Fat discrimination and its impact on the American theatre.
By Sage Martin & Maggie Rogers
America hates fat people, specifically fat womxn and femmes. Our rampant diet-crazed culture equates self worth with waist size. Commercials celebrate post-diet bodies like prizes, magazines promise ways to lose 30 lbs in 30 days, and even Instagram touts some secret tea that will flatten your tummy. If you aren’t getting hefty servings of body-shame from the media, chances are you are being force-fed the same rhetoric by friends and family via grandmothers talking about the newest fad diet they are trying, friends asking which dress makes them look less fat, and mothers stressing over getting their “good” figure back. This inherited hate has been passed down for so many generations that we waste no time passing it on and teaching children there is always a better way to have a body. So what happens when your body is your business? Your livelihood?
Theatre has long considered itself to be the includer of the excluded - home of the underdog, and a mirror to society. It’s an industry dedicated to telling stories from endless perspectives and all walks of life. We seek out what is often overlooked and shine a spotlight on it.
In a world made rigid by race, class, and nationality, theatre is often our great escape and equalizer. In an industry so fiercely dedicated to inclusion and diversity, why are we still adhering to poisonous social conformities regarding fatness?
“Fat” can be, and often is, an inflammatory term to people who grew up fat or are currently living as fat. It has a derogatory and hurtful past for many. The use of the word “fat” can trigger an immediate impulse to retort back quickly that you are not. This stems from a centuries old stereotype that fat is culturally synonymous with unhealthy, unintelligent, and unattractive.
The Word Fat:
It is subjective. There are no guidelines for what “fat” means. Someone who wears a 32 may not see someone wearing a 22 as fat, and both of them may not consider someone wearing a 12 to be fat. This is an ongoing discussion in the fat community. For the purposes of this article, fat will be qualified as anyone who must shop in “plus-size stores” to find clothes and accessories to fit themselves.
It is not an emotion. All of us have finished a meal with family or friends and then heard someone utter the dreaded “Yuck, I ate too much. I feel so fat.” When someone says this they mean to say they feel bloated or uncomfortable. You cannot “feel fat”. Using the word “fat” to describe eating too much or feeling full is not only incorrect, but an unimaginative use of the English language.
It is not an identity, it is a experience and a state of existence. A body has fat and carries it, it is something you gain and lose. Thin people cannot understand the world as a fat person simply because they wish to, it is something lived. Non-fat people claiming the word “fat” as a temporary identity is harmful to fat people who exist in a state of fatness constantly.
Before delving into fat prejudice in the American theatre, one must understand how this discrimination manifests itself in the general public and daily life by viewing it from a micro and macro level. It is worth noting that aggressions do not have to fall at the feet of fat people. A fat person does not have to be present for fatphobia to be damaging. If you hear someone speaking negatively about a fat person’s physicality, say something. Even if they are not there, it is still an aggression and not correcting the behavior makes you complicit. Silence does nothing, for anyone.
Micro Level Fat Aggressions, Everyday Life
People constantly shifting in seats on public transit to display how little room they have by sitting next to a fat body.
Statements that acknowledge size as something to overcome or hide via clothing and accessories. “You dress well for your size.”
Comments that put beauty and weight at odds. “You’re not fat. You are beautiful”.
Repetitive “compliments” that highlight body parts that are easily separated from fatness. “You have such a pretty face.”
Small public spaces that do not take into account a person of size: tables screwed into the ground at restaurants, narrow seating at venues, AIRPLANE BATHROOMS.
Macro Level Fat Aggressions, Everyday Life
Strangers calling people fat to their face.
Others commenting on a fat person’s food choices, how often they eat, and how much they consume.
Doctors unwilling to listen to medical needs without blaming symptoms on weight.
Jobs that do not have uniforms in plus sizes or up charges for sizes beyond a large.
These micro and macro aggressions are very common in America. Knowledge of how fat bodies are treated in day-to-day life is paramount for understanding and and describing how fat bodies are treated in theatre.
Micro Level Fat Aggressions, Theatre
Costume designers making comments on the difficulty of finding clothing in plus sizes… even if it is framed as a joke.
Choreographers and dressers commenting on how someone’s body is “different” in any capacity. This has the potential to unearth previous trauma, make the performer feel like a burden, or create a feeling of unsafety.
People being surprised by fat people’s movement abilities. Dance and movement instructors often voice when a fat person is moving just as well as everyone else. This is usually an attempt to compliment or encourage but it is often demeaning. Fat people don’t need extra praise for moving well.
People assuming someone who is fat will be auditioning/called in for a supporting role. Many people struggle with fat bodies depicting the stories of romantic, powerful, or fragile characters.
Macro Level Fat Aggressions, Theatre
Programs, colleges, and apprenticeships denying admittance due to size or basing admittance on an agreement to lose weight.
Instructors assuming you lack the physical abilities of the rest of the cast/class. This is similar to the micro aggression of people being surprised fat people can move. But instead of showing surprise, the instructor/casting team does not invite fat people to movement portions of auditions or classes, assuming they aren’t physically fit.
It is hard to believe in the foundations of type casting when the person assigning types has traditionally been an older, white, cisgendered man. If the institution is ever questioned, an immediate response is “this is how it has always been.” There is no disputing some actors are more skilled at specific facets of acting; comedic timing, dramatic pauses, larger than life intimidation or warmth. However, it does seem like more than a coincidence that the majority of fat womxn are commonly cast as matronly or funny characters and never the love interest. Is this because society rarely views fat womxn as sexy or desirable? Is it because fat children grow up using humor as a defense, making it easier for fat adults to lean into comedy? Do we use tropes about fatness to protect the beauty binary of thin is good and fat is bad? Regardless of the origin, the reality is that fat bodies are typically used as the punchline or the non-sexual supportive character.
Everything put on stage has meaning from the color of a pocket square, to a cross downstage. Theatre is a deep study of semiotics. By putting a fat body onstage, a story is already being told. Romeo and Juliet is a story of love in spite of family rules. Romeo and Fat Juliet becomes a story of love despite her size. It is the same script but now the story has changed due to the audiences preconceived notions of what they have been told about fat people. No words are changed but by altering the expected looks of this classic love story, the entire way we view the piece is impacted.
At what age do we stop owning our bodies? The general public may answer sometime around high school, when puberty hit, or even never. For performers, it can be dangerously early. Child actors, dancers starting in kindergarten, singers joining elementary choirs all become aware of their bodies the moment they begin classes. Their craft demands body awareness and consciousness of how you look to others from a stage. This artistic concern for the correct body language in a play, breath support in a song, or arm placement at the barre can quickly become a weight for these kids outside of the rehearsal room. The underlying theme that children pick up on is that the art demands a certain look which you must meet or you will be replaced. How young is too young to dedicate your body to storytelling? How old should you be when you first begin altering the way you look for directors and casting departments?
As easy as it may be to say do what you want with your own body, that unfortunately isn’t a practical answer in the theatre world for many people. Knowing that our current audience and state of storytelling prefers thin figures on stage, dieting and auditioning can be far more daunting for fat individuals. If you diet enough to lose weight but not be thin thin, then have you removed yourself from the chubby best friend and mom roles? Is it even worth it to diet at all if you cant lose all your “excess weight”? Is it a waste of time to go to an audition for Juliet as a size 16?
It feels like an endless cycle: casting directors don’t see fat bodies as leads so fat people don’t audition for leads resulting in, you guessed it, a lack of representation on stage. As body positivity and fat acceptance becomes more and more talked about in society, we must assume it will hit casting departments one day… but we’ve spent decades telling fat people they are only good enough for the lead roles written specifically for their body type. Can we really blame them for not wanting to waste their time in audition rooms they know they are too big for? There can only be one Tracy Turnblad per season but even though we don’t know what Elphaba looks like beyond being green, we know she isn’t fat.
It is time to be honest and call it like we see it. Theatermakers must start asking questions. Ask why a company passed on auditioning or casting fat actors. Break type casting in your classrooms by asking your students to perform pieces outside their comfort zone. Challenge casting directors to bring in fat actors to be auditioned for lead roles that have nothing to do with weight. Talk to directors about why they had no people of size in their cast. Request playwrights use character descriptions to describe who the character is instead of what they look like in stories where physicality is not integral to the story.
We are not going anywhere and it is time we are given the room we deserve, and need. Our society is made up of fat people who are powerful CEOs, confident leaders, sexual beings, vulnerable partners, capable womxn, and active members of the industry. There is no reason fat people cannot play these roles on stage. Speak up. Ask questions. The industry won’t change itself. It starts with us.
About the Authors
Sage Martin is an actor and writer from Kentucky who obtained her degree in Acting from Paul McCartney's Institute of Performing Arts in Liverpool, England. While there, she performed All's Well That Ends Well at the Sam Wanamaker Festival (The Globe, London) and devised a performance based art installation on the US foster care system (Liverpool). She moved to Los Angeles after graduation where she wrote and starred in “The Trials and Errors of Suzette Le’Ago and The Downstairs Neighbor (or Half Magic)” that has played at film festivals in 6 countries, won 2 awards, and showed at drive-in movie theaters around Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. In 2017, she wrote “Such a Pretty Face” and workshopped at it Theater Schmeater (Seattle), where it will be playing in Spring of 2019. Sage is currently learning stained glass work in between acting and writing.
Maggie Rogers is a Seattle based director, dramaturg, and fat activist who proudly hails from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the Literary Manager and Resident Dramaturg at Washington Ensemble Theatre, a company member with The Horse in Motion, and the Resident Dramaturg for Cherdonna Shinatra's compnay, Donna. Before moving to Seattle to complete the Literary Apprenticeship at Seattle Repertory Theatre, she obtained her degree in directing from Columbia College Chicago and graduated as the class Valedictorian of 2014.