Claiming back body image in musical theatre

Claiming back your body image in musical theatre

Claiming back body image in musical theatre

In Musical Theatre business the topic of body image is inescapably huge. I am intimately acquainted with the impact of it on self-perception because I have worked in it for my whole life. Your body is your instrument, everyone has agreed on that, meaning that unlike other professions it is all about you and what you bring, how emotional you are because you are the 'product’ and in this business, this fact is very much heightened and the abuse around it is shocking.

It all starts during four years of intensive training. There are, besides others, a lot of dance classes which are always in front of mirrors, so you can see exactly how you look when you do certain movements, for example, whether your belly is pulled in during ballet class, which gives stability when you do turns, or whether your leg is turned far enough out, or whether you dance in sync with the others in a choreography.

This, of course, gives a lot of room for judgement, comparison and condemnation.

Self-hatred and self-loathing are ever present. The strive to constantly better yourself, your body, your flexibility, your singing and acting skills, your performance is a constant companion. Embodying this idea of being perfect in order to be liked by the director and the audience, it becomes a form of religious devotion. Most people could never imagine doing something else than acting, singing or dancing because that’s their calling. Anything else is seen as a failure.

Not fitting the norm is also pointed out in class to humiliate the person in front of everyone or even in dialogues with teachers to lose weight if one's appearance does not correspond to what the ‘norm’ is or what ultimately sells well.

When you are in training and you are like me, the only thing that seems to matter is to please your teachers by making your body fit their ideal and of course they boost the students that they feel will also boost their reputation when your training is complete and you are unleashed onto the world.

Other options are that those people whose bodies do not ‘naturally’ conform to the ‘norm’ either resign, totally wrecked and put down or they resist by rebelling and bashing themselves by taking even less care of themselves in order to punish the outside world, in this case the teachers and the academy. Others work hard to get a little closer to the image. Then an eating disorder is not far behind.

I have also met women in the course of my career who have had their breasts enlarged or have had their ears and noses altered, their hair blonded so that they ‘finally feel good about themselves’, but does that change the emptiness deep inside?

As a teenager, I spent hours frustratedly pouring over underwear catalogues, wishing I looked like those girls with big breasts and a tight butt, but I only had very small breasts and a butt that was okay, but didn't fit the ideal 90-60-90, which of course was measured regularly by myself and my sister. I also knew that my breasts would not get bigger, because my mother's and my grandma's were just as small. It was hopeless. I also hated my height because I towered over everyone. This, in turn, I later found super in my profession. It made me special, or so I thought, because I was very much looking for that special something on the outside that would make me different compared to other women. And my ideal was ‘A leading lady is tall!“’– and I was tall. I knew that this was where I belonged as I ticked all the boxes I felt I had to tick. Besides, I was always very slim and was proud to be able to eat as much as I wanted without gaining weight. This was a huge benefit in an industry obsessed with the number on the scales. And never ever did it occur to me that putting so much crap into my body would impact my health differently at some point compared to putting on weight.

I didn't want to feel how much self-bashing was going on for me and that food and sports played a major role in it. The cycle was to indulge in comfort and reward food and then punish myself with deprivation of certain foods. I was my worst and harshest critic. I never looked at me with loving eyes, only comparing myself to my ideal which I was never able to reach, so failure was pre-programmed. I rehearsed certain poses in which I looked the way I felt attractive, like holding in my belly which didn’t allow me to breathe properly, as I discovered over the years. Or how to smile a certain way. There were times when I didn’t want to show my teeth because I hated their size and the fact that one was missing completely, so I felt asymmetrical. All that ever stuck out was what I didn't like. I liked my bum, so my bum became a substitute for my real breasts; “at least I have a nice bum”, so my breasts were completely erased from the whole picture. Therefore, it is not a surprise that being a woman or feeling like one was a complete mystery to me for years and I hated it. I rather stayed in a girlish body which didn't get attention from men with that sexual look in their eyes which I found threatening and disgusting.

I checked my belly in front of the mirror every day and my butt to see if it was still as firm as I was often told it was. There was very clear division by the outside world – “your butt is great, your breasts are ... well, not there....” "did you leave them at home?"

I later wore push up bras, which made me even more fearful of how a potential partner would find it if he opened the cheat package. In my later engagements on stage, I also used to ask for my bra to be stuffed so no one could see that I had small breasts, because a leading lady doesn't have that – that was my image. And the image came before everything else.

But where do these images come from?

In my professional field as an actress, but also as a child watching commercials and TV, I can say that seeing so much perfection on TV, in movies or magazines and also on stage, had a strong influence on me. People, especially women with glowing, finepored skin, incredibly long legs in high-heeled shoes, long shiny hair – blonde especially if it's the heroine and dark for the antagonist – always slim, always big-breasted, with shining white teeth, all flashing and straight, the list is endless...!

And nowadays it is becoming more and more extreme what people resort to. Social media allows us to flaunt ourselves all over the world. Everything is possible. Everyone is a star and placed on the stage. There is everything you can imagine, even what you cannot imagine. The appearance is changed by make-up – thousands of make-up tutorials fill social media, where women change their appearance with the help of so much make-up that you don’t recognise them anymore, and they have thousands of followers. Appearance is changed by cell phone filters for your ‘electronic’ life, by plastic surgeries for your ‘real’ life that make you look like a doll, an animal, like whatever you desire. People are happy to mutilate and amputate their body, sacrificing ribs and adding silicone parts in order to achieve their goal of the perfect body and therefore a happy and carefree life …..

And yet, the longing for true connection is getting bigger and bigger; helplessness seems to make us do the craziest things just to not have to feel what we are missing, what is actually already there and has always been there – helpless because we don’t seem to know how to get to the true connection.

No diet, no surgery ever seems to deliver a point of satisfaction, a sense of completion, of having ‘made it’.

The focus on the outside is exhausting and draining. The eternal striving for improvement, going to the gym, comparing, being frustrated is like a bottomless pit, we never get there. We always remain insufficient. And this way we will never establish a true connection to ourselves and to what we are in truth, what our true qualities are.

The body, which we so torment and flay and file to perfection, we actually have no relationship with and no connection to.

And there I come back to the beginning: our body is our instrument.

What do we mean by that when we are in the performing industry? That our body needs to be fit and trained in order to be able to sing and dance and act on a high level and being able to play for example eight shows a week? Yes, but what do we do to care for it apart from going to the gym?

Many colleagues come to work even when they are sick or injured – “The show must go on.” The arrogance in such a phrase is breathtaking. Only when the doctor ‘gives permission’ by saying “no, you can’t play, you are sick“ we eventually stay at home, relieved to be once again able to hand over responsibility to someone else. It feels like we are hiding behind it to not be confronted with our state of wellbeing, with what we are driven by when we say such things. There is a whole lot of fear playing out, the fear of losing the job, of being replaced . . . and, as I now understand, fear of being a reflection for others when you claim your space, reclaim your body as yours and take yourself so seriously that you care for yourself. Love your body because through it your essence, your true and divine nature, can be expressed.

I realised that I was a running head and mind all the time. Through receiving Sacred Esoteric Healing I started to feel my body and to notice where all the self-judgement, the protective mechanisms over the years had settled in the body as tension. I could let go more and more and thus came closer and closer to my true essence, because I was no longer dependent on getting the recognition from the outside that I otherwise could not give myself. For that I had to let go of all the images I had accumulated over the years and learn to accept myself as I am and to see in it the true treasure that I had kept from everyone all this time.

Realising that my true worth doesn’t come from what I do or my work but from how I do it and that I appreciate myself no matter what – appreciating myself for what I am and not for what I do, seeing myself through the eyes of love.

This was very much deepened through the Covid 19 restrictions where I was not able to work in my profession for about 20 months. I let go of the identification of being an actress. I started working as a cashier and a carer in a care home for elderly people where I had the most intimate interactions with people I didn’t know. I washed them and helped them go to the toilet. It was a most humbling time.

My body got used to doing different movements to before and it was very freeing and offered me a new and deepened understanding of what self-care means, working in an environment where staff care for people but don’t know how to care for themselves.

Coming out of this time and going back into the theatre I have developed certain routines for myself that support me in my daily work: I always bring my own food for dinner, I do my own exercise, I take a shower after every show to wash off everything, I massage creme on my body in order to claim back my gentleness which I might have handed over on stage to the character I play. I listen to enriching audios like presentations from Serge Benhayon or Natalie Benhayon or music from Chris James.

The recordings provide a marker, a reference point of what is vibrationally and energetically true to me when it comes to my essence, compared to what I let through on stage for example. They remind me of where I truly come from and what I truly am. They connect me back to my body if I have lost the connection and got caught up in the thoughts in my head. They bring me back to simplicity and are an offer to connect back to my/our innate authority, love, stillness and joy.

The voice recordings and the music feel like they wash everything that is not me out of my body, surrendering it back to the movements that are divine, that are in true alignment to God and my Soul. Dancing to it in my dressing room for example brings such a lightness back to my body because nothing in it is imposing – no emotional drama, no resentments, no ‘love hurts’, just pure love, joy, depth and wisdom. A detox for the body. And again everything in it pulls you up to be the grandness that you are. And celebrates the beauty of the body – just as it is.

This all brings me back to the true connection with myself, my body and my Soul.

This for me is taking care of this instrument of mine – with no perfection. My body is no longer a thing to manipulate to match someone else’s ideals. Rather it is an instrument to be in service for others and this I don’t mean in an altruistic way, but I understand the meaning and the responsibility of what I reflect when I’m on stage to all the thousands of people who see my body in movement every week.

They do not see another leading lady projecting the ideals, feeding the helpless and endlessly dissatisfying body image cycle. What they receive is a woman who has reclaimed authority over her body, deepened her love for herself just as she is, in an industry that is not designed for such grace, authority and deep embracing of the body that can be the image of lived love.

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Body imageBody positiveEmpowerment

  • By Sarah Schuetz, Master in Musical Theater, actress, singer, voice artist and coach

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