How Actors Can Maintain a Healthy Body Image

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When I was a senior earning a BFA, our class was honored by a guest lecture from a real-life successful working actor. After our professor proudly rattled off her credits, we turned to this woman with the entirety of our impressed, excited—and impressionable—minds. 

“I shot the pilot as the quirky secretary, but once we were picked up to series, they told me to dress skimpy and lose weight,” she said. She then told us how she smoked all day and spent hours at the gym, “But I was a size 2!” she bitterly repeated again and again. Eventually, she moved on to actual advice: “Do one thing toward your career every day. Reading a play counts. Going to the gym counts. Preparing for an audition counts. Going to the gym counts…”

As a person who had struggled with anorexia since the age of 13, I thought, “See. I was right. You absolutely have to be thin first. Talent, connections, everything comes second to being thin. That is the first requirement for an acting career.” Years later, I learned many of my fellow alum also had that guest lecture burned into their memories. We had all carried the burden of this toxic messaging into our careers. Here’s the thing: it was all WRONG. 

Sure, in the 1990s, every lead woman was “heroin chic.” Later, more “toned” (but still fat cell-free) bodies became standard. But as Hollywood continues to strive for diversity of all kinds (and has enormous lengths to go), body diversity, too, has gained a foothold. Today, female protagonists with normal human bodies are thriving in their own series and films without the focus of the story being about their weight. Every time I see it, the 10-year-old me who dreamt of acting but knew a fat kid had no hope tears up with joy. 

So, even though you may feel pressure to have a “perfect” body as an actor, the truth is that this is not a requirement. If anything, focusing on maintaining or achieving a “perfect” body detracts from the trajectory of your career. If you’re at an audition and you’re distracted by the way your thighs look, you can’t fully focus on your character’s wants and needs. Furthermore, if you’re restricting your food, you’ll be hungry and/or weak during an audition or rehearsal. You can’t properly do your work in this state.

It’s possible that you know all this, but you still have distracting body-shaming thoughts. It may feel impossible to change these thought patterns. However, it’s very possible for each and every one of us to shift our thinking, to release limiting beliefs, to rewire the neural networks in our brains, and to experience freedom from the oppression of body hatred.

Let’s talk about how. First, you must be willing to question your thoughts as they come up. Any critical thoughts are worthy of examination. For instance: “I won’t book a job unless I lose weight.” Notice that this is a critical thought and start to question it. Ask, “Is this true?” That simple question about any thought can be so powerful. “Can I be absolutely certain this is true?” If you can think of one example of someone your size or shape who books work, then you’ve disproved your thought. 

The thing is, our thoughts are not facts. We have the same thoughts so often that we accept them as facts even when they aren’t. The only fact here is “I am this size, and I want to book work.” You’re allowed to have any thought in the world about that. You can choose, “I can’t book work at this size,” just as easily as, “I’m the perfect size to book work.” Or, if that’s hard for you to accept, you can at least shift to something more neutral, such as, “My size is unrelated to booking work.”

Another great tool is, “Is this useful?” Is focusing on diet and weight loss before your next audition a good use of your time and energy? Especially since diets fail 95% of the time and can lead to eating disorders? Or would doing practice auditions be a better use of your energy? 

The next question to consider: “Is that something I would say to someone else?” If you don’t believe it’s true for other human beings, then you must be willing to offer yourself the same respect. 

Finally, there’s checking to see, “Does this thought align with my values?” Do you value the ideal body shape over everything you’d have to sacrifice to get it? For that matter, how do you want to make others feel when you act? For me, I want the audience to get swept up in great stories with great characters. Personally, when I see an actor with the “ideal”-conforming body, it takes me out of the story. Does it make you think about your own body and send you down a spiral of body negativity? 

It certainly did for me, and as a body confidence coach, I know I’m not alone. Thus, if the temptation to restrict returns to me, I remind myself how incredibly happy it makes me when I see a woman of normal, diverse proportions carrying a show. I think, “Yeah, the body I’m currently in will allow me to tell stories without making anyone feel bad. If I must distract an audience member with the shape of my body, my hope is that it’s a message of hope rather than an instigation of self-hate.”

Plus, I believe that kind of story-telling is better for the industry–and the world–on the whole. The stories told in film and television are meant to represent all of humankind, and therefore, any and all human body shapes have a place in these stories. 

I hope some of these tools resonate with you and serve to quiet the body-shaming voice in your head so that you can focus on what truly matters, in both your career and life. Above all, please be aware of the message you’re spreading to others about body image, because even when speaking about your own body, young, impressionable minds around you will turn that body focus onto themselves. Don’t be the person that tells a room full of hopeful 20-year-olds that their only hope in life is obtaining the perfect body.  You were meant to spread a better message than that.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Kate Huffman
Kate Huffman is an award-winning actor/playwright and a certified body image coach. Her work in film, TV, and theater (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Castle”) has won her an LA Weekly Theatre Award, Encore Producers Award, and several LADCC nominations. She’s written, performed, and directed sketch comedy at UCB, Second City, iO Chicago, and countless other venues. Her award-winning solo show, “I’m Too Fat for This Show,” has been seen in cities across the globe.
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