An Article By Janet Conroy-Quirk, MSW
“Overweight is also a mar to female beauty . . . An excess of fat destroys grace and delicacy. A fat face has a monstrous uniformity. No theatrical producer would hire a plump actress to mirror the real depths of the human soul.” – James S. McLester, “The Principles Involved in Treatment of Obesity,” Journal of the American Medical Association 82 , 1924
“So anyway, yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other . . . because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room—just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroin addict slumping in a chair.” -Maura Kelly, “Should Fatties Get A Room (Even on TV)?” Marie Claire, October 25, 2010
It’s a Sunday morning in July 2018. It’s about 7:30 a.m. and I’m having a body mic attached to my bra. My stomach is showing, and my back rolls are visible and I’m sweating because it’s 90 degrees out-and because I rushed up the stairs to make it on time. And because I sweat. Also, I’m nervous about the project, and I’m trying to remember my lines. On top of that, I have a cold. It’s not a great day.
The woman attaching my body mic asks, “So, um. Sorry, but like…how did YOU hear about this?”
I reply, “Same way other actors do? Backstage.com. Applied, auditioned and here I am.”
She doesn’t get the gentle cue. She persists, with a smirk at my stomach and says, “YOU’RE an actress? Really?”
This is the point where I’d like to tell you a fabulously epic tale of serving up a perfect retort. That I stood up from my (fictional) dressing table, gathered my (also fictional) silky robe (with neck feathers, because why not?) around me, crooked an eyebrow and delivered an oratorical masterpiece that fat activists will cite for centuries to come. Then I quit the project, sashayed down the hall and punched the air with such intensity that Judd Nelson tweeted about it. The whole cast and crew applauded, and a Very Important Woman Producer Lady ordered someone to, “Get her back here. She’s brilliant! We need her. NOW!” But I had already sped away in a cab and now I’m famous and nobody messes with me EVER.
You’re not idiots. Many of you are just like me. You know how the professional world works when you’re plus-sized, fat, curvy, a person of size, SSW, BBSSW, etc. No matter what the setting is, we rarely get to walk away punching the air because we changed minds.
So what really happened that day? I responded with, “Yes, I’m an actress.” Then I did my job, treated everyone with respect, got paid, and went home. I vented to my husband, who was sympathetic and poured me wine, and to the cat, who left a pink sparkly mouse toy on my pillow that night.
I’m definitely not the only 39-year-old plus-sized actress in NYC. But it feels that way sometimes. I am still fairly new to the world of performing. I left a 15 year career in social work about two years ago to pursue acting. I’ve done a bit of everything from off-off (and occasionally off) Broadway shows to short films, a feature film, and a lot of other projects, including training videos, stand-up, and extra/background work. I’m also a cast member of Realize Your Beauty, a groundbreaking organization that promotes empowerment and body positivity for young people through theatre arts. And of course, I’m a newly minted Official Bold Babe! Bold is a community in which I feel loved, respected and appreciated.
I AM an actress. I perform. I stand on a stage and people see me. I don’t have the most extensive training, but I listen and quickly grasp concepts and methods. I grew up loving theater and I learn by doing and by observing. And I’ve observed a lot.
The two quotations I included at the opening of this piece are both from a brilliant book I’ve been reading called Female Bodies On The American Stage: Enter Fat Actress by Jennifer- Scott Mobley. They’re both disgusting. Despite the fact that one is almost 100 years old, it doesn’t sound very different from the one that’s only nine years old. And we could find thousands of even more current examples of resistance to fat representation by simply googling any plus-sized performer or media outlet that celebrates plus-sized individuals. What all of these misguided and ignorant assertions share (besides a deeply disturbing level of hatred and bigotry) is a sentiment that fat people don’t belong on a stage, or on a screen, or in a magazine. Plus-sized performers represent what many viewers look like, yet we still have to fight to be featured, and featured respectfully. How insane is that?
In the next few weeks, I hope to share with you some of my experiences as a size 26/28 woman existing in the performance world, trying to be seen- and to be seen in a more enlightened manner. I hope to find a balance between pointing out hypocrisy and discrimination, while also highlighting progress and problem-solving techniques. While writing this series, I was very lucky to interview a few directors, costume designers and fellow actors about topics related to size acceptance in the arts. I’ll be covering aspects such as: how to navigate physical demands of acting/stage combat with varying bodies/ ability levels; the complexities of costuming; availability of roles for plus actors; plus-sized tropes and stereotypes in theater and film/tv; and social dynamics of size diversity within casts ( i.e., “Mean Girl Bullshit”). I hope to celebrate a lot of what’s being done right, and also bring some attention to what’s being done wrong.
As we near the Tony Awards in a few days, we’ll see a lot of celebration and rhetoric about underdogs and triumph, and solidarity and respect. That’s beautiful, and there is a lot of progress to cheer for. But there is still work to be done, and conversations to be had. Fatphobia in the arts feels particularly disappointing, because we expect better from a community that prides itself on acceptance and diversity. For me, getting called a fat bitch on a crowded Q train is sadly, expected. But having a director joke about “fat guts” while taking promotional cast photos during a rehearsal is somehow worse.
No matter what field you work in, I don’t doubt that many of you understand the frustration of loving your career, but wanting to see your industry do better. I think you’ll find this series to be applicable to many occupations, or maybe just relevant to your own social/personal experiences. Media is a huge part of our lives. Movies, tv, music, books, and online communities – we all have our stories. I’m looking forward to sharing mine!