic leads. It's the patriarchy that says women's value goes down as they get older. And there’s no inherent truth to any of it. It’s what society teaches us, but we can decide to disregard it. And as more of us disregard it, the less power it has.
Negative body talk perpetuates the toxic aspects of capitalism
Think about how much money we spend trying to change how we look. I’m all for cool haircuts and tattoos and piercings and sunscreen and yoga studios—those things help us express and care for ourselves. But the only reason women shave their legs is because some guy in the 1920s wanted to sell us razors. The only reason we have so many diet programs is because people want to make money off diet programs. Even though none of them demonstrably work long-term and restrictive eating is always harmful. (Check out The F*ck It Diet for one resource on this.) The diet industry makes an estimated $60 billion a year. Imagine how much good that money could do if we spent it elsewhere. On small businesses. On bail funds. Or hell, on our f*cking bills. And don’t even get me started on the “pink tax.”
Negative body talk is often deeply rooted in racism
This is way complex, and I’m not the best person to speak on this, and many others have spoken about this more eloquently than I have. (Check out this interview with Sabrina Strings on NPR for one example.) But the idea that “thin is the only and best way to be beautiful” is an extraordinarily Western idea, based on white ideals that attempt to separate “superior” bodies from “inferior” bodies. The beauty ideals of other cultures are all so radically different…if we say “Well, being thin and young are the ONLY ways to be beautiful” we’re saying “White colonial ideals of beauty are the only valuable ones.” (Also, your value as a human being doesn’t have anything to do with how you look ANYWAY.)
Negative body talk perpetuates the fatphobia that plagues the entertainment industry
There is literally no reason for actors to be thin. Because we use our bodies to tell stories, it’s helpful if our bodies are strong and healthy. But the lie that we’ve been fed for so many decades and from so many sources is that fat = unhealthy. And it’s just not…true. (Check out Health At Every Size to learn more). Health can be measured in a few different ways, but generally speaking, the actual science says that weight is not an accurate predictor of health. Lizzo can do cardio while singing and playing the flute for hours at a time in heels, night after night, for months on end. And have you seen Olympic weight-lifters? And also, the BMI is racist and completely useless and was never intended to measure health. So if you’re ACTUALLY worried about health, you don’t need to worry about weight. And as far as storytelling goes, there’s no reason we can’t have a fat Juliet on stage. A fat Elle Woods. A fat Hedda Gabler. LITERALLY NO REASON. If being thin doesn’t mean being healthy, and if you don’t have to be thin to play certain roles, then there’s literally no reason to push ourselves (or each other) to be thin.
Negative body talk harms those with body image issues and disordered eating
It's difficult to get really accurate statistics, but eating disorders affect AT LEAST 9% of the population. So if you're in a room with 10 people, it's highly likely that at least one of them has experienced some kind of eating disorder, and even likelier that more people in the room have a difficult relationship with food or body image (if not all of them/us). When we make comments about our own weight, or the weight of others, we're adding our voices to the chorus of already loud voices saying "you're not thin enough" or "you'll only be loved if you're thin" or "you're not worthy of love unless you're thin." This is also why it's powerful to not compliment people about weight loss. I personally have multiple friends who have shared that compliments on their weight loss caused their eating disorder to deepen. Or perhaps their weight loss was because of another health issue, and the compliment made their pain feel invisible. In both cases, they were being rewarded with love and acceptance in times when they were very ill. I want to live in a world where we give people love and acceptance regardless of their weight.
HOW TO UNDERMINE NEGATIVE BODY TALK IN THEATRE DRESSING ROOMS
(and any other rooms, really)
Okay, so if you're on board with moving away from the negative body talk that perpetuates the patriarchy, toxic capitalism, racism, and myths about health, here are a few ideas of how to do it.
- Aggressively compliment yourself. Look at yourself in the full-length mirror and smile at what you see. Exclaim with ecstasy. “Are you seeing this?! Look at these thighs! Look at these curves! Man, I love this gorgeous tummy.” Grab handfuls of your body and jiggle it with joy.
- Abstain from the “script” when someone says something disparaging about their own appearance. When one person says “Ugh, I hate how this makes my butt look!” the expected response is either “No, it looks great!” or “Well, MY costume makes my tummy look huge.” Both of those responses reinforce the idea that appearance = worth. Which is completely false. Speak up, or change the subject, or abstain.
- Give specific compliments that don’t have to do with size. These compliments can have to do with appearance, but think of it as praising the way you’d praise a painting. (“You have such great eyebrows.” “You have such lovely hands.” “Look at your beautiful elegant feet!”) You can also compliment things that don’t have to do with appearance at all, like talent or smarts or interpersonal skills.
- Respond to negative body talk with “That’s the patriarchy talking!” or another quippy one-liner of your choice.
- Post body positivity quotes/images by the mirror/on the walls. A few of my favorites include "Love Your Tree" from Eve Ensler's The Good Body, some variation of this popular sticker, or this one, and this cross-stitch from my own Etsy shop (shameless plug).
- Respond with a simple “Hey, this kind of negative body talk isn’t okay with me. Could we please keep it out of this space?”
- If the costumes/time period of the show allows, refuse to wear Spanx or other shape wear.
- Invite people to explore the ideas behind the fatphobic comment. “Hey, have you ever thought about where those ideas come from?” (This can also be done more pointedly, in the form of “Explain what you mean by that?”)
- Speak frankly and matter-of-factly about your own body to the costume team (“These jeans are too small for my belly.” “If I wear this skirt, can I also get something to wear underneath so that my thighs don’t get irritated from rubbing together?”)
- Respond with “Hey, friends. Someone recently pointed out to me that this kind of negative body talk can be rough for folks with eating disorders. So because we never know what the people in the dressing room are going through, I’ve been trying to just refrain from any kind of negative body talk in every dressing room I’m in. Would it be cool if we did that in here?”
- Sometimes negative body talk is an attempt to bond with those around us. The desire to connect to our fellow humans is deep and primal! (This is often what's going on when people are following the "script" mentioned earlier in #2.) So work on finding other ways to connect. Tell a funny story about your day, ask people what their favorite part of their day was, bring up an interesting article or YouTube video you recently read, or ask any of these conversation starters. (I always love hearing about people's journeys, so I like to ask "How did you get into theatre?")