Taking up the stage (more body talk)
(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Charlebois Post in June 2013. I've had about three more years to soak in it, and edited/expanded it accordingly.)
With the launch of Terrible Sex Tips, and the forthcoming premiere of nerdfucker, and the concomitant release of those half-naked promo shots, I have had to come to terms again with my body.
You would think this shouldn’t be such a big deal. Look at the nerdfucker photos that were already out; the naked segment in for | play; the sets I did five years ago for the Naked Comedy Showcase. Look what I wear out in public, for fucks’ sake. But if the truth be told, I mostly just sail through on bravado and get-‘er-done. I inhabit my body, I know what I can do with it; I don’t actually look at it. I hardly ever watch video of me.
This is fairly common among performers; it feels weird to juxtapose our experience of performing live with a captured moving image. What is that thing I do with my eyebrow? Why did I make that movement right there? Is that really the way my voice sounds? Playback through a machine is imperfect—charisma doesn’t record well—and visuals captured in the small box of a video frame are differently experienced than a live, sweaty actor on a stage.
But my own reflexive reluctance to look at myself comes from someplace deeper than just that disconnect between experience-in-the-flesh and technology. It’s from a lifetime of being a big girl. And even though I’ve been going for years seemingly indifferent to comments or heckles or slurs or stares of disbelief, I still feel them and it’s still hard. With the premiere of a show that turns out to have body issues tangled up in the plot line, along with a host of other difficult issues, those feelings are just going to keep up and up and up.
Sometimes I worry that, between being openly sexual and openly fat, I am spending an unsustainable amount of energy maintaining my psychological defenses. It’s challenging enough walking down the street—a one-woman slutwalk, my own personal body-acceptance rally—but when I sit down and think about what I’m doing out in the performance world, what I’m trying to do out there, it makes me a little dizzy.
I mean, let’s look at the state of the union. Most larger actresses get the best-friend or the jolly neighbor or the matronly restaurateur roles. Women are routinely badgered to lose weight to get parts; Margaret Cho is only the most outspoken about that horrifying situation, but I’ve heard of dozens of others. And women of all sizes get shoved under the media microscope and put on the covers of magazines with headline critiques of every inch of their bodies. As a late bloomer I realized a long time ago that I’m not going to get anywhere following the standard show-biz trajectories, to which I say “thank god”. That is no way to live.
It helps that I’m a writer as well as a performer. I’ve got things to say and conversations to start. So Fringe, right? That should be easy! Totally counter-cultural and down with whatever people bring, right?
Except no. The people who make up the Fringe is soaking in the same cultural values as larger society; we can’t help it. We can only decide how we respond to those values, examine them, express them to ourselves and to others, go along with them or strike out on our own path. Most people aren’t examining those values.
As a result, larger women tend to occupy the same tenuous real estate in Fringe land as they would in Hollywood, which is to say, not much and it’s kinda crappy. There is a dearth of female solo artists out here anyway, and fat female solo artists? Forget about it. Before I went to Edinburgh for the first time in 2013, I think the only other fat woman I’ve seen doing solo work was doing a fucking weight-loss show. Now I am friends with a couple of other Fringe fatties, but that’s it, and I don’t even know if they’d be cool with me calling them “fattie” in the first place, so whatever.
We select out, see. Women who are told that they aren’t attractive, certainly not attractive enough to be on stage, aren’t going to get as much support or reward in going for it. Fuck support, I’d settle for non-hostile. But the reviews talk about appearances, and the way some people look at me (“how dare she wear that short skirt? Doesn’t she realize how fat she is?”) feels the same whether I’m flyering a line-up or just walking down the street. Then there’s the occasional vitriol from an audience member, someone angry that I have the gall to talk about having a sex life, to be a performer, too, and be fat at the same time. I push it away, I laugh it off, or, you know, write stuff like this, but it still sucks, which is why I keep going. The reaction is the reason.
I didn’t start out in Fringe thinking that I was repping body acceptance in any way. In fact, when I began doing solo work after nearly a decade of doing fat-positive dance and community theatre, I felt as though I had deliberately dropped the torch. I still sometimes look back on that time and feel guilty about leaving it. But then I think about the people who have come up to me during my six years of touring who thank me for being so brave.
I’m not always sure whether they’re talking about saying the word cock or being naked in a theatre full of strangers, and frankly, it never seems like the right moment to ask them what exactly they are thanking me for. So I say “you’re welcome. I feel very strongly about doing this work,” which is true in either case. Sometimes when people tell me I’m being so brave, it can feel condescending, like, WHOA YOU ARE A FREAK. But sometimes I think they mean, “thank you for being someone who looks a little like me.” Or, "thank you for doing something that I wish I could, but can't right now."
I’ll say it: it takes an extraordinary exertion of will to persist as a performer who doesn’t fit in the box. We don’t get praise for it; survival is our reward. If I stopped to think about it too much, I might never perform publicly ever again. And there is more at stake than my own career, my own vision. It’s not just personal, it is TOTALLY political. My friend and colleague, the late Heather MacAllister, said it best: “Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it's political.”
And any time I can look at myself in a video or photo, look at my own performing body and love it for every marvelous thing it can do… that is political, too.
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