In the fourth of multi-talented AYT writer, Emma Bentley’s series of very personal articles, she talks about believing, as many of us do, that she needs to look a certain way to get an acting role. Can she come out of the other side and focus on what really matters?
TW: The following article discusses eating disorders in some length.
Before the dreaded 3rd year showcase, I decided to start doing ‘Insanity’ – a series of workout videos with the extremely muscly Shawn T (a PT who makes you feel the end of the world is near), in the hope of losing a few pounds to increase my chances of winning the golden chalice of drama school: an agent. The videos are pretty brutal and include lines like “just when you think you can’t go any further, just give it one more shot!” This, combined with doing it before class started at 6.30am (obviously there were a few hungover days where I didn’t make it), made me feel like I really was going insane. I was so focused on just “digging deeper,” like Shawn T enjoyed screaming through the TV, but I was running on empty, and when it finally came to the big day in London, even though I did fit into my tight jeans and my arms looked toned in my orange t-shirt, nothing I saw in the mirror would ever assure me I was good enough.
This obsession with trying to get the figure of a model followed me during the first two years out of LIPA. My body was changing but not how I wanted it to, with my tight jeans getting tighter and my skin getting worse. I wasn’t exercising as much, didn’t have a skin care routine (ha, still don’t) and I was eating a shed load of left-over catering food. I also wasn’t getting any work, despite signing with a really great agent. “It must be because of the way I look,” I told myself. Looking back, I think I pretty much hated my appearance most of the time and if I was carrying that feeling on my shoulders, then no wonder I wasn’t getting very far. It was a really dark time and led to me having some sort of breakdown in 2016. Luckily though, I had some brilliant friends who helped me get to the doctors and invest in some self-care.
Obviously, I had reason to think that I wouldn’t get a job without looking a certain way. This was the height of Game of Thrones and Fleabag series one had just been released on iPlayer; beautiful, thin women were everywhere telling me subconsciously that I had to look like them to play a lead in anything. This was also reflected in the castings that were coming through with many reading along the lines of, “pretty, but not model looking.” Obviously, I know I don’t look like Gigi Hadid (don’t worry though, I know I’m still beautiful in my own way!) but reading this once a fortnight still didn’t boost my self-esteem.
Ultimately, I’ve grown a thicker skin, by accepting there are parts of this industry that will never change, like the fact casting is heavily based on how you look and sometimes, you do look right, which is great. But all you can really focus on is the work itself. So yes, I refuse to allow myself to go into the casting trying to suck my stomach in so that my (perfectly normal) fat rolls aren’t visible when I sit down to do the read. Now, I’m gonna breathe deep and let it all hang out.
Putting this idea into action isn’t always so easy though. I remember I was still subconsciously worrying about my body image even when I had cast myself in my own play as a character who looked like… well, me! When we arrived in Scotland to do To She or Not To She, I was getting up to go running in the morning before tech rehearsals, desperately trying to look uber fit and toned before the show opened. One day I was having a moan about how I didn’t feel in shape, and I remember Holly (Robinson) my director/co-writer/mate telling me, “you know, girls will see you doing your show, and they can see that you eat properly, and yeah maybe you don’t have time to go to the gym, and isn’t that okay?” Do you know what? It was more than okay; it was brilliant. So, cake was eaten and beer was drank. I still went running some mornings but that was to clear my head and get ready for the show and as I went to write my second solo show, I continued to accept my ‘imperfections’. Making space on a stage for a character who looked like me was empowering: my chubby bits, hairiness and acne all featured as things that my character was worried about too. Exposing my feelings of not being good enough as a character, and later realising that other people related to that was a really affirming experience.
Today, I’m still trying to completely rid myself of the head demons that tell me I won’t get work looking the way I do. Obviously, you want to go into an audition looking your best, sure. I wash my hair and put on a good dollop of foundation to feel good, but, having done all that (and given I haven’t arrived at the casting looking like a drowned rat), it’d be good to just do what I’m there for: act. So yes, I could spend money on changing the way I look but I’d rather put it into improving my actual skills and confidence and if casting directors still don’t want a girl who can act and who has hairy arms and stained teeth, then I guess I’ll just have to keep writing those parts for myself. There’s so much hope out there with shows like BBC3’s, Shrill as well as The Royal Court’s Hole last year that show us DIFFERENT BODY TYPES ARE AVAILABLE AND I’M ONE OF THEM.
NB: Please, if you are reading this, feel it chimes with you, and especially if it’s really getting you down, do talk to people you trust or a doctor about it. From experience, I know it can feel trivial, but it really isn’t. It’s your career, it’s your life, and you are important.
If you enjoyed reading this, visit Emma’s Author page to see more articles. Go on, treat yourself.