Stephanie Howell
Stephanie Howell

(WOMENSENEWS)–235 pounds: I was 29 years old and I decided that I wanted to be an actor. Interestingly, I chose a profession that is hyper-focused on how one looks. Very rarely does one hear “Can she play the part?” More often than not, one will hear “Does she look the part?”

I was still struggling with my body image and my relationship with food, but I knew I was good at acting and there was a niche for “fat” actresses. Many thin actresses won’t gain weight for a stage role–unless there is the possibility of a Tony nomination. I was already fat and someone has to play the fat roles. Plus, if I started losing or gaining weight quickly I could always blame it on my “character.” Interestingly enough, during my time at college I was cast as Lilith–a character who struggles with an eating disorder. I lost 20 pounds before the show opened by eating only salads and drinking diet soda, grapefruit juice and water. Art imitating life; life imitating art.

251 pounds: Then I auditioned for the musical, “Gypsy.” It was a large cattle-call audition and, to my surprise, I was hired by a company and cast as one of the strippers in the show–Mazeppa. In all the other productions I had been involved with, my body had been covered from head to toe. This show was different; I could hide behind my character, but ultimately, I was going to have to show “my” body–my fat and flabby body. Mazeppa’s costume didn’t leave much to the imagination–a black and brown brassiere, a short black and brown skirt, tights, a headpiece and dance shoes.

I was embarrassed each time I went in for a costume fitting. I was the only fat person in the cast. My fellow strippers–Electra and Tessie–were skinny actresses. Regardless of my size, each time I went in for fitting, my body wasn’t critiqued. In fact, time after time, I was told how “great” I looked in my costume.

Unavoidable Mirrors

The rehearsal period for “Gypsy” lasted three weeks. I could not avoid the mirrors. I couldn’t escape the shape of my breasts, my ass and my hips. I couldn’t escape the ways in which my hips swayed side to side. I couldn’t escape the ways in which I would roll my shoulders into a mean shimmy. I couldn’t escape the ways in which I would shake my ass. I also couldn’t escape the ways others viewed my body. None of my fellow cast mates laughed at my body as I performed in rehearsal. My director told me that I looked “sexy and salacious” as I was dancing and singing. At the time, I had no idea of what “salacious” meant. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to look it up in the dictionary that I knew salacious meant “mouthwatering.”

I was suspicious of my costumer, my fellow cast mates and my director. But, I could not be suspicious of paying audience members.

“Gypsy” ran for two weeks. Opening night, I worried how the audience would view my fat body in my skimpy costume. I waited behind the backstage curtain–nervously– for my cue to enter. When I heard Tessie give her line, I exited the wings and took center stage. As soon as I stepped foot onstage, I heard laughter from the audience. At that moment, I believed that they were laughing at me and my fat body– I wanted to die but I knew the show must go on and Electra, Tessie and I had our song to sing. I was the lead into the song and I embodied fearlessness as I sang my part and moved my body.

Audience Shift

I felt a shift in the audience; I heard folks whistling and cheering as I belted out the words. When I finished my solo I was shocked by how my audience members reacted. All of a sudden, they got on their feet–a standing ovation. A standing ovation that wouldn’t stop. A standing ovation that halted the orchestra. I stood there smiling in amazement. I graciously took my bow.

This was not a one-time experience. “Gypsy” was performed 16 times and each time I sang my solo I received a standing ovation. And as a side note, I found out that when I first stepped onstage opening night, the audience wasn’t laughing at my body. It was my headpiece they found funny.

It was through performing Mazeppa and embracing fearlessness that I was able to construct a new understanding of “fat” and the “performance of fatness” in my live performances. I made the conscious decision that I didn’t have to hate my body anymore. I didn’t have to hide my body anymore–I didn’t have to be ashamed of my fatness. That’s not to say that newfound acceptance of my fat body happened overnight–it didn’t. This was a slow, slow process. A slow process that began with me being grateful that I had a working and functional body–I hadn’t damaged my physical body through my own abuse.

Through this appreciation, I was able to see my body in a different light. Fat didn’t mean “bad,” “unworthy,” “unlovable” or “undesirable.” I began wearing clothing that fit close to my body. I wanted people to see my fatness. I would no longer be invisible. This appreciation of my fatness sparked my professional work.

Stephanie Howell is a performance artist whose work is based in identity, the performance of fatness and burlesquing the body. She has performed at various theaters, universities and performance spaces across the U.S.

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