The implications of my border-crossing from morbidly obese to slender first captured my attention as an artist and scholar when I moved away from home to attend graduate school. Being surrounded by all new people and a new environment, my recent weight loss remained a secret. I was not aware that my colleagues and professors were experiencing a different physical persona. I was still living and seeing myself as a morbidly obese person, but the people at the university saw me as a slender person who belonged. There, I auditioned for and landed the leading female role in the world premiere of Holding Up the Sky, a play adapted from folklore and tales from across the globe. In the play a young married couple survives a devastating war and proceeds to build a new life with the help of other members in the community.19
At the time of auditions, I hadn’t realized that my mindset was still that of a morbidly obese woman and actress. My habits of being a workaholic and a homebody did not change when I lost weight. I still rejected the nightlife scene, for I had little desire to mingle with or even talk to men who had consistently neglected me in the past. Furthermore, I was unaware that I was negotiating space as a new physical person. Thus, when I greeted the director and production associates in auditions I believed they were seeing me as I still experienced myself: a fat woman.
In The Politics of Women’s Bodies, Rose Weitz affirms that “attractiveness typically brings women more marital prospects and friendships, higher salaries, and higher school grades.”20 In the theatre, attractiveness and a thin body bring more, and better, roles for women. In her dissertation, “The Poetics of Excess: Images of Large Women on Stage and Screen,” Claire Van Ens lists five stereotypical film roles played by overweight actresses: The Butch/Bitch Lesbian, The Dowdy Dowager, One of the Boys, The Asexual/Non-Woman, and The Maternal Earth-Mother.21 Not surprisingly, as a fat stage actress, I was usually cast in similar roles. So when I perused the script for Holding Up the Sky, I focused on the ensemble roles, ignoring the lines of the leading characters. During auditions, however, the director asked me to read for the lead female role. My heart started racing because I thought surely he had made a mistake. I glanced up at the table and just as I was about to ask whether I’d been given the wrong sides, he asked me to go out and practice the lines with a young man, who eventually played my husband.
I was confused and anxious. In my mind I didn’t fit the lead role. This role was clearly written for a slender, attractive woman who could believably play a beautiful, sexually desirable female. Although the young man expressed his opinion that I was perfect for the role, I squinched my face in denial as I rehearsed the lines with him. I had never been asked to play a beautiful, feminine lead, and I didn’t know how to believably accomplish this in the small amount of time that I had.
Judith Butler has argued that femininity is a “mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms which surface as so many styles of flesh.”22 Furthermore, she identifies three types of discipline that produce the feminine aesthetic: “those that aim to produce a body of a certain size and general configuration; those that bring forth from this body a specific repertoire of gestures, postures, and movements; and those that are directed toward the display of this body as an ornamented surface.”23 I knew what it meant to perform femininity because the media and public had taught me; however, as a big woman I was rarely expected to perform femininity, so my repertoire of feminine gestures was lacking. Nonetheless, when reading the role for the director, I used my imagination in a way that I’d never done before, unknowingly employing methods that Butler mentions to accurately portray femininity. I implemented the stereotypical feminine gesture of loosely hanging my hand from my extended wrist. I made sure that my long kanekalon braids were flowing down my back during the scene, and I elongated my neck as if I were a giraffe to appear model-esque. I imagined myself to be thin as I walked daintily across the floor, because I knew I had to control what I sensed was my big body. I blocked my negative thoughts and read for the part. Later that week, I received the email that I, Sharrell D. Luckett, had been cast as the lead female in the play.