The 28-inch Waist
In my third year of drama school I took a load of phentermine and lost 15kg in three months. It was amazing and I felt amazing, aside from the constant dry mouth and occasional heart palpitation.
The previous year, I’d managed to lose 10kg over four months by sticking to 1,500 nutrient-rich calories a day and going to the gym a lot. I managed to keep that weight off for about five months through second year before slipping back into my old habits, propelled by the rejection of a guy – obvs. I was so pissed with myself for undoing all of my hard work, so convinced that I couldn’t lose the weight again and horrified by the idea of coming back from the Christmas break to play Claudia in Nine as a bloated pudding-woman, that I turned to my doctor for an immediate, prescription-only solution.
Oh, Duramine, you beautiful angel drug. I used it to limit my calorie intake to 1,200 calories a day. Aided by a drama school exercise regime, the weight dropped off me. By the time we opened Nine I was 65kg and I looked bloody bangin’. Plus, the speed made me super efficient. I slept very little and organised all my books and sheet music into alphabetical order in the middle of the night. I was absolutely thrilled to be a size 10 for the first time since emerging from the womb. I bought my jeans from Topshop, which was a fucking milestone. I practically erected a monument to those jeans. For a while I weighed myself every Sunday, but only after taking a bunch of laxatives on a Saturday night. Then for a while I weighed myself every day. I measured my waist. A lot. I’d got into this routine the previous year, too, when I was losing weight the healthy way (without drugs). I remember the day my waist measurement was below 30 inches; a goal I’d set for myself. I did a little victory dance in my knickers next to the scales in my bathroom. I would only ever weigh and measure myself on a Sunday, in my underpants, after popping a couple of laxatives the night before – poo is heavy, right?
Then in my second year, at the age of 26, after four months of a strict 1500 per-day calorie intake and a lot of cardio, my waist measurement dropped to 29.5 inches; still enormous to some people, and by the media’s standards positively obese, but to me it was everything… and I was starting to consider myself not fat for the first time since I was 13 years old.
Shortly after decreasing my waist size to 29.5 inches, I had a one-to-one meeting with a senior tutor to discuss where we thought I would fit within “the industry”. I said I had absolutely no idea. Neither did he. There didn’t seem to be a pigeon hole that I would fit into, I worried. No, there wasn’t, he agreed. So, how was I to market myself to agents and casting directors? We flipped through my rep file. ‘Practically Perfect’ from Mary Poppins was the first song in there and I’d had it in my file for a while because it showed off my voice and my personality, and I could do it justice, I thought. Maybe I was being naive, but I’ll never forget said senior tutor’s reaction as he looked down at my song choice. “Lovely song”, he said. “Of course, you’ll never play Mary Poppins.”
“Why…?” I asked, offended, but fully expecting him to point out the obvious: that I can’t tap to save my life. What he actually said was, “because you don’t have the 28-inch waist.”
Fast-forward to now. I haven’t really worked since drama school, aside from a couple of profit shares. In one of them – my first ever paid job – I was, age 28, cast as a mother of three. The actress playing my daughter was also in her twenties. I was accustomed to this sort of casting. At drama school, aside from my glorious mid-diet stint as Claudia in Nine (which hardly anyone came to see, by the way, which is not cool because I was so thin and you should have seen me in that dress GUYSitwasamazing), I was always cast in the “character” role – funny mothers, funny aunts… you know, funny fat people. I hated that. I was insulted by the idea that I couldn’t play the romantic part, the winsome beauty. I didn’t appreciate until much later that being able to play comedy is a fucking gift, and being cast in those roles is a reflection of your skill and not just your waistline. Being the beautiful young ingenue would be lovely, but the character parts are layered like onions (because thank you patriarchy for writing female musical characters that are almost always one or the other – beautiful with no personality or plump and interesting – and never the twain shall meet).
I haven’t worked much. I had some amazing audition opportunities in my first year out of drama school but nothing came of them. Not even a callback. Eventually, after 18 months, the agent who signed me off my showcase and rarely spoke to me after that, dropped me from her books via an email that I never actually received. It had been months since my last audition and I emailed her requesting to be submitted for some another scandalously low paying “profit share” that I‘d seen was casting. Her PA responded: had I read their email dated 40 days previous? Why was I contact them? Turns out, they’d issued my 30-day notice and thought nothing of it when I didn’t reply. It was humiliating. I cried a lot.
Now, I’m not saying all this failure is purely down to my weight. It might be because I don’t have that 28-inch waist, but it might also be because I’m just not that great an actor. Maybe I only got into drama school because they needed to fill a quota of international students to pay the full fees up front, and maybe I was never actually going to work. It might be a combination of both my weight AND talent – or lack thereof. This is just a sampling of the many negative hypotheses that swim around my head at any one time. It might be none of those things. It might be ‘fate’. Perhaps I am destined to sit at a desk for the rest of my life, ordering £300 toilet seats for the super-rich.
What I am certain of, though, is that the senior tutor who told me I couldn’t play Mary Poppins because of my size is not alone in his views. This is the industry’s view of women, and I am certain that the reason I have only played characters that are far too old for my casting since graduating is that my body type is what most casting directors consider to be that of a woman who has given birth multiple times. (Never mind the fact that I know quite a few women who’ve given birth multiple times and have better post-baby bodies than I could ever dream of attaining.)
It doesn’t matter that I still get ID’d buying Tanqueray in Tesco, or that my face and voice are ‘sweet’. My body is a size 14 (12 on a good day) and as far as musical theatre is concerned, there is no place for this body/face/voice combination. I don’t know whether I’m a decent actor anymore. What I do know is that ever since that senior tutor commented on my waist measurement, I have entered and exited every single audition wondering whether I’m too fat to be in with a chance.
Whatever the reason for my failure, I decided to throw in the towel. Constant rejection is not my bag. But the idea that an actor’s worth, their ability to tell a story truthfully and convincingly is determined by their waist line, is absolute bullshit.
The average size of women in the UK is 16, guys. Sixteen! ‘Fat’ women can be love interests. People fall in love with us in real life every day. Look, I am literally batting them away! (This is an outrageous lie. I will die alone surrounded by rescue donkeys, and spaniels. It’s fine.) So why can’t we be loved on stage, too?
I am so tired of the idea that only a certain size of woman can be loved on stage and film. I am tired of the idea that audiences can’t empathise with a woman who isn’t slim, and that they won’t buy into the idea that anyone could love a fat woman. I am tired of size 12+ women only being in roles that directly reference her weight or rely upon it in the storyline.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s tired of this, as we all rightly seem to be striving for diversity in theatre and film. The change starts with us. Producers give audiences what they think they want. Producers just want money. So we have to tell them that WE want more size diversity on our screens and stages. Because we do. Right?
Let’s start with ourselves. Ladies, let’s just stop body shaming each other, ok? It really sucks. Let’s stop hurling the word ‘fat’ around like it’s something we must dedicate our lives to avoiding, as though fat means we have failed and are unloveable. There are far worse things to be than fat. Look at strangers the way you would look at a close friend. Would you call her fat or disgusting? I should hope not. So don’t do it to strangers, either. How can we ever convince men to stop telling us how our bodies should look when we’re still telling each other how our bodies should look?
Men, stop. Just stop.
Casting directors: please acknowledge that women over a size 10 exist and that we are multi-layered humans, capable of falling in love and of BEING LOVED.
If Cosette, for example, can be performed by a BAME actress then why can’t she be a size 12, 14, etc? If audiences can be colour blind, why can’t they also be size blind?
Basically, let’s all just fucking DO BETTER, ok? I don’t know exactly why I didn’t cut it as an actor but it would be awesome if one day we could live in a world where a woman can walk bewilderedly away from her dream without having to wonder whether she was rejected because of her weight.
This post was inspired by this amazing blog that my friend Grace shared with my last night. You should definitely read it. xx