It's Not Over 'Til the Fat Lady Sings and Dances: How Weight Bias Damages the Performing Arts
By Cindy Sadler
In the performing arts, whether presented live or via media, physical attractiveness is a requirement for leading roles, especially romantic leads. Character roles need not adhere to demanding beauty standards, and the definition of beauty differs depending on culture, generation, and current trends. Rarely included in our definition of physical attractiveness, though, is fatness. Fat bodies don't conform to Western society's general view of the beautiful and acceptable.
"Overweight people are the last group against which it is acceptable to discriminate," writes Dr. Renee Warning in her study on overweight gender bias. "Many feel that
overweight is a matter of choice and therefore, assumed to be an acceptable bias."
The bombardment of imagery in print advertisements, commercials, television shows, films, fashion magazines, video games, and live performance genres like ballet, opera, and theatre reinforce our biases. A 2016 study found that exposure to different ways of framing fat bodies could effect a shift in weight stigma and beliefs about weight-related health risks. Another found that while cultural values influence how the news media assigns blame for obesity, conversely, the media tends to naturalize cultural attitudes towards obesity, solidify group-based stereotypes, and blame the obese for their weight.
The performing arts industry engages millions of audience members in-person and through social and print media, proving an influential societal force for messaging. Unfortunately, the campaigns, by perpetuating weight bias and refusing to normalize body diversity in storytelling and the performers who bring stories to life, can cause considerable damage to artists, society, and the industry itself. The industry is not entirely to blame, however. Like most of society, its members are subject to implicit bias, which, unless confronted, can have a devastating impact.
Implicit or unconscious bias is a set of attitudes that affect an individual's actions, beliefs, and decisions without conscious intent or even awareness. According to a 2015 report by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, "The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance." According to the study, these associations begin in early childhood through exposure to direct and indirect messages and develop throughout the subject's adult life. It credits the media and news as significant influences in creating implicit associations.
Implicit bias can profoundly impact lives and careers, creating serious barriers to success and happiness. These biases vary widely in their foci. Race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, mental illness, neurodivergence, disability, and gender identity are frequent scapegoats for implicit bias. So are weight, physical beauty, and, especially for men, height.
Fatness receives special societal pushback because many people feel that excess weight is self-inflicted and indicates a lack of discipline and self-control. "Bias against those with obesity appears to be socially acceptable and is reinforced by the media," write Rebecca R. Friedman and Rebecca Puhl in their policy brief for the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Because their implicit bias against fatness encourages a negative perspective, normative-bodied people may view fatness with less sympathy and concern.
Despite research showing that, far from encouraging people to lose weight, fat-shaming inflicts serious harm to its victims, fat folk continue to endure shaming, bullying, and mockery. A look at the comments section of fat social media influencers, for example, often reflect contempt, health-related concern trolling, and accusations of promoting obesity, especially if the influencer is fat-positive. A single instance out of thousands: in response to a video by operatic soprano and fat activist Tracy Cox, Dera Kio commented, "Now that I am in shape I refuse to associate myself with overweight people entirely. Yes, I do treat you folks like crap in public because I think you need the motivation to stop being so lazy."
Because it often begins in early childhood and follows the target throughout life, weight bias is especially insidious. In a study published in the International Review of Psychiatry, researchers found that fat children and youth (overweight or obese) were significantly more likely to suffer from weight stigmatization. This stigmatization began in children as young as three years of age. The effects included body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, depression, low self-esteem, bias, prejudice, rejection, social marginalization, bullying, teasing, and suicide ideation.
Professionally, weight stigmatization is no less harmful. A 2010 qualitative review of studies on the topic showed weight bias in several aspects of professional life. In comparison to thin co-workers, fat people are generally considered less efficient and successful, less suitable to leadership positions or positions of responsibility, to have more interpersonal problems, and to be less motivated, intelligent, reliable, self-confident, organized, adaptable, and disciplined.
Additionally, obesity can be a risk factor for unequal treatment in the workplace and a general barrier to professional success and employment. This is certainly true in the performing arts, where size is often a prime consideration in casting for leading roles and, in the case of ballet dancers, may determine whether they can have a professional career at all.
The bias endured by fat performing artists can harm health, psyche, and career. A 2013 study found that ballerinas, who are not overweight at the standard sizes of 0-6, are nevertheless under pressure to maintain the perfect ballet body and are three times more likely to suffer from eating disorders than the average person. A 2017 study on eating disorders among professional musicians, where the median BMI was average, found that they were more likely to suffer from eating disorders due to training and lifestyle. The study found that "…the cultural idealization of thinness and attractiveness which is particularly common in the music industry, especially nowadays in the constant eye of the media …” combined with a long list of factors contribute to disordered eating in classical musicians. These factors include:
Pressure from parents, teachers, and peers
Difficulty maintaining a healthy diet while traveling
Additionally, one-third of symphony musicians and 80% of opera singers surveyed reported suffering from orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
We know the performing arts is challenging. The dedication required to master an art form, the maintenance of that mastery, fierce competition for relatively few positions, job insecurity, time spent away from loved ones, and low pay contribute to a high-stress lifestyle. When shame, stigma, personal criticism, bullying, and constant microaggressions related to personal appearance pile on top of these career challenges, the performing arts world can shift from a place of joyous art-making and self-expression to an environment rife with toxicity.
Weight bias plays a significant role in creating toxic training environments for fat artists as they prepare to enter the workforce. With fat bodies stigmatized and marginalized in the arts and media, instructors may fear that their fat students will lack professional opportunities and feel justified in commenting on students' bodies. Prominent voice teacher Linda di Fiore, in a private interview, confessed that she formerly body-shamed her students, albeit with the best intentions. "I am so profoundly sorry I did it, but at the time, I felt that it was my responsibility to let them know of the obstacles they faced if they wanted a career."
After studying for six years, baritone Jeremiah Sanders, discovered that "… there are some rigid points of view in circulation. I was clued into the fact that I am too fat to have a career". Soprano Thalia Moore-Shearer, confided that professors' repeated remarks --- often complimentary --- about her "curvy" figure hindered her ability to judge the appropriateness of comments about her body and to trust her teachers. Even casual or light-hearted interactions can result in harmful microaggressions, as fat activist, artist, and writer Lauren Munro found:
"Simply put, there are few environments and interpersonal relationships that are untouched by weight stigma…In schools, fat students experience discrimination from peers, and their teachers have lower expectations for their performance."
Weight bias during training can also result in vocal malpractice. Many young singers report that their college voice professors and opera directors forced them into unsuitable repertoire because of their body size. Opera is an art form in which voice type, a natural endowment which cannot be changed by training, often determines the roles an artist sings, at least when pieces are cast traditionally. While most singers are capable of a wide range of repertoire, they are best suited to one type above others. Fach (a German word literally meaning “strength”, but used to refer to voice type) determines, to some degree, the body of repertoire a classical singer undertakes. Singing unsuitable repertoire over time can severely distort vocal technique and result in undesirable physical repercussions. For example, a singer with a lighter voice who is at home in operetta and musical theatre would, over time, risk technical and even physical damage if forced to sing over loud, heavy orchestrations such as that found in Wagner or Verdi. In graduate school, Victor Knight DiNitto, a lyric tenor, was repeatedly encouraged to undertake buffo (comic) repertoire (traditionally the provenance of baritones and basses) because his larger size meant he "wasn't sexy enough to be a leading man." On the other end of the spectrum, dramatic soprano Carey Pearson required vocal rest for a year and retraining after being forced to sing the wrong repertoire because her teachers did not believe a large voice could reside in a petite body. Deliberate mis-Faching a singer is an unethical practice that can result in severe vocal damage. It can curtail or delay a singer's professional career to repair the damage, and that can take years.
In addition to physical and psychological damage, weight bias inflicts significant harm on fat artists' professional opportunities. Thin bodies are the default or neutral; fat bodies are symbolic of weakness, comedy, failure, and corruption.
In his Howlround article "Towards a Fat Theatre", actor Jeff Bouthiette encapsulates the problems fat actors face in getting cast. "Unconscious bias makes directors and casting directors conclude that a thin actor can more believably play a variety of characters, not because of technical ability but because thin bodies are perceived as neutral, and fat bodies as symbolic. Likewise, they might decide that a fat performer is 'lacking in sex appeal' or 'unbelievable as a love interest,' not because the performer isn't convincingly romantic, but because they haven't examined their assumptions and biases around sexual attraction."
Because their implicit bias against fatness encourages a negative perspective, audience members, writers, and casting directors alike may expect to see artistic depictions of fat characters that align with their beliefs. They may insist that a fat artist is not believable as a romantic lead, despite knowing fat people in loving relationships.
When influential performing arts gatekeepers perpetuate the myth that fat people are doomed to lives of lonely celibacy, are unsuccessful in their personal and professional lives, and tend to be dumber, lazier, and less capable than thin compatriots, they injure the public. The industry can celebrate a false sense of homogeneity, deny representation to a significant segment of the population, and injure fat artists through a type of marginalization not unlike that which LBGTQ artists have been forced to endure. Marginalized artists are often forced to choose between unemployment and playing offensively stereotypical or unrepresentative characters. Game of Thrones actor Elizabeth Webster told a reporter, "There aren't enough fat people on television portraying the life I live … I don't see me on television, what I see is people who can't get their shit together, people for whom losing weight is the most important thing rather than living with the weight." Overweight characters, she argues, "don't get the full spectrum of storylines" in TV and film.
The arts' influence on the public is not a new phenomenon. In The Republic, the great Greek philosopher Plato argued that playwrights should be enjoined to take care with their narratives to avoid negative influences on youth. In contemporary debate, a 2002 report on the influence television dramas have on viewers' opinions of real healthcare asserted that "…entertainment TV's impact can be even more powerful than news in subtly shaping the public's impressions of key societal institutions. The messages are more engaging, often playing out in compelling human dramas involving characters the audience cares about."
The failure of performing arts to center realistic images of fat people influences society to do the same. As ethnographer D. Soyini Madison writes, "…representation has consequences: how people are represented is how they are treated." Weight bias in the performing arts harms society by encouraging prejudice, promoting unhealthy stereotypes, and normalizing the exclusion of a large portion of the population from representation.
The performing arts world also self-inflicts serious damage to itself through weight bias. Even before the ravages of COVID-19, arts organizations clamored for new audience development and deeper audience engagement. The problem is significant enough that in 2015, the Wallace Foundation created a $46 million Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative for performing arts organizations seeking to strengthen audience-building efforts and explore insights and effects on financial sustainability. However, the urgent need for audience-building does not prevent arts organizations from simultaneously excluding and marginalizing fat people, a significant audience segment, by portraying them as stereotypes or refusing them space altogether. By ignoring the interests of fat audiences, the performing arts send the message that fat dollars and fat derrières in seats are not priorities, even though they need all the money and ticket sales they can muster. It is difficult to imagine an arts organization indirectly discouraging blue-eyed people's donations simply because they don't like how they look.
Through weight bias, the performing arts also self-inflict creative and artistic limitations. When fat performers are allowed on stage, restrictions often accompany them, especially in the classical arts. Many theatre-makers harbor implicit bias regarding fat artists' suitability for specific roles due to their appearance. Some also are concerned that a fat artist lacks the stamina or flexibility to execute physically demanding roles. "Theatre decision-makers enter audition and rehearsal rooms with many preconceived notions of the physical abilities of fat bodies," writes Bouthiette. "There are many talented fat physical performers, yet anti-fat bias causes directors and casting directors to dismiss them out of hand."
Yet thin bodies are not, by definition, healthy, active, or fit, and fat bodies are not, by definition, unhealthy, inactive, or unfit. A thin actor can have bad knees, poor muscle tone, or an autoimmune disease that requires special attention --- all conditions that could affect the ability to perform certain functions on stage or keep up with a challenging schedule. A fat actor can have no significant health issues, work out every day, and easily lift heavy weights. Bodies, whether fat or thin, naturally possess different abilities.
A stage director's job is to work with an actor's strengths, no matter their physical abilities. If a thin actor cannot execute blocking due to a physical limitation, a creative director finds another way to tell the story. A costume designer's job is to help create a character through clothing, to dress bodies. If they do not know how to dress a larger body effectively, is that a failing of the fat artist or a lack of ability and imagination on the designer's part? A good choreographer creates interesting shapes and movements through which dancers express an idea or tale. Restricting herself to a limited palette of body types limits her range of expression, much like an architect who insists on using only one kind of building material to execute his designs. By repeatedly centering thin bodies and excluding fat ones, the performing arts world severely limits its range of expression, storytelling ability, and creativity.
The performing arts world self-harms through weight bias by limiting the talent pool and potentially depriving audiences of significant and meaningful art. While ballet companies like Cuba's Danza Voluminosa or Russia's Eugene Panfilov Ballet of the Fat exist, ballet's strict aesthetics deny all but a very select percentage of artists the opportunity to perform professionally. Talented performers like Lizzy Howell, a teenaged ballerina and social media star who has won many competitions and scholarships, may leave ballet for the more welcoming arms of the modern dance genre.
The opera world has a tradition and stereotype of fat artists. It is somewhat more accepting of them, mainly because singers who can sing notoriously difficult roles like Turandot often come in a larger size body. However, fat singers still experience bullying by teachers, critics, stage directors, agents, board members, and audience members. At the highest levels of the art, female singers especially are frequently subjected to body shaming. Star soprano Lisette Oropesa hit the gym and dieted to lose nearly half her body weight after Metropolitan Opera connections advised her that she would have no chance at a career unless she slimmed down. "If they have a thousand girls to choose from, the first ones they are going to cut are the fat girls," she told the Agence France-Presse. She is disturbed by wealthy patrons who feel entitled to say to her, "Oh, I am so glad you're not fat, like so and so." What of the aspiring singers who are unable to lose the weight as Oropesa did? How much talent is stymied by opera's weight watchers? Imagine if opera fans had been deprived of Oropesa's "insane coloratura and celebrated artistic versatility."
There is some progress against weight bias. Even as the media sells stories about celebrity bodies, body-shaming is now regularly decried. After fans called out Game of Thrones and Aquaman star Jason Momoa for sporting a "dad bod" in vacation photos, the media sprang to his defense and decried body-shaming. In 2017, backlash forced a Toronto-based orchestra to shut down after its management sent an offensive email to its singers, asking that those who were not "fit and slim" refrain from wearing tight-fitting dresses to refrain from "bringing attention to their temporary physical/dietary indulgences." In the opera world, fans and colleagues alike leapt to her defense after British critics savaged mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught for her "puppy fat."
Progress in attitudes towards fat bodies and body-shaming, notwithstanding, the performing arts industry still has much to accomplish in addressing its part in promoting weight bias. Historically, the arts have challenged, provoked, and especially in times of trouble, comforted and healed. They often have led to cultural and societal change. With performing arts organizations everywhere struggling to survive the rampages of COVID-19, the time is ripe for the industry to rebuild as a stronger, healthier influence on society. It is time for the performing arts world to challenge its implicit biases and the harm it inflicts on its artists, society, and itself by destigmatizing fat bodies, normalizing and centering body diversity, and welcoming new audiences with true representation onstage.
Cindy Sadler is an operatic contralto, arts administrator, stage director, writer, educator, and arts advocate. She possesses a strong interest in supporting the arts by providing artists with superior tools, knowledge, and confidence to become accomplished and successful entrepreneurs. Find out more at www.CindySadler.com.