Concerns that actors bodies are being treated as “objects open to negative comment” have prompted the launch of a research project.
Performers are being asked about the time and money they have invested on changing their physical appearance for work.
The survey forms part of research project Making an Appearance, which is a collaboration between Equity Women’s Committee and the Centre for Contemporary British Theatre at Royal Holloway University.
Making an Appearance explores performers’ experiences of “aesthetic labour”, which is the physical and emotional effort that goes into maintaining a physical image for work.
Aesthetic labour covers a range of activities including applying make-up, developing a six pack, growing a beard for a role, or maintaining a particular dress size.
The project was launched in response to “growing concern in the industry about the way in which performers’ bodies are treated as objects that are open to negative comment from colleagues and reviewers and are subject to alteration in the line of work”.
Performers will be surveyed about the time, money and emotional energy they have invested in creating their appearance, as well as the kind of changes they have made to their bodies for work and where the pressures to make these changes have come from.
Equity Women’s Committee chair Kelly Burke said: “Aesthetic labour is generally taken for granted as a part of our working lives.
“We know it’s necessary to get work, so we rarely question why we need to adjust our appearance — to look, say, thinner, younger, prettier, stronger.
“We don’t question what that cumulatively does to a person’s self-esteem. We don’t consider the time and money involved in creating an ‘acceptable’ appearance, and whether that expense prevents certain people from accessing work. We don’t think about how this process becomes more complicated as performers age, what expectations it might be setting for young performers — or how it might exacerbate inequalities in relation to race and disability.”
Royal Holloway University researcher and theatremaker Sara Reimers said: “Existing research suggests that performers see aesthetic labour as an important part of their work. We understand that it is widespread, but currently have no concrete data about how much time is invested, where the pressures to produce a particular appearance come from, or how issues of gender, race, age and disability influence expectations and experiences of aesthetic labour.
“By exploring these issues, we hope to begin a conversation about the challenges aesthetic labour can present to a performer’s well-being and to look at how the industry can improve its practice in this area.”
The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Council. The survey will run for around two months.