Living Fat: Fat Bodies and Performance

[TW: Body Shaming, Mention of Dieting]

I remember the first time my fat actress fears were realized in the form of a high school musical audition: I went out for the part of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. After the initial vocal audition, most of the girls auditioning approached me to tell me they were sure I would get the part, and then the cold reading audition seemed to solidify that possibility. When the cast list was posted, I speculated the only reason I wasn’t cast as Miss Adelaide was because I was fat. I approached the drama teacher and asked her if that was indeed why, and she said—and I’ll never forget this—“Angela, you know that girl is nowhere near as talented as you, but people in this town just won’t believe a girl your size would be a burlesque dancer.” I left her classroom in tears. I was 17.

My next brush with the limitations placed on a fat performer came from a theatre professor at my community college. I looked up to her so much because she was the most inspiring director I’d worked under and, more importantly, she believed in my ability. I could tell she was pleased when she saw my weight start to drop from 200lbs to 190, to 180, to 175. When she noticed I hadn’t budged from 175lbs for a few weeks, she casually asked “Are you going to continue with your weight loss plan?” I didn’t really know what to say besides yes. When I left her office I realized she was trying to encourage weight loss so she could cast me as her leading lady or ingénue; then I’d be believable. I felt judged by my body. People would tell me that’s just the way the acting world is. I’d say that’s just the way the world is, and came to believe that I’d never be who I wanted to be as a performer (read: person) until I was thin.

I recently started reading Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, and in the first chapter she offers some meanings of fatness. One of such is: “To be fat means having to wait until you are thin to live.” Living can be defined here in a number of ways: finding true love, getting to the height of your career, letting go on the dance floor, feeling confident, wanted, recognized. For me living means performing. My early experiences with the body constraints of musical theatre made me sweep any performance wants—specifically singing—under the rug. I focused on writing instead.

Writing has always been a part of my life, but after I quit acting, it became my central art form. I put all of myself into writing; I even went to grad school for it. Writing felt like a safe place for my voice—something I wanted to share with the world, but disembodied. It would be much easier to get people to listen to me, I thought, if they couldn’t see what I looked like. My writing is not submitted to journals with a full body shot. The only things measured are the words on the page.

The musicality of poetry resembled so closely what I wanted to do with my voice (sing) that it was enough—for a while. Still, I would have daydreams of being on stage. Acting had passed, but singing is in my blood. Both of my parents are trained singers so I was always encouraged to find music in my body, but the real world presented me with images of paper thin and/or taut muscled female singers, whether rock n’ roll or musical theatre.

Try to name five fat female rock n’ roll singers. I can name a few: Mama Cass, Ann Wilson, and more recently, Beth Ditto. They are not the norm, however, and they get a lot of nasty remarks about their bodies. The majority of what I saw growing up—my idols, the starlets of rock n’ roll—were thin, lean, and able bodied women (not to mention white, cis, and straight). Forget singing lessons, forget years of singing with a band, forget passion and the pure love of it; just look like Debbie Harry crossed with Courtney Love crossed with Tina Turner crossed with Joan Jett. Right. Got it.

This brings me back to one of Orbach’s meanings of fatness: I spent most of my life thinking I had to achieve a thin body to be the kind of performer people want to see, and moreover, can relate to. This belief prevented me from truly living, from being who I want to be. At the end of 2010, I decided that I needed to just do it. Just start a fucking band, and get my body on that stage. But when I thought about how vulnerable my body could be while playing guitar and singing—the way I could lose control, let my body sway, jump, stomp, pounce, fall, bend, and shake—it scared me to death. I was taught fat bodies aren’t flattered by the movement of rock n’ roll. I still felt that I needed to reform my body before I would really attain success. I’ve spent the last two years on bicycles, ellipticals, ab machines, and diets.

I believe in being strong. I believe in feeling capable. The last two years of exercise and dieting have shown me that is what is important, and that being strong and capable are not everyone’s goals/they mean different things to different people. I have just recently stopped dieting, and I vow to never diet again (with some help from Fat is a Feminist Issue). Now, I am a year on with my band, The Young Dead. The 3 men that play lead guitar, bass, and drums in the Young Dead don’t give shit what I look like. They care about the music I make, my passion, and the quality of the performance. It still takes courage for me to get on that stage let it all go—especially since I’m the only fat girl in my city’s music scene—but as Helene Cixous reminds me, “Woman must put herself into the text–as into the world and into history–by her own movement.” Getting on stage and facing my fear of being publicly fat is how I place myself into the world, the text, and history. My own movement means being fat and being a performer; my own movement means living.

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  • David

    Great to have you onboard, Angela! :)

  • Kate

    I can sympathise with your experiences. I too have been waiting to be thin before travelling, before starting relationships and have been killing myself working out and dieting. It seems silly to waste your precious time just because you should be 20kg’s lighter (in my case). Even then I’m sure I’d still be fat to many.

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