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Body-shamed: Two thirds of actors told to change their appearance for work, survey reveals

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Nearly two thirds of performers have been asked to change their physical appearance for work, according to a new survey highlighting the body image pressures faced by actors.

Of the 64% who said they had been asked to change their appearance, a third have been asked to lose weight – whether this was for a specific role or more generally by drama school tutors or agents. Other changes included modifying hairstyle (67%) or dying hair (45%).

The survey of nearly 400 professional UK performers forms part of a nine-month research project, which also included focus groups and interviews, looking at the time, money and energy invested into appearance by actors.

Equity’s Women’s Committee and the Centre for Contemporary British Theatre at Royal Holloway University carried out the project, called Making an Appearance, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The survey also found:

  • More than three quarters of respondents feel pressurised to look a certain way to get work.
  • More than half of performers said their appearance had been criticised by someone in the industry, of whom 76% said the experience made them feel differently about their body.
  • 94% of respondents have made a change to their appearance ahead of an audition.
  • Most common activities ahead of an audition included buying new clothes (81%), changing hairstyle (65%) or trying to lose weight (53%).
  • Bulimia, crash-diets, dehydration and laxatives were cited as methods used by those who had tried to lose weight ahead of an audition.

The study also considered how gender, race, age and disability affected pressures on appearance.

More than three quarters (78%) of the respondents to the survey identified as female, 17% identified as male, and 6% identified under other gender categories including non-binary.

Gender was felt to increase pressures on appearance by 72% of female respondents compared to 28% of male performers.

The survey summarised that performers were “generally willing to make changes to their appearance where it related specifically to a character and where they are treated with respect and sensitivity by those requesting the change”. However, problems arose when the request was arbitrary or there was poor communication about the change.

According to the results, the median monthly spend on appearance (excluding gym memberships) was between £25 to £49.

Respondents also reported experiencing an emotional cost in relation to their appearance, including pressures on their mental health.

Researchers identified four recommendations for the industry, including considering what constitutes best practice from employers in relation to body-image pressures and what mental health support could be provided to help performers deal with such pressures.

Royal Holloway University researcher and theatremaker Sara Reimers said: “While the results suggest that performers see aesthetic labour as an integral aspect of their work, it is concerning that so many respondents had experienced appearance-related pressures and body-shaming within the industry.”

Equity Women’s Committee chair Kelly Burke said: “So often the time, energy, money, space and other resources we’re required to invest are out of balance with the work on the other end – and this can have a real impact on access to work, career longevity and personal well-being.”

Burke added that she hoped the report would “open up a much healthier and more inclusive conversation around how we deal with appearance in our industry”.

An article in The Stage previously revealed actors’ experiences of being stripped and weighed at auditions, including being told they were “too fat” for roles.

Actors report being stripped, weighed and told to lose weight at auditions

Personal accounts

The following accounts from anonymous performers on the different pressures they have faced in relation to body image were included in the Making an Appearance report.

Gender

“I was told that Prince Charming had arms, not spaghetti strands. I’d never get a job in a panto until I bulked up.”

“[I was told] I should decide now whether I wanted to ‘gain two stone and be Hattie Jacques or lose two stone and be Barbara Windsor’. The explanation given was they could see me being able to make the part sexy or funny but my appearance didn’t match either of these things. I tried gently to challenge that as a binary choice – the character could be sexy and funny and also have my body shape – and was told that would be too confusing and I was naive. My first agent made a similar argument many times – that I was in a difficult space between the quirky fat-girl roles and the pretty-friend roles. She encouraged me on many occasions to gain weight.”

Race

“[I’ve experienced issues around] not looking as “lotus blossom-like” as Western eyes expect East Asian females to be, especially when I was very young and just starting out. I was ‘too tall’, or my eyes were not almond-shaped enough or they were too wide and my nose was too broad.”

“My heritage is Caribbean so I have curly Afro hair, which doesn’t react well to the hair products or heat that the hair stylists normally use when they try to do my hair, which makes me feel uncomfortable and awkward because it becomes a nuisance to them. This also happens with make-up because they sometimes struggle to find the correct colours and end up spending ages mixing several colours together to find a match to my skin tone.”

Hair

“[After a casting] the casting director called my agent, who phoned me and very firmly said that if I wanted a chance at the job I had to go home and shave my legs and go back and do the audition again that afternoon. She made me feel like there was no choice in the matter.”

“As a background artist I have been told not to shave. In response I have grown a scruffy beard as I can’t grow enough facial hair on the sides of my face. I have found myself apologising to people in other work situations for looking so scruffy. It has made me feel self-conscious.”

Class

“Most of us can’t afford to take that extra half an hour in the morning to blow-dry your hair, because we need to work. It’s another one of those things that puts working-class actors at a disadvantage. And we can’t afford the most expensive make-up and we can’t afford to have a personal stylist, or expensive clothes to look good. You have to make do. We can’t get a new outfit for every audition so we look perfect for the role. It’s just not feasible, so, you know, you go in with your bog-standard black audition dress and hope for the best and that sort of thing.”

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