Tuesday 2 July 2013

How we look - a 'weighty' issue

I experienced a ‘normal person’ commute last week and the thrills of joining the rush hour. This self-employed girl had no idea so many people drive around at 7am - the roads are ridiculous and it's a very miserable way to start your day.

On one journey I stopped at some traffic lights and through my bleary eyes saw a figure from my past using the crossing.

In front of me was a choreographer I worked with 11 years ago on my first big job. A choreographer who brought me into her office at the 15 minute call before a matinee performance and told me I had out on too much weight and should really be slimmer if I wanted to be a leading lady on the West End.  I then attempted to perform the show through tears as I was mortified that people had paid money to watch someone like me on the stage.

My foot twitched over my accelerator - I'm not gonna lie all those past feelings of humiliation boiled up inside me and urged me to run the red light and zoom towards her.  But ten years of hindsight and a moral code that won’t allow me to break the law just meant that I took a deep breath and drove on.

We all have incidents in our pasts that if confronted with them, even years later, make us feel horrible all over again.  Despite getting on with life, moving on or losing weight they are small moments of hurt that remind us of our weaknesses.

In our industry weight can often be an issue.  I’ve heard horror stories of dance school teachers forbidding the students to eat roast potatoes on their Christmas break and a certain choreographer shouting “get that fat girl off my stage” during an audition.  In one job I did the choreographer/director told the female ensemble although I was 21 years old and still in that puppy fat zone.  They had employed me at a certain size and therefore it was my to “get our fat asses up and do the routine.” It may have been a ‘queeny’remark not intended to be taken seriously but you tell 8 women that and one is bound to be offended. The ironic thing is that this particular comment was made when I was going through my “lolly pop”head phase as my mum called it, we were all tiny.

Can you imagine any comments about weight or appearance being allowed in a normal work environment? If your manager came up to your desk and told you to move your fat ass, he’d be hauled in front of an employment harassment tribunal before you could say “5,6,7,8!” Yet in the performing industry it’s brushed under the carpet.

Should how you look eclipse your talent? The BBC talent show The Voice promotes the idea that the contestants should be judged purely on their talent and not on their looks. But beyond the whirly chairs does this actually happen? Perhaps the winner this year finally proves their point – but look at all the backlash online when Amanda won, certain people felt it was a sympathy vote.


We have to face the fact that as actors we are judged on our appearance. I have accepted that I cannot be Nala in The Lion King or a leggy dancer in Spamalot but I also need to accept that if I eat the same size portions as my boyfriend then I will never be waif-like enough to play Eponine. We are a physical product and part of the deal is to keep ourselves in shape so we have the stamina to do our jobs and ultimately retain the right look. Indeed, as I am writing this I have just been to the gym and my boyfriend is out in the garden doing his weights to get in shape for his next job. It’s not just for vanity; whatever your natural size you do need to be fit enough to endure 8 shows a week of physically demanding work.

My personal experience of this ‘weighty issue’ with the choreographer at the traffic lights felt harsh at the time. My desperate attempts to starve myself for the following days fell flat when I fell off a treadmill because I didn’t have the fuel in me to run let alone do two shows. I can now see that perhaps it was fair to have pulled up about my weight gain, responsibility to remain that way.  However, the way it happened right before a performance and the words she used were unacceptable.  The 31 year old me would handle it in a much better and healthier way than that 21 year old did– but then isn’t that true of most situations in life?

Les Dawson challenged the stereotype with
his Roly Poly dancers
‘How we look’ is an on-going issue not only with choreographers but from magazines, bikini diets and air-brushed celeb photos - there will always be people in the world trying to make you feel crap about yourself.  Keep fit to feel confident and be physically equipped to do your job but remember that just as a car won’t go without fuel, you won’t perform well without a plate of pasta sometimes! 
 And if you are 21 and reading this, take it from this 31 year old – how you look isn’t the bee-all and end-all, being happy, healthy and doing a job where you don’t have to sit in traffic at 7am is what really matters.

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