Body-Shaming and Motherhood in the Theatre | Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts

by Rachel Spencer Hewitt
PAAL Founder

“A reminder to us who train designers and have assistants – that we must ‘TEACH’ fitting room etiquette and sensitivity.”
– Valerie Marcus Ramshur, Head of Costume Design/Rutgers University – PAAL Rep NYC

As we’ve mentioned in other articles, online communities have become sanctuaries for women in the theatre who choose to become mothers. In the dialogue that ensues, logistics are mapped out and support provided. Occasionally, however, a revelation is made on the dark aspects of pregnancy and performing. While federal law prohibits discrimination against pregnant women, employment discrimination still occurs in our craft’s hiring process. In a follow-up piece, we will articulate examples of discrimination experienced by women this year.

“We need to equate shaming with abuse.”

The work culture that allows for horrific discrimination to endure and intimidates women to remain silent, however, thrives on body-shaming. While not exclusive to pregnant women, pregnancy does allow for a specific and enduringly public target. Anything from projecting doubts onto an actor in regard to her own agency or relevancy in her own career to blaming the woman’s body for derailing designs to creating a hazard backstage, pregnancy is fodder for unethical treatment in the workplace. In a word, shame.

In one private and popular social media group, an actress posted her recent experience on the job at 23 weeks pregnant. The costume designer knew about the pregnancy “far in advance,” and the actress showed up to her first costume fitting with a “little bump,” excited about her second baby. What should have been a first meet-up to assess initial choices, welcome adjustments, and start the creative path of designing the outward expression of character quickly devolved into the established designer giving a begrudging pep talk at the actress’ expense. Sighs from the designer gave way to discouraging commentary toward the pregnant actress herself, including phrases like “we’re working with a big obstacle here,” “we can’t be picky.” The designer made it clear that she was unhappy with how the actress would be outfitted but surmised the actress’ body was to blame for the poor results.

Problem solving for any body type is the challenge of the designer. No one denies that a body type that slowly grows over time presents its own unique challenges. However, taking advantage of a captive, pregnant audience to blame a woman’s choices and body shape for hindering imagination or compromising character is bad work, not to mention severe human indecency. This bad work is also classified as public shaming. The shaming itself is more likely responsible for any compromise to the designs by grieving the body tasked with upholding them. Unsurprisingly, this actress expressed a need to re-embolden herself to playing the romantic lead, someone visually desirable, after behind the scenes being made to feel instead like a visual obstacle.

Her treatment made her doubt.

The comments following her post quickly affirmed that this experience was not an exception. One stage manager witnessed shaming happen publicly toward an actress throughout rehearsal. A male, Tony award-winning designer was, according to her account, so “ruthless” about an actress’ post-baby body that he openly changed the costume vision entirely during the process and blamed the woman’s body for changing the vision. The actress felt so culpable for being a hinderance, she steered her character away from the original vision of a sexy siren, desperate to make something believable of herself, even though she had been cast on the grounds of believably communicating the sexy siren image already. Her treatment made her doubt. Shaming her into extra layers, she had to forfeit the belief in herself as capable to carry that image. This stage manager also witnessed a director in a production of Gypsy call out a note to an actress with a post-baby body, “Rose, you’re supposed to be sexy, not look like a sack. Rose isn’t YOU.”

It doesn’t just affect actresses. Another poster recounted that when she was up for a job as a stage manager, the director discovered that this SM would be in her third trimester once the show opened. His response was to callously ask the production stage manager if the pregnant SM would be able to even “fit backstage.” The SM turned down the job to avoid a toxic work environment, but women can’t continue to sacrifice their work to accommodate for bad behavior. Protocol packets and those who enforce them need to be equipped with resources that outline how to respectfully engage women who are pregnant and postpartum as professional members of the theatre community.

To begin the conversation on what to do if you experience this kind of body-shaming and what appropriate behavior looks like, PAAL reached out to the mother theatre artists seasoned enough to provide advice in this area.

What Advice Do You Have for Women Who Experience Pre or Postpartum Discrimination?

“Complain to your AEA Deputy and Stage Manager, especially. [This action point] is difficult because you have to know that you’ve been discriminated against! In many instances I’ve seen, the actress acknowledges the slight is actually her fault and feels apologetic for it. ABSOLUTELY NOT. The process of reporting/complaining is fairly easy, but the hard work comes from making women understand that they are not at fault and not there to excuse discrimination – of any kind.” Carmelita Becnel, Stage Manager at Princeton U. – PAAL Steering Committee

I would also add that if you don’t feel like you have an ally in the rehearsal room or production, contact PAAL. Parent Artist Advocacy League is collecting these stories so that we can present examples of work culture in need of a healthy shift, and your voice can help add to making that shift happen as quickly, intelligently, and inclusively as possible. We can also help find resources and representation that can advise you further as you negotiate your work in the room.

What Advice Do You Have for Theatre Decision Makers Who Can Shift Theatre Culture?

“Take a sensitivity course! Just kidding (maybe). I’ve seen and been insulted myself by fellow theater makers who think they have the right to be assholes ‘because it’s theater and we should be able to take ‘criticism.’ Calling someone a fat-ass to their face in front of their fellow company members is not taking criticism, it’s taking abuse. We need to equate shaming with abuse.”
– Carmelita Becnel, Stage Manager/Princeton University – PAAL Steering Committee

“None of us is perfect, and whether an actor is tall, stout, skinny, whatever, it’s our job to a) make them look as character-appropriate as possible (which sometimes means we make them look great, sometimes we make them look bad) and b) to have them trust us and feel like we have their best interests in mind. If this actor was cast in this role, it’s not our job to tell her that her body isn’t appropriate for the role…It’s our job to design a costume that works well for the character, on her body.”
– Robin Shane, Resident Designer/Rider University, Westminister Choir College, Passage Theatre

“Sexy ladies come in all shapes and sizes, it’s an attitude not a body shape.”
– Jessie Darrell Jarbadan, Resident Designer/Clark University

How Do Body-Positive Designers Approach a Pre or Postpartum Body?

“A designer who can’t work with (with not around) a pregnant belly suffers from a huge lack of imagination.”
– Elizabeth Barrett Groth, Designer/Yale MFA – PAAL Rep NYC

As a costume designer…It’s my job to make you feel and look fabulous! Not yours…I’ve had my challenging figures to dress (think 1920s era on a perfect Marilyn hourglass human: it’s hard to make that work but that’s what foundation garments are for!)…I’ve never said aloud in a fitting “gosh this is a really huge problem, I can’t really dress you well because of your body, so here’s a sack. Sorry, you’re body is the wrong shape.” If that’s the case then your costume designer is either really inexperienced or has a bad case of body judgment. Either way, her job is to make you look the right way for the story, so if it’s ‘not working’ that’s HER problem, certainly not yours!”
– Jessie Darrell Jarbadan, Resident Designer/Clark University

“[As a designer,] work it out. No matter how much you fall in love with your own designs, you have to be adaptable and be able to make changes, sometimes on the fly, to make the costume work for the character and the body of the actor. Talk to the director and figure out what you need to do, together, because its going to be very hard to hide the fact that she’s pregnant after a while, but perhaps you can make it work. Should they pad out the rest of her to make her look a little chubby? Should she wear only flowy clothes? There’s a meme going around about how costume designers solve problems you didn’t even know you had: make it a problem to solve creatively.”
– Robin Shane, Resident Designer/Rider University, Westminster Choir College, Passage Theatre

“As a costume designer myself, we can only hope for more sensitivity, and understanding moving forward. The fitting room is a very personal and intense environment for both parties – designer and actor. The designer must set up a space that is safe and supportive for an actor, and I am so sorry that did not happen for [her]. A reminder to us who train designers and have assistants – that we must “TEACH” fitting room etiquette and sensitivity.”
– Valerie Marcus Ramshur, Head of Costume Design/Rutgers University – PAAL Rep NYC

These theatre professionals and mother artists are speaking up to change work culture and end body shaming, one of our primary goals here at PAAL – Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts. Imagine the strides we’d take with diversity in every area if we start to tackle the dilemma of toxic shame thrown at bodies that change. We would be encouraging creative problem solving, re-envisioning character, embracing diverse body types, and allowing the human body to be ever evolving. All these qualities, when articulated, seem to line up perfectly with the goal of theatre as a whole.

As our steering committee member and champion for work culture advocacy and diversity, Carmelita Becnel, beautifully puts it:

“I’ll say it for the zillionth time: I cannot fathom why, in our business, we are sensitive to every nuance of a play or a character, while the actual human beings making the work are sometimes treated like garbage. We are not slaves to the theatre; we actively collaborate to make theater.”
– Carmelita Becnel, Stage Manager/Princeton University – PAAL Steering Committee

We couldn’t agree more:
Fight the shame. Embrace the bodies. Do the work.

*All stories and comments, including those with anonymity, have been used for this article with permission.


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