Surviving the Industry

Purple colour ribbon for raising awareness of eating disorders.

“It started in theatre school,” Devon*, an ACTRA Toronto member, told me. “They told me about my ‘unique look,’ and when you say that to me at 18, I’m like what is unique about me? And they never really said, so I was like ‘it’s that I’m fat’…I was told I would never get a romantic storyline.” By final year, no one talked about his ‘unique look’ anymore, and he did indeed get that romantic storyline. He had also developed an eating disorder (ED).

Matt, who graduated from theatre school in the mid-2010s, told me that while studying, every faculty member told him on different occasions to lose weight. Although he never developed an eating disorder, they were certainly saying things to him that would foster one.

Another actor, Alanna (also an ACTRA Toronto member), recounted that when signing with her first agent, they said offhandedly, “And you’re small, so that’s good.” This casual comment reinforced the belief that she needed to maintain her disorder. When Devon left theatre school and was interviewing with agents, he explained that his weight tended to fluctuate. He was told that at different weights, he would be able to audition for certain genres, but not others. Maintaining his disorder felt like a way to increase his odds in an industry that can feel so out of one’s control.

I have also struggled with an eating disorder for years. I remember the panic when I would encounter actors who were tiny: ‘I need to be as small as her.’ The discomfort in my body — the feeling there was too much of it. I would take a tone of casual strategizing as I would ask my agent, “Do you think it would help if I lost some weight?” Like Devon, I was looking for ways to book better, bigger roles, and if my war on my body would help, I would fight it harder.

Devon, Alanna, and I are now what those in the ED healing world call ‘symptom-free.’ We will always be managing the mental component of our eating disorders, but we now have the tools to not ‘express symptoms’ – i.e. not indulge in ED behaviours. We have developed emotional tools to prepare for reliably triggering situations, meaning external scenarios that trip off a series of well-worn neural pathways that lead to actions of self-harm. When triggered, these actions can feel unstoppable.

For all of us, wardrobe fittings have been a reliable trigger.

For all of us, wardrobe fittings have been a reliable trigger. Alanna said that a simple comment, “These pants are too small for you,” could trigger an ED spiral. It may sound innocuous to someone who hasn’t experienced an eating disorder, but when Alanna mentioned it, I was nodding my head, knowing exactly the mental path that follows. “These pants are too small for you,” leads to ‘you are too fat,’ ‘you must change that any way you can.’ For Devon, a reliable trigger is that, as a man, people in wardrobe will often stay in the room after they ask him to change his shirt. Both Devon and Alanna underlined that they understand the stress people working in wardrobe are under but wish they could remember how difficult size and image are for so many performers.

Both actors believe that a broader range of representation on our screens would help folks with eating disorders, but not exclusively in showing larger bodies. Because so much of ED mentality is about obtaining ‘perfection,’ explained Alanna, when diverse experiences and bodies are portrayed, it loosens those internal rules about what ‘perfection’ looks like. I know that when I see stories of people who do not fit the archetype of privilege in our society (i.e. not white, thin, able-bodied, and straight), I feel more space to exist, in all the ways that are natural to me, including my natural size.

I wish that those with more years in the industry would be conscientious when giving advice to younger actors. A few years ago, I relapsed because of a comment made by someone who was “just stating the facts” about the industry: “If you want to work, you must be size blank.”

I now realize it’s more complicated than that. The people who have traditionally played leading romantic roles in North America have usually been ‘size blank.’ However, this is a symptom of a sick industry that requires ‘snack-sized’ women for straight male fantasy (not too rowdy or powerful) and an industry that requires men to look the way these decision-makers wish they looked. However, things are changing. The voices of those who have not traditionally been represented — those who aren’t thin, white, straight, or able-bodied — are starting to gain volume. And if you want to be a part of that movement, one that says stories from all types of people matter, one that heals and challenges, and says to viewers, ‘in all the ways that make you different, you are enough,’ then no, you don’t need to be a size blank. You get to be yourself and whatever size you are.

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.

 Resources:

Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders
http://www.ocoped.ca
National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC)
http://www.nedic.ca
Sheena’s Place
sheenasplace.org
HAVEN Helpline: 1-855-201-7823

Emily Nixon is an actor and filmmaker based in Toronto.