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“Must Be Heavyset”: Casting Women, Fat Stigma, and Broadway Bodies

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Casting director Craig Burns worked on Broadway’s Hairspray (2002) from its first workshops, and it remains his favorite production because of the opportunity to cast people who “weren’t normally considered for leads in a show, and now all of a sudden these girls are getting a chance because we need a fat girl. There was so much joy in that.”[2] Katrina Rose Dideriksen was one such woman given the chance to play Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad on Broadway and on tour. She remembered feeling excited to play Tracy because she “is the ingénue, she wins the guy, she saves the day . . . she’s funny and she’s lovable and all those things, but in this very real-girl way.” Dideriksen then noticed a “weight clause” in her contract: “It was really this underlying pinch to realize that subconsciously I was being told I was still wrong for it, that there was something I had to fix. . . I don’t think they realized how hurtful, and how anti-Hairspray it really was for them to be like, ‘Lose 20 pounds.’”[3] Apart from a few roles (including Tracy), fat women are almost never cast in roles beyond the comedic sidekick or best friend in commercial theatre.

The casting of Broadway musicals reproduces aesthetic values from the dominant culture, especially the notion that thin bodies—ones that conform to these values—are superior to other bodies, especially fat ones.[4] The aesthetic values placed on bodies are gendered, especially relative to size. Author Roxane Gay explains, “most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society.”[5] Society informs fat women that they are unfeminine and undesirable, which in turn determines everything from how fat women are represented to how and where they work. In her memoir, Lindy West notes the material effects of these values, writing, “As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials, and—the one thing Hollywood movies and Internet trolls most agree on—my ability to be loved.”[6] When a fat female actor walks into an audition, these sociocultural strictures delimit her presence and reception there. While all actors are often told they aren’t the “right fit” because of their appearance, fat women confront a double standard: one actor I interviewed was bluntly told, “You’re not fat enough to be our fat girl.”[7] For fat women, the inability of the industry to think inclusively about body size proves a major barrier to employment.

Fat is typically hurled as an insult rather than claimed as an identity position in the United States. It is something seen as needing to be eliminated, which sociologists Samantha Kwan and Jennifer Graves argue is due to the “fashion-beauty complex,” in which “advertisements remind us that unwieldy, loose, and jiggly fat must be tamed. The taut body . . . then becomes a reflection of moral fortitude, perseverance, and bodily mastery.”[8] Advertising exhorts women to be the right kind of consumers—purchasing products that help one achieve thinness. The word fat itself can be discomfiting, and in order to neutralize stigma associated with the word, fat studies scholars have reclaimed and repurposed fat.[9] Fat studies scholar Marilyn Wann explains,

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