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.

Our Experiences

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.