My own quest to stop fighting my body
TW: This post discusses body image, body dysmorphia, fatphobia, and eating disorders. If that’s not for you, I’ll see you next week. Take care.
As a performer, my body is under constant surveillance. Despite the stereotype of a “fat lady who sings,” the opera industry is nearly as fatphobic, at least with their female singers, as theatre, film, and dance. However, in the interest of fairness, the pressure for baritones to appear as “barihunks” certainly highlights the visual appeal that the opera industry is attempting to cultivate. What will get more butts in seats? Men with abs, of course!!
Opera is an aural medium. The voice is the most important thing, and everything else is secondary. I love that about opera, and despite increasing pressure for high-level companies to produce recordings of their shows for streaming consumption, I hope it continues to emphasize the voice. That’s a primary factor that sets opera apart from other performing mediums.
Regardless, becoming an opera singer opened me up to criticism about factors outside my voice, and my physical appearance certainly wasn’t exempt from this. I have been told to wear short heels only to auditions because I’m already too tall for many tenors. I have been told my arms are too fat and I should cover them up. I’ve been told to not wear a particular dress because people can see my tummy rolls when I breathe. I’ve been advised that I looked thinner in college and should return to that. I was told that people wouldn’t trust I was a lyric soprano if I didn’t gain weight. Someone even suggested a nose job if I had the extra money. Young singers are notoriously flush with cash.
Before I really get going, I have to begin with two caveats.
First, I fully recognize that I move through the world as a thin person. Ignore that my BMI (which is largely B.S.) edges on the questionable side of “healthy.” The need to fall within the green at any doctor’s appointment has remained a constant reminder of my failures.
Secondly, I am still unpacking my internalized fatphobia. I have fat friends. I do not view them as failures, yet, I consider myself a lesser person if I gain weight. The podcast “Maintenance Phase” has really helped me to start reframing this mindset, but I’m a work in progress. You’ll notice this throughout the post.
I just want to talk about the history of my relationship with my body and how being a singer has kept me constantly aware of how I look. It is not my intention to take out my tiny violin and boo-hoo my appearance when I know I am perceived as a relatively thin white lady.
The first time I remember becoming acutely aware of how my body looked to the outside world was in second grade. My dad took home video of my little sister’s backyard pool party, and I was there with my two best friends as well. There was a shot of me in my Minnie Mouse bikini I had proudly acquired in Disney World, and I noticed my tummy rolls as I happily slid down a slide into the pool, blissfully unaware I was markedly larger than my thin friends. I remember feeling intensely embarrassed as I watched myself onscreen, and looked down at my stomach. There were rolls. They’re the same rolls I have today, over twenty years later.
My friends in elementary school were all skinny. I was one of the smart girls– sharp, fast, and confident– and then I realized I was also a little fat. My friends were perfect dancer girls. They weren’t loud. I was everything all at once, rolls included.
I didn’t go through puberty at an earlier age than my friends, not really. Early puberty can happen with girls who develop more quickly. I just had a little more fat on my body, and my mom gently encouraged me to wear a training bra. She was so good. My mom never drew attention to the fact that I grew taller and fatter than my peers at a faster rate.
However, my already developing body image issues were exacerbated by a health problem that followed me through the rest of my childhood. When I was in elementary school, the school nurse noticed an unnatural curvature in my spine. Unfortunately, as I grew, the angle in my spine became more pronounced. As a precaution, she sent me to a specialist in town who diagnosed me with scoliosis and kept an eye on my back. The angle got more pronounced as I grew, and the doctor referred me to Gilette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.
On February 2, 2005, in 7th grade, my doctor fitted me with a plastic brace to coax the right lumbar part of my spine back toward the center. I dieted for a week in advance since I knew I would be getting weighed.
I really hated getting weighed.
In the interest of honesty, I still hate getting weighed.
The plastic brace really messed with my brain.
The right hip of the brace stuck out significantly, as it constantly pushed my spine back into place. The fashion in 2005-2007 was to wear a tight tank top with a polo or short-sleeved shirt layered over the top. It didn’t afford the luxury of subtlety. At a certain point, my body hatred overcame my desire to heal my spine, and I stopped wearing my brace to school. I felt like an alien, and I couldn’t do it.
Eventually, the jig was up. I had to start wearing my brace again. I followed the rules of wearing it 23 hours per day, seven days a week, followed by only needing to sleep in the brace after my doctor felt I was through puberty. Finally, I was at my last appointment during my junior year of high school.
My doctor, a well-respected British man, happily shared that the brace mostly resolved my scoliosis, and it was safe to say I could stop wearing the brace without the worry of relapse. I was free.
Well, kind of.
The doctor noted that I had consistently gained weight since our first appointment when I was in 7th grade. Since I had gone through puberty, there was no reason for me to be gaining weight anymore, and I should lose some weight.
I was horrified, embarrassed, and defeated.
It should have been a fantastic day! The brace had cured my scoliosis without surgery, which rarely happens. I should’ve been ecstatic.
Instead, a doctor who specialized in the spine needed to tell me that I, a 16-year-old girl, should lose weight. I’d like to mention here that I was not what was considered to be overweight, but I would still argue it wasn’t part of his treatment to comment on this regardless of what the scale said.
I restricted myself to 1,000-1,200 calories per day and lost 25 pounds during my senior year of high school. No one was worried because I was never underweight. Looking back, I had definitely developed an eating disorder. Luckily for me, it only lasted a few months. I know it could have been much worse.
My childhood obsession with my weight, unfortunately, followed me into adulthood. Throughout my adult life, I have navigated poor body image (I’m now told this is called body dysmorphia) and equated being thin with having discipline. Although I try to eat foods that make me feel good and exercise daily for my physical and mental health, too often, it devolves into calorie counting and shaming myself when I falter, which happens frequently. I feel constant pressure from myself and my industry to lose weight.
If I’m eating whole foods, restricting calories, and doing rigorous exercise daily, I’m a success. If I don’t follow my meal plan, I’m a failure. I’m trying to break this mental block.
I’m seeing the opera industry change through criticism from singers, and I even see it in musical theatre. It’s refreshing to see a variety of bodies appear on the stage. When I saw Beauty and the Beast at the Ordway, the woman who played Belle was incredible and wasn’t super thin. I wish my little self could have seen her onstage or onscreen and felt unstoppable rather than defeated by my appearance.
I want to celebrate my body rather than constantly ridicule it, but it’s complicated. I’m excited by the prospect of more inclusivity and representation happening onstage and am grateful for the loud voices in the industry pushing for that. I struggle with the anger that women are expected from birth to look beautiful for the enjoyment of men and also want to be perceived in a certain way. These thoughts constantly feel at war with each other as I unpack a lot of internalized shame surrounding weight. As I shift my mindset on singing, I am also trying to shift my relationship with my body. It’s the only one I have, after all.
I am very terrified to share this post today. I’m afraid of being called out for fatphobia or making people uncomfortable by sharing too much. I’m constantly scared that my openness will diminish my ability to book gigs. However, whenever I share my experiences, singer friends flood my inbox with gratitude for my transparency. So, I guess I’m writing for us. I hope we can continue to unpack the baggage associated with our appearance and advocate for centering the voice in the opera industry.
Thanks for reading.