Eating Disorders and Theatre: How Acting Unexpectedly Improved My Body Image

Tess Nakashi 

OnStage Guest Columnist

I remember when, as a thirteen-year-old girl, I broke down crying on my bed because I had realized an awful truth—I wanted to be an actress. This desire seemed damning to someone who had only recently been released from the hospital for anorexia nervosa. How was I ever going to conquer this desperate desire to be skinny if my physical form was placed under the bright scrutiny of a spotlight? 

Almost a decade later, I wish I could put my arm around my thirteen-year-old self and reassure her that my eating disorder does not have to be odds with my burning passion for performance. On the contrary, my theatre journey has helped me heal in ways I never predicted.

Don’t get me wrong—it is devilishly hard sometimes to keep a level head regarding your body when there’s no escaping the fact that other people are looking at it. Costume fitting days are the worst for me. My hands feel sweaty and my heart races when the costumer wraps a measuring tape around me, and I feel a flood of panic every time the zipper of a costume stops short of the top. All the while, I’m painfully aware of the others around me, trying hard to stay focused and not compare myself with every other actress in the cast. But sometimes the only way out is through, and every moment of difficulty has made me better at warding off the criticisms my own mind throws my way. 

When I first began acting, I almost always just felt physically uncomfortable on stage. Sometimes I managed to lose myself, but for the most part, a sense of self-consciousness regarding my body continuously haunted me. A combination of my own poor body image and the many times I’d been told to “cover up” made me feel nervous whenever costumes required I showed some skin. My first year as a theatre major, I gained more confidence in my body as I worked on physical acting techniques. But after an appendectomy and a collapsed lung left me physically weak, I felt myself withdrawing back into my shell again. 

And that’s when I was cast in my first shadow cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was playing Janet, a character who, in a show filled with people leaving little to the imagination, sports the particularly vulnerable white bra and panties combo. To prepare, I walked around my apartment in my underclothes, feeling completely ridiculous and awkward. I tried to bolster myself mentally by resolving to always agree when someone complimented me rather than denying it or brushing it off. I questioned my sanity multiple times during this period but was determined to do the show anyway. 

So there I was, wearing only a bra and panties while standing in front of a crowd of screaming strangers. And it was fine. In fact, it was exhilarating. And strangely, it had little to do about my body and self image; just a body, Janet’s body. It wasn’t about showing off or seeking approval but rather stepping outside of myself in order to perform unencumbered by any concerns about my physical appearance. That show was an incredibly freeing experience, and I walked away with the knowledge that I could conquer years of hating my body if only long enough to entertain a crowd. 

Just as powerful as these whirlwind times onstage are the raw, quiet moments no one sees. When you have work, school, and rehearsals filling your schedule until late at night, it’s simply not possible to look perfect all the time. I spent most of my college days in leggings and tank tops, my hair in a messy ponytail. Exhaustion pushed me to a decidedly unglamorous place where my appearance ceased to matter. I could accept the raw, unpolished side of me, for in a world of sweat-drenched yoga mats and bare feet, what else was there, really? Then on the weekends or on special occasions, I took even more pleasure in getting dolled up because it felt like a form of celebration. These moments—both in the shine of the spotlight and the dim of midnight rehearsals—taught me to change costumes backstage without embarrassment, to unabashedly create bold physicalities, to gobble down much-needed snacks on breaks, and to stop thinking I’d get more parts if only I was thinner or more beautiful. 

The beast that is my eating disorder still raises its head sometimes, whispering self-doubts in my ear when I stare at the reflection I’ve grudgingly come to accept as my own. It probably always will. There are moments in theatre when I want nothing but to run away from the bright lights and tape measures, the backstage selfies and character descriptions, the auditions and the watchful eyes. Theatre does not exist to cure the actors of their problems, but it does ask us to face the demons and angels inside, and within this state of vulnerability and struggle, I have found strength.