‘Size X need only apply’ need not exist
By Sophie Perry
It perhaps goes without saying that certain types of bodies are more valued than others in the arts. For all the supposed acceptance, diversity, and inclusivity that the arts preach, there is still a very specific set of body types that appear again and again on stage and screen. The continued presentation of these specific body types in film, television, and theatre constructs and reinforces what the ‘default’ body type is. Notably: thin, fit, and white. Further coded within these specifics is also a range of other traits which determine whether a body is the ‘correct’ type of body or not. This can be things such as if the body conforms to binary notions of gender through perceived mannerisms, movements, expressions, appearances, and vocal characteristics. For example, Margot Robbie can be seen as a prime example of the ‘perfect’ female body. Robbie is white and slim – but still with a notably feminine figure – her hair is long, blonde, and she has a symmetrical face which covers magazines all over the world.
Some may say that the bodies that appear on screen or stage do not necessarily matter, as it is an actor playing a character in the first place. It is not real; it is escapism and should be viewed as simply that. Does it really matter if Robbie’s body is the envy and desire of people all over the world? Her upcoming role is, in fact, playing the most famous and enduring icon of femininity: Barbie. Could there be a better fit for the stereotypical image of Barbie than Robbie? Perhaps not. Am I saying that her slim, feminine build is inherently problematic? Also, no.
The point I am getting at is that we are conditioned to view bodies like Robbie’s as the default and standard for bodies in the arts and media, particularly that of female leads. These body standards make certain roles and characters inaccessible to anyone who does not fit a specific and acute list of criteria, regardless of talent or skill.
“For all the supposed acceptance, diversity, and inclusivity that the arts preach, there is still a very specific set of body types that appear again and again on stage and screen”
The arts, although often based in fiction, are inherently influenced by society at large in a never-ending cycle of cultural production. If wider society has a problem with bodies it describes as ‘Other’ or ‘different’ such as black bodies, fat bodies, and queer bodies, then so will the arts. Due to the pervasive nature of colonialism, fatphobia, and queerphobia as interlocked systems of oppression in society, the arts have come to, and continue to, mainly represent certain bodies as their default.
In terms of fatphobia, one way in which it functions in the arts, and society, can be observed through the musical Hairspray. This musical is famous for its 'plus-size' main character Tracy who aspires to become a dancer, regardless of those around her telling her she is the wrong size. Considering the role of Tracy is a plus-size one, it is often played by actresses who are not themselves plus-size and wear a fat suit to make themselves larger. In many ways, this showcases the attitude that fatness is ok as long as it is not permanent, as long as it is only a costume you can take off at the end of the show.
Actress Carrie Hope Fletcher, has been candid about the fatphobia she has faced during her time portraying Veronica Sawyer in Heathers: The Musical, being told she is ‘too big’ to portray Veronica, or even be on the stage at all. Fletcher has received abusive and hurtful messages about her body on social media and the theatre blogosphere. This only further highlights the extreme and pervasive narrative that surrounds which bodies are ‘acceptable’ and which are not.
Often, the policing of which bodies are acceptable or unacceptable begins at the audition stage when ‘size specifications’ come into play. This is when casting calls specify what size person they want for a role regardless of what talents, skills, and attributes a person of a different size might have. These specifications are inherently fatphobic in nature for they almost always call for those of a smaller size to audition, actively putting off other actors from auditioning who do not fit the criteria. In itself these specifications perpetuate which bodies are 'accepted' and seen on stage and screen.
Speaking to Leeds-based interdisciplinary artist Lotty Loveridge, she describes how she has come across size specifications for different roles, both online and on social media. These specifications are normally found for “commercial castings” which includes jobs such as “dancers for cruise ships” and “live actors for princess characters”. Loveridge explains that the largest size she has come across for a size specification is only a size 12, while the smallest is a size 6. These size specifications have put Loveridge off from auditioning for roles due to the fear of not meeting the casting directors acute criteria; in her words, the risk of being “written off”. Loveridge is critical of the system that surrounds these specifications, describing them as “gross” and questioning why they “are going off size and not skill level“.
“The very act of changing the culture around fatphobia in the arts helps to break down the harmful and outdated stigmas and stereotypes attached to certain bodies”
Bringing an end to the conceptions around which bodies are acceptable and which are not cannot simply come from forcing casting directors to include different types of bodies in their productions. The arts must be seen to be actively support actors and artists who bodies society deems to be ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unattractive’, challenging the ideology of fatphobia at its very core. The very act of changing the culture around fatphobia in the arts helps to break down the harmful and outdated stigmas and stereotypes attached to certain bodies. Only then will the power that this system of oppression holds in society be dismantled, reducing the conditioning effect that it has on future generations of audiences and media consumers.