By Tracy Cox
Sometimes, as a fat singer in the opera industry, I don’t know why I bother at all.
Except that I love to sing. And that I view the erasure of fat talent at the opera as both an artistic loss and a moral wrong. As a fat performer, artist, and activist, I have centered my work on body justice in the performing arts. And I want to make one thing clear: fat-shaming in the opera industry is not an issue of one bad actor. It is an industry-wide problem.
We know, even though fat people have always existed, throughout history and across cultures, that the current social agreement in the Western world is that fatness is supposedly bad, unhealthy, unclean, undesirable, and undisciplined. This agreement has motivated a global hysteria with an epicenter in the US — the country which spends the most on intentional weight loss efforts ($72 billion in 2019).
When discussing anti-fat bias and the barriers to access it creates, such as the issue of employment centered today — it is essential to frame the conversation through an intersectional lens. Any impact that a fat white person experiences in this industry and beyond is deeply intensified and further complicated by the intersecting marginalization of race.
Recent Black scholarship shows us that anti-fat bias is a product of anti-Blackness — arising out of colonialism, the austerity of Calvinism, and the Enlightenment’s moral values (Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings, 2019). These values impacted Western beauty ideals and conflated them with understandings of health. Satiation and indulgence were considered sinful, “other,” and “savage,” and abstaining from food, drink, and pleasure was seen as a sign of control, logic, reason, purity, and Godliness.
Sixty years of research* tells us that long-term weight loss is not sustainable for the majority of the population, and that weight stigma (regardless of body size) increases cortisol, inflammation, and risk for developing all of the diseases traditionally blamed on fatness itself (Vadiveloo & Mattei, “Perceived Weight Discrimination and 10-Year Risk of Allostatic Load Among US Adults”, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2017).
So when a gatekeeper looks an artist squarely in the eye to assess what they consider to be wrong with that artist’s body — they may be tacitly protected by the social agreement around adipose tissue, but they are also tangibly harming that artist. They are stigmatizing them, shaming them, increasing their risk for weight-cycling, depression, eating disorders, and chronic disease**. They smugly allude to ill-health and “wanting what’s best for you” and your singing while negatively impacting your ability to meet health markers. They are basking in socially-sanctioned stigma with a racialized lineage, a misogynistic punishment of the unruly female form, a toxic masculinity that asks men to surrender the flexibility of their breath mechanism to six-pack abs, a conflation of body size and health, and a fundamental misunderstanding of breath function for fat singers. They use them all together to discriminate against fat bodies, the aesthetics of which they find to be personally distasteful.
The only regret I hold from The Middleclass Artist investigative piece on fat-shaming published earlier this week is that I perhaps did not spend enough time illuminating this as a system-wide problem.
Again, this is absolutely not about one gatekeeper.
I probably know a hundred singers who have mentioned Diane Zola’s fatmisic cruelty in passing over the last ten years. Stories of snatching food out of people’s hands, calling singers “disgusting,” “enormous,” and “lazy.” In my opinion, she has earned every ounce of this pushback.
But it is not just young artists who have encountered her vitriol, and her vitriol is not a summation of the systemic and institutionalized harm being done. It is not, as Mark Lear of Houston Grand Opera wrote in his leaked Facebook post defending her, a matter of failed or embittered singers whining about not getting a trophy in what he apparently views as a perfect meritocracy.
It is about accepted, normalized trauma.
When I tell you I have been traumatized by this industry, if you are someone who dislikes, fears, or perhaps even hates fatness and fat people — you likely do not take me seriously when I use the word trauma or abuse in this context.
When I tell you that I have had coaches beg me to undergo a stomach amputation (weight loss surgery), former management demand I go on juice cleanses & fasts (and let me go when I wouldn’t), a director call me a “frightened cow” when I spoke up about a dangerous set, another director elbow my breast in a rehearsal and then ask in front of colleagues if I even felt it (through the fat), an early teacher tell me at a size 16 that I was the “maximum fat allowed for the profession,” a professor joke in class that I needed to put down the Oreos for my own good, a competition judge say my talent was undeniable but that I must always wear black so that I might blend into the curtain behind me and disguise how fat I am, an Intendant call me a superstar followed bluntly with “unfortunately you’re just too fat for the German public — but please do let us know if you’re singing anywhere else in Europe as we’d love to hear you,” and a legendary singer tell my management that my talent is a waste in the body it lives in —
I suppose you brush that all off as well.
Even listing a fraction of my time in the opera pipeline, my nervous system is activated and in overdrive. My “freeze” trauma response is triggered. I grow physically cold and begin to dissociate. I’m happy to say that I’m actively in therapy for this, and I thank heaven for the privilege of having access to mental health support — something artists who need it the most often have trouble accessing.
It also triggers my struggles with disordered eating — I have lost over 100 pounds three times in my life. As with over 90% of intentional weight loss efforts, it was not sustainable for me over the long term***. Every time I lost, I regained more. I am a classic example of weight-cycling. Of a chubby nine-year-old put on a diet by concerned adults. Of a fat teenager who thought of Weight Watchers as religion and learned to think of food as something you obsessively count and control rather than something you hunger for and satiate. Of a fat young adult who did every single thing professional mentors asked of me — until I realized that it was killing me, destroying my mental and physical health.
To be a professional opera singer, you must learn to take criticism. We — all of us — have been forged in the fire of finite feedback on our instrument and artistry throughout our training and careers. Your ears are attached to your instrument and cannot be its driving force. Your instrument is, in fact, internal — there is no fret to follow or string to pluck. You must humbly take the notes you are given from the masters, the teachers, the coaches, the conductors, the directors, the répétiteurs, the linguists, the prompters. They are your ears. They are the team you need to achieve excellence. If you are defensive, you will never make it through even the first rodeo.
If you are lucky, your teacher and coaches will be skilled enough to describe the sensations and pathways you are searching for to sing “on the body” so that you may stumble into successful practice not once but again and again.
If you are unlucky, you will find yourself working with a teacher who hears you struggle with your phrasing and mischaracterizes it as an issue of your fatness and an assumed ill-health.
When I was in one of my young artist apprenticeships and still very much struggling with the ends of my phrases —upon the advice of my teacher, I began swimming laps at a public pool. And you know what? It helped me. I did not lose weight as he had hoped (I’ve only ever lost weight when I leaned into disordered eating), but it helped me with my breath.
You know what helped me more? Learning to untuck my belly when I start to sing. I had been sucking it in so much to escape fatphobic abuse throughout my life that the entire core of my body was as tight as a coiled spring. Brush up against it, and I would jump away as if burned. How can one access the flexibility of breath suspension when one holds so much muscle tension in their belly and their throat? How can one possibly make the end of a phrase when the onset over-blows like a hairdryer until it can finally find the gather halfway through? How can one sing on the full voice and body when they are creating each pitch by constantly stopping and starting the air with a squeeze from the abs, rather than activating it in an uninterrupted line and speeding it up or slowing it down, or “starving it” according to the requirements of the tessitura?
We are treating the bodies of fat singers as problems to be fixed rather than the legitimate, complex, and integral components of the voices which they house. In the words of voice teacher Claudia Friedlander, author of “Complete Vocal Fitness, A Singer’s Guide to Physical Training, Anatomy and Biomechanics,”
“…when opera singers prioritize aesthetics over function, it is counterproductive at best and destructive at worst. Our bodies are our instruments, so any change to our form will have an impact on our function. Like other athletes, it’s great to optimize our strength, flexibility, stability, stamina, and range of motion in ways that will help us perform better, but doing so may or may not impact our weight or dimensions. However, for an opera singer, pursuing weight loss as an end in itself is extremely reckless and foolish. And industry professionals should really know better than to be wantonly encouraging singers to thus risk the integrity of their instruments.”
Something I and others have noticed since this article came out — there is an incredible amount of *unprocessed trauma* literally spilling out from singers all over social media. I am not glad for it — I wish it on no one, and I dearly wish there was another way for us to be taken seriously than to retraumatize ourselves in the effort. As we have seen in the #MeToo movement, an industry based on Master/Student power dynamics often enables abuse. The barriers we face in setting boundaries around our bodies within these dynamics extend to anti-fat bias. With boundaries softened by a culture steeped in fatphobia, you have the conditions for completely normalized fatphobic abuse. I am relieved and renewed to see that more and more singers are acknowledging and externalizing their experience for the wrong that it was, rather than accepting and enabling it as a norm of the business. This is a real change from a decade ago in this industry.
So here is what I ask:
To the singers in the top 1% of this industry, the ones with, admittedly, the most to risk: we need you. Speak on your experience whenever possible. Don’t let the industry players use you as a token, proof that there is nothing wrong with the system that stands. Don’t let them erase the abuse you have endured in your arduous journey to success. Your success doesn’t make that abuse less real. Don’t let them spin this and gaslight your colleagues — as if we deserved this toxicity because we just couldn’t hack it.
To the supporters of the opera: call your opera house. Let them know that you notice when there aren’t fat people on stage. Ask them why there aren’t any. Let them know how you feel about your favorite artists enduring fatphobic abuse. Put a few dollars behind your words to make them go further if you can— arts organizations listen to what supporters have to say.
For all the General Directors, CFOs, board members, administrators, and music critics who have been scratching their heads, going in circles about how we can fill seats and find cultural relevance in the 21st century — the answer is here. We are the grandest art not because of our courtly history of keeping people out — but because we bring so many art forms and specialties together. We are the ultimate story-tellers — no one does it like we do. But we need the Gesamtkunstwerk to transition into the truly “all-embracing art form” it has the potential to be. We have the opportunity to take what we already have and make it better — more exciting, more dynamic, drawing a new coalition of patrons into the theatre for generations to come.
As for us fat singers —the era of silently enduring fatphobic abuse in the workplace and at university has come to an end.
More and more, we recognize that our bodies are good and our talent is precious. If opera doubles down and refuses to embrace us, it will lose another generation of fat talent. It will force us to share our gifts in more inclusive mediums. We will not keep throwing our money, blood, sweat, and tears down the black hole of hatred.
But if this industry can humble itself to once again center the human voice — the incredible, expressive, acoustic voice that makes the hair on your arms stand up and your core vibrate with all the wonders and pleasures of being alive— we could build a new golden age for opera. And what a sonic paradise it would be.
Tracy is an American soprano and artist + activist who creates fat liberation performance art and educational resources on Instagram and TikTok as @sparklejams. She currently teaches virtual voice lessons from her home in Takoma Park, Maryland, and is in the midst of writing a book on “Fat Vanity,” an empowering liberation concept she has helped popularize on social media.
Note: The author uses an asterisk when writing the word ob*se to acknowledge that many fat community members consider it to be a word which unnecessarily pathologizes and dehumanizes fat people.