It’s no secret that Hollywood demands a lot from its performers, mostly from its ladies. Women in the profession often tell stories of the demands placed upon them by executives who want the starlets to alter their appearance. From fad diets to cocaine diets to full-blown eating disorders to weight loss sponsorships and plastic surgery, it appears that some women in the industry feel the pressure so immensely that they are choosing to conform in ways that are unnatural and potentially harmful to their bodies.
Increasingly, women in the industry are speaking out about the destructive narratives that pervade Hollywood. This past week, three mega-talented artists spoke candidly about their struggles with their appearance in relation to Hollywood standards, which they all feel don’t allow women to be themselves — physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
In an interview for ELLE magazine, for its annual Hollywood issue, Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer talked about being bullied by a producer who clearly didn’t respect her as a human:
“Early on I had to stand up to a producer – I won’t say who, but he is famous, famous. He dressed me down in a crowded office. I told him right there in front of a hundred people, ‘You don’t know me well enough to use that tone’ … And then I ran to the bathroom and cried like a baby. But he never addressed me that way again. And he is known as a yeller.”
Spencer’s situation is certainly not unique as many people across all industries can attest to their boss yelling at them or a co-worker, but there is no excuse to belittle a person, whether it’s in public or private. Spencer sucked it up and continued to show dignity in the face of hostility although it will probably happen again since Hollywood normalizes chain of command abuse when depicting war, business, and sports — a discourse rooted in efficiency, conformity, and violence.
After appearing in Precious, Gabourey Sidibe undoubtedly is a reference point in the black community for everything opposite of attractive in a woman: fat, black, intelligent, and eloquent. Speaking openly about her weight — which is rare — at the 2012 Women In Entertainment (WIE) Symposium in New York, Sidibe explained how her upbringing helped her prepare for her breakout role and with the hoopla in the aftermath:
“I didn’t really get to grow up hearing that I was beautiful a lot, or that I was worth anything nor did I grow up seeing myself on TV. Then at some point when I was 21 or 22 I just decided that life wasn’t worth living if I wasn’t happy with myself so I just took all the steps that I could to figure out how to love myself and become confident. Truthfully speaking if I hadn’t found this person before that movie [Precious] I wouldn’t have even be in that movie.”
Seeing herself on the cover of magazines have been a gift and a curse for the 29-year-old Oscar-nominated actress. Gabby actually voiced her concern with untrue, salacious headlines, stating that they, sometimes, can make her feel insecure:
“People see me as a confident person but I get shaken a lot, especially being in this business. A few weeks ago I was on vacation and I went into a CVS and as I’m paying I see a picture of myself on the cover of a magazine and they’re guesstimating what my weight is? The headline was ‘Gabourey Sidibe 250 pounds’.”
Keeping her cool, Gabby shrugged the incident off, but how many other people who may see themselves in Gabby, or in her current role as Andrea Jackson in The Big “C,” and not know how to heal themselves healthily. But Gabby wrapped up her insightful comments with a little hope for folks who are going through life without any constructive ways of dealing with weight issues:
“I have to keep going and living my life, so when things like that upset me I have to find things that build my confidence back up. Because I don’t want to wait for work I want to make work.”
Unfortunately, most people think that bigger women are the only ones dealing with body issues. Contrary to popular beliefs, even a fashion icon and widely recognized “beautiful” woman (they are all beautiful in this writer’s opinion, hence the quotations) can feel the vitriol of Hollywood executives.
In a beautifully written piece for her new in-depth personal website, Tracee Ellis-Ross, talked about her boobs. As Ross puts it, women have all sorts and shapes of boobs: “big, small, sloppy, raisins, tits, milk-duds, fake, real, flat, bra or no bra.” But a lot women still feel like they have something wrong with the natural shape and size of their breasts, which, in her opinion, may have led to what she sees as a new normal: augmented breasts.
Ross sees her breasts as a feature that enhances her individuality while connecting her to the feminine inherent in most women. Nevertheless, Hollywood casting directors felt her “girls” were “sitting” wrong:
I have, on numerous occasions, been confronted by other people’s discomfort with my breasts (and not just online). I had a horrid audition experience where the casting director actually made someone in her office take off their own push-up bra for me to wear because she did not like where my breasts were sitting. Apparently, the whereabouts of my breasts were key to my acting skills!
I’ve had long conversations with my manager about my breasts or, as she calls them, “the girls.” I’ve had to defend their placement, as she suggested I should wear a “better bra,” alluding to the fact that others have made comments about my breasts to her. These experiences gave me pause: I felt hurt, reduced to an object, a pair of tits — tits that were, apparently, un-cast-able.
Destroying the confidence of actors seems like the theme throughout all of these ladies’ stories, but more sinisterly, our culture continues to accost women in different mediums, whether in print or on the “casting couch,” forcing them to either adjust to conventions, walk away, or find creative and healthy ways to deal with violent verbal, mental, and spiritual assaults.
Ross offers some advice to folks who can’t keep their critiques to themselves, hoping that through her post, both the assaulted and the aggressors, can heal themselves:
Let’s also remember that we all come in different shapes and sizes, and that beauty cannot be defined by a single category. And let’s remember that the drop and movement of a natural breast is wonderfully sexy.
As a man, it seems almost impossible for me not to look in admiration and attraction at the female form, in all its sizes, shapes, and complexities, but, although I have engaged in disrespectful male banter about random women, there is no excuse for judging women’s bodies, reducing them to objects for my, or any other man’s, pleasure.
We have to applaud these women for doing courageous work of what author bell hooks calls “naming.” Naming incivilities against women — especially by brave, young women and men who are committed to real change — can help reinforce our responsibility to empower women to speak up to egregious authoritative abuses in all industries, so that this behavior will cease and words like empower become irrelevant.