How to Combat Fatphobia in Theatre

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  • Melody DeRogatis

In the age of the modernized Oklahoma! revival, Broadway is finally starting to recognize people of all walks of life as necessary to storytelling. With the recognition of giving more roles to different types of people, a light shines on fatphobia. In the past couple of years, there has been talk about sizeism amongst theatre communities everywhere. Sizeism is a tricky topic because it goes back to “knowing your type.” Traditionally, everyone in theatre has their type, and the way an actor looks plays a significant role in the “type” of characters they can play. But, with the revolution of casting diversity in mainstream Broadway, the relevance of “type” is slowly slipping away and with it, so should fatphobia.

So, to “type” fat actors as ugly, undesirable characters frequently, to not even consider them for a part that involves being “sexy” or “romantic,” is ludicrous. Fat people find love, are deemed desirable by many people in the real world every day, why would it be any different in a fictional universe? Meanwhile, fat people continue to feel isolated and inadequate at auditions, callbacks, and rehearsals, because people are aware fatphobia is an issue, but don’t take steps on how to fix it… even if sometimes, it is unintentional.

So, what can we, as a theatre community, do to stop fatphobia? Well…

1.      Understand when (and when not) to use the word “fat”.

To be a professional actor is to mainly be a professional make-believe artist. When appropriate, the best actors should be able to play any role. Audiences suspend their disbelief for hours at a time— whether believing that a person can actually fly when watching Wicked, or a dog can actually talk when watching Sylvia. No matter how outlandish a plot, audiences have proven through time that they are willing to suspend their disbelief for good entertainment.

Some people reading this article might find the word “fat” offensive because as a society, we have been conditioned to think that “fat = unhealthy = wrong.” In reality, “fat” is just an adjective. To be fat shouldn’t be considered any better or worse than being tall, short, thin, or having brown hair… it is just a fact. If a person identifies as “fat,” then it is okay to use that adjective about them!

We’re theatremakers. We work long hours… during tech week, sometimes we don’t leave the theatre an entire day. It’s easy to be exhausted all the time because we’re getting three hours of sleep and fueling ourselves on Hot Cheetos. As a result, often times, people proclaim “ugh, I feel so gross! I’m so fat!” For people who I identify as fat, this is most problematic, because their body is being equated with gross, disgusting, unhealthy, etc. If you feel out-of-shape, tired, unhealthy, just say that… don’t use fat as a lazy synonym.

2. Don’t assume.

Fatphobic conditioning often results in casting judgments. Many people will see a fat person and assume that person is unhealthy or doesn’t take care of themselves, which then results in further judgments to seeing fat people as lazy or sloppy.

Many people are overweight and take better care of themselves than people who are of average weight. People are quick to judge fat people as unhealthy but won’t say a word when they see a loved one smoking cigarettes or drinking copious amounts of soda.

If a fat person auditions for your show, don’t assume that they can’t do a lift, or keep up in a big production number. Don’t rule a fat person out for auditioning for the Soprano-ingenue, when they could have the best voice of anyone you’ve heard all day. You’re doing yourself a big disservice by not testing someone’s skills (if they have them available), just because they’re a person of size.

3. Question the way fatness is portrayed in shows you work on.

Is there a designated “fat” character in a show you’re producing? If so, what is the purpose of them being fat? Is it two-hours of fat jokes? A struggle about being fat? Most importantly, is the fatness of the character advancing the story in a meaningful, significant way?

In 2019, there’s no reason for fat people to exist as a plot device… especially for B-rated jokes, everyone has heard before, so it’s best to avoid shows with these kinds of characters and making visual sight gags on old fat-people cliches. If the character in question is specified as “fat,” is their existence purely about them being fat? A larger person has just as many goals and interests as any other person, and therefore, a larger character should be developed past their physical identity.

The best way to combat fatphobia when it comes to casting is by considering fat people for roles that don’t have to do with size, eating, or physical appearance.

4. Remember you’re working with a human being.

This pertains to anyone you work with. Each and every actor has their own unique body, and the stage needs all sorts of bodies, souls, and minds to help tell its stories. Sometimes with larger actors, there is a tendency to express frustration.

“She’s not light enough to be lifted. Can we lift Sarah instead?”

“We need Jack to stand in back, he’s the largest one here.”

Don’t say anything that calls out someone for their size, shape, or anything that might make them feel “othered” in general. This might seem like common sense, but I’ve heard these things on multiple occasions in the rehearsal room. If you’re a costume designer, choreographer, director, or really anyone on a production team, you have a pretty demanding job… often, it can result in thinking out loud and verbalizing something you might not realize can be hurtful.

Just remember that everyone around you is affected by your actions, so while it’s sometimes necessary to be blunt, always remember to be kind, too.

5. Be an advocate. For your friends. For yourself.

If you see someone being fat-shamed or treated unfairly due to their size, ask them how you can help. Ask how they are feeling. A little compassion can go a long way. If you see something happening on a grander scale, call the person out… or talk to another person that can help. The theatre community usually tries to be a welcoming place for all people, which means that sometimes when fatphobia occurs, it is a microaggression, and it needs to be pointed out so people can learn and not do it anymore.

While we ask the theatre community to take these points and adopt them to their theatres… we, as plus-size people, can’t just expect change overnight. The American theatre community is in a revolution right now, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Some of these changes are happening in large, theatre-dominated cities… in many communities, type-casting is still very relevant, and won’t just magically disappear.

So, plus-size theatre-makers, I call on you to be your own advocate. While theatre is a tight-knit community, it’s not a cliquey high school. Nobody can tell you that you can’t sit at their lunch table. You have every right to take up space without apologizing for it. If there’s directors/choreographers/costumers/etc. that isn’t respecting your body, call them out on it. Tell someone. If there’s nowhere else to go, don’t audition for them. Write your own shows… find some friends, raise some money, start your own theatre company and do the show you have always dreamed of.

Theatre-Making is a world we imagine and make come true… don’t stop until you exist in the world you’ve always dreamed of living in.