Larger than Life: Musical Theater, Body Positivity and Advocacy

Some might say performing the title character twice before college was a dream come true. To me, as the person standing center stage, it was also a nightmare.

Larger than Life: Musical Theater, Body Positivity, and Advocacy
Hairspray is a much-beloved story about inclusion and acceptance in the civil rights era, and Tracy Turnblad is a cherished character: resilient, ambitious and full of heart,” writes Wolf. “I often used to wish I could be more like her. But I came to see that Tracy is also flawed.” (Andy Roberts / Flickr)

While chatting with a friend recently, she commented that I had “won the senior year experience,” when I landed the lead in my high school musical (back in pre-COVID days, when we still had live performances). For theater kids, taking that final curtain call is a pinnacle—something I was fortunate to have experienced one time prior, when I played Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. Some might say performing the title character twice before college was a dream come true. To me, as the person standing center stage, it was also a nightmare.

During Annie Get Your Gun, I was experiencing what would later be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa. Mercilessly bullied for my weight as a young child, by middle school I had been told by classmates, teammates and even my most loyal friends that I was too fat, and that it was a problem. After I lost a noticeable amount of weight, I took note of the ways the people who used to shame me suddenly had a change of heart—like the ‘friend’ who had spearheaded the bullying, suddenly confessing to having a crush on me right around the time I reached my ‘goal weight.’ Being cast as Annie Oakley during that time was more proof to me that being thin came with rewards. I suddenly had what felt like the world’s attention, and for the first time, it wasn’t because I stood out; it was because I finally fit in.

Senior year I was afforded another opportunity in the spotlight as the leading lady and notorious underdog of Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad. I was deeply conflicted and had the sneaking suspicion that because I was a strong belter—and no longer stick-thin—I was being considered for the role. But I worried that if I was cast as the plus-sized Tracy, I would have to relive the trauma of size-shaming over and again—not only through months of rehearsal, but in front of an audience of thousands. When the cast list was posted, and my fate with Tracy was sealed, I decided it would be my story to rewrite. That was a harder challenge than I could have imagined.


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Whenever friends congratulated me, I would watch as their eyes subtly scanned my body, down to my toes and back up again. Some even went out of their way to exclaim, “You’re too thin to play the part!”—which I’m sure they meant as a compliment or to reassure me that I had been cast because of talent and not because I fit the physical description. Even without ill intent, the comments on and attention to my body resurfaced in ways I hadn’t experienced since I was a chubby kid or again when I was sickly thin teen.

One of the worst experiences was costume fitting, something I always dreaded. With a measuring tape slinked across my waist, I was bluntly informed that I was ‘one of the bigger girls.’ I don’t even remember why that was relevant to the conversation, but for an 18-year old with body dysmorphia—a mental state where I truly cannot decipher what my body actually looks like when I see it in a mirror—I felt terror. You can imagine my relief when I was told I was obviously going to be put in a ‘fat suit’ (was it obvious though?) and then the resounding shame of knowing how that would be experienced by others—anyone who has ever been teased or humiliated for their weight, and all the plus-size young women who have been told that Tracy is the only role they could ever hope to play.

Hairspray is a much-beloved story about inclusion and acceptance in the civil rights era, and Tracy Turnblad is a cherished character: resilient, ambitious and full of heart. I often used to wish I could be more like her. But I came to see that Tracy is also flawed, and in many ways, one of the most privileged characters in the show. Tracy is the number one fan of ‘The Corny Collins Show,’ an all-white after school dance television program. After being rejected from joining on account of her size, she makes it her mission to not only get on the show herself, but to integrate the Black dancers from monthly ‘Negro Day.’ In a scene that takes place at Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop, a Black-owned social hot spot, Tracy earnestly asks her new Black friends, “Why can’t we all dance on TV together?”

Despite living in 1960’s Baltimore, Tracy’s lack of understanding of the racism surrounding her begs the question: If her weight had not restricted her from earning a coveted spot on the segregated program, would she have challenged the ethics of the show? Tracy only sees the racism and steps up when her whiteness no longer entitles her to exactly what she wants.

I have always wanted to admire Tracy’s bravery, when in reality her innocence is emblematic of the selective ignorance and self-importance that continues to be the purview of white women. She was blind to injustice until she was the one who experienced a loss. While I don’t wish to strip Tracy of her legacy as a brave ally and survivor herself, I regret that this is never reconciled in the show. As for me, I still find that I often walk in Tracy’s shoes as I battle the aftermath of my eating disorder, continuously look for ways to be an anti-racist ally and try to take accountability for where I’ve stumbled along the way.

The body positivity movement, a recent trend that centers and celebrates plus-size people, especially Black women, is an opportunity for stories like Tracy’s and mine to be shared with those who have never had to advocate for their bodies to be loved, respected, and represented. The two of us, a pair of young white women who’d been taught by society that our bodies were not good enough, must know that advocating for ourselves also means stepping up for others.

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About

Sarah Wolf is a junior at Clark University studying women’s and gender studies and psychology. She is a peer mentor, sexual wellness educator, and former intern at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio.