Salutations, RLB Readers!
National Eating Disorder Month was last month, but since that was only a few days ago I figure it’s still okay to play catch up.
If you’ve read my confessional, you know that the issue of eating disorders is a personal one for me. As far too young of a girl, the only thing holding me back from full-blown bulimia is that I hated throwing up even more than I hated being chubby. Instead, I relied on a binge-starve-binge-starve pattern that lasted into my early teen years.
Decades later, I am thrilled to have a healthy and hearty relationship with food, and relieved that it has translated into a love of my own spectacular physique (while I’m no lingerie model, I have to admit I look pretty damn good in my lingerie).
In addition to writing and singing, I’ve primarily been an actress for most of my life. It was without a doubt my first love, so in my mid-twenties I moved to LA to chase my elusive silver screen ambitions of working in The Movies.
My sights may have been set high, but I was no naïve Millie, stepping off the bus with a suitcase full of dreams and rainbows. I was armed with years of feminist activism, sharply honed self-awareness, and a keen understanding that the glass ceiling in Hollywood is one of the highest left in this country.
I’m sure my past struggles with body image didn’t help, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the complete and utter saturation of sexism within the film industry. It’s one thing to watch Seth McFarlane act like a douche at the Oscars, but it’s another to see that 90% of the audition notices that come your way read like some version of the following:
“Hot, sexy, model-hot, super hot, model good looks, gorgeous, super sexy, hot hot hot girl(s) needed!”
…and that was for everything from small speaking roles to commercials. For insurance. If it was a featured role they were slightly less blatant, but attractiveness was still nearly always mentioned and usually quantified. “Girl next door beautiful.” “Hottest girl in the room.” “Gorgeous and she knows it.” “Gorgeous and she doesn’t know it.” It didn’t matter if the role was District Attorney or Mother or a lead role requiring Intense Acting Skills. She was, without exception, supposed to be beautiful.*
Immersing oneself in such a culture will take its toll. Even if you know better, and even if you are actively fighting against it, it will sink into your subconscious and set up shop there, hanging up curtains and installing its own track lighting. In my case, it meant that I did a vegan detox and worked out until I had dropped three jean sizes without even noticing. Which, all in all, isn’t the worst thing, because I still wasn’t “scary skinny.”
The worst thing is that I never felt thin enough. The worst thing is that I never felt thin enough, in part, because agents and managers I met would suggest oh-so-casually that it would be a good idea for me to lose weight. I never walked away feeling like I would take their idiotic suggestion to heart, but I also never openly questioned them. Instead my subconscious led me to asinine, image-obsessed behavior, like thinking critically about my outfits when I was getting ready to run errands. It didn’t occur to me to ask why.
Having this conversation with a friend recently, that was what she wondered. She said, “how come no one ever asks Why? Why do I need to lose weight? How will that make me a better actress?”
I can’t speak for others, but personally, I didn’t question it because I expected it. I was prepared for that very specific kind of sexism, and when you’re trying to make your way up the endlessly tall ladder of tinsel town success, the last thing you want to be known as right off the bat is Difficult. Sadly, it also didn’t raise flags because so many women in film actually do this. They start out and they are lovely, and a healthy weight. Then they lose weight and their weight becomes scrutinized, but they’re also featured as “look of the week” because now they’re model-thin.
To be honest, it all scared the sh** out of me. I didn’t want to become That Girl. I was so afraid of losing myself that I left, which wasn’t an easy choice. It was my mother who finally convinced me that I wasn’t giving up, I was choosing to not be miserable. For the first time in my life, I was no longer 100% certain that I wanted to spend my life making movies, because the exhausting attractiveness toll felt too high to pay.
Since leaving Hollywood behind, I’ve said it was because I “didn’t want to spend so much time thinking about how I look.” Which is half true. The whole truth is that I didn’t want to spend so much time worrying about how I look. I didn’t want to spend so much time feeling like I was somehow Less Than. I know I’m a good actress, and that I am always working hard to become an even better one, and I also know that for Hollywood, it most likely isn’t enough.
Here are some of the reasons I was afraid to fully pursue my cinematic goals, in the form of some images that hurt my heart, and at the same time make me really, really glad that I left LA.
Let’s do everything we can to support and promote images of women that are healthy, genuine, attainable, and diverse. Let’s do everything we can to encourage young actresses and young women in the media to focus on their talent and skill, not on how they look. Let’s send a message to Hollywood that we want relatable stories about complex female characters that are based on more than, instead of, anything other than, a hot piece of T&A.
*The one exception to this was when the audition called for “Real People.” These auditions were about as common as people of color on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue.