I stood in front of my mirror at home in my underwear, surveying my body from all angles.
My movement teacher had summoned me to a private meeting earlier in the week during my first year of Theatre School to discuss my progress in her class. ‘Movement’ is a part of Theatre School curriculum designed to train actors to become more in touch with their bodies through emphasis on physical conditioning and organic movement (and yes, organic movement is as pretentious and ridiculous as it sounds although it can serve a valuable purpose in the hands of a capable instructor). For me, however, Movement was the bane of my existence, made ever more unbearable by this meeting.
“You know, even though you are twenty to thirty pounds over what is considered normal in our industry, it could still be possible for someone to cast you as Juliet.”
I folded my hands nervously and nodded in agreement, resolved to do anything to win approval. I had known I wasn’t thin, but I’d never considered that other people noticed too.
“I mean, voluptuous women have played Juliet before. I have seen it done. It isn’t entirely out of the question.”
Voluptuous. The way she said it suggested an entirely different meaning than the word I had heard used as a compliment so many times. I felt both insecure and rebellious. Like I wanted to put on a big sweatshirt and make a molotov cocktail and stick it inside a yoga ball.
“At your age I was 170 lbs.” I looked this woman up and down. Breastless and hipless, she probably weighed 110 lbs and was certainly no role model for health as I had only ever seen her ingest coffee. “I can’t tell you how many times people tell me I’m too skinny now! ‘Eat the fries!’ they say to me. And you know, I can eat them now—although I don’t—because I’m not 170 lbs anymore.”
It would be impossible to tether this woman to reality with logic. “I guess I’ll have to up my cardio?” I offered, with resignation, knowing that I could never possibly do enough physical exercise to meet whatever standards were being expected of me by the “industry” and most specifically, this middle-aged waif.
“Upping your cardio” was advice given out freely in movement class to combat all of life’s problems. Tired? Up your cardio. Feeling homesick? Up your cardio. Upping your cardio? Well, you’ll need to up your cardio to help you up your cardio. “Oh yes, definitely up that cardio! I would also recommend attaching yourself to some of the other girls who seem to be more in control of this type of thing.” She proceeded to name two very talented girls with known eating disorders and an addiction to working out, so I assumed “this type of thing” meant the ability to maintain cognitive functions without meals. I wasn’t sure whether I was more affected by the suggestion that I would have to lose weight to be considered normal, or the assumption that Juliet was a more interesting character than the Nurse.
Nevertheless here I was at home, surveying my bum in the mirror, and there it was: cellulite. I glared fixedly at five dimples on my left butt cheek, cursing the gods. Obviously I couldn’t trust this mirror or my own opinion. On the other hand, my movement teacher had also proclaimed just a few days prior that “African Americans are more open in their hip flexors, as they are unaccustomed to desk jobs,” so I wasn’t really sure she knew what she was talking about either. Could the pursuit of my career as a performer really be snatched away from me because I enjoyed an entire medium pizza and a good day in bed from time to time?
Many times in my life I have known intellectually that I have been misguided, but bought into the misinformation anyway. This instance was, and has been, no exception. It becomes increasingly difficult to trust that you have talent and worth when you are made aware that the size and shape of your body speak louder than your skills. No matter how ridiculous the exercise (physically embodying a colour, dabbing our elbows into the negative space surrounding a partner, circling around our movement teacher and barking like feral dogs—the list is very long, very embarrassing, and hilarious), I performed each one with the knowledge and resignation that my body was flawed and not normal.
It seems so easy now to dismiss the damage done by a five minute conversation, but the repercussions of taking an impressionable young girl aside and talking to her about her body are innumerable. That was 8 years ago, and I think of it often. I am lucky that I was not impressionable enough to consider giving up my pizza-bed days, but I still do from time to time consider the impossibility that I would ever be considered to play Helen of Troy, or Isabella, or that I am really worthy of anyone’s attention at all.
I would love to go back in time to the day of that meeting and challenge the implication that size matters in Theatre or Film or Comedy or anything. I would love to ask that woman if she was okay, and if she felt the same kind of pressure I felt and feel. I realize now, that conversations like that are usually instigated by people who are projecting their own insecurities with the belief that they are offering meaningful guidance, but these individuals unconsciously perpetuate superficiality in art forms that are, at their cores, deeply human, damaging the minds of talented and empathetic artists, and well, that is a shame.
These days I just chant, “Who cares?” as I’m running and it’s wonderful motivation (just kidding, I don’t run).