| Arts & Culture
Bodies Little Girls Get to Be Ingénues—What About Big Girls?
Make me thin, I told God. Make me pretty. I added to the list: Make me Annie.
When I was five, I auditioned at an open casting call for an Oscar Mayer Wiener commercial. The call was at Fun-Plex, a local amusement park, and we hadn’t gone there to audition. Still, there it was—the Wienermobile in all its bright red, phallic glory.
I begged my mom, and while my siblings went off to ride the Scrambler again, I stood in line with the other hopeful kids. We were instructed to sing either “My Bologna Has a First Name” or “Oh, I Wish I Were an Oscar Mayer Wiener.” I couldn’t spell yet, so I chose the second option. When my turn came, I emphasized every other word, singing my heart out: I wish I were an— Maybe it was the first time I had wished for something so hard in front of an audience. A flourish at the end for everyone would be in love with me . I might have thrown my arms out wide, but if I didn’t, my heart was that open. I did, at that moment, consider that if it meant I could be on television, I would be a hot dog. I didn’t care. Eat me.
I didn’t get the part. I did get a Weenie Whistle and a permanent longing to be seen, chosen, evaluated. I wanted someone else to watch me and say, “I can tell she really wishes she were a hot dog. I believe it. I believe that truth.”
It didn’t take long—I was maybe eight—until I looked in the mirror and wished I were something else. Not a hot dog, but not me either. I grew up wanting to be an orphan. My mother read Anne of Green Gables with me, and I liked that Anne was bookish and funny and self-critical too. I longed to have auburn hair, just like Anne wanted. I wanted turtle-green eyes. I wanted to drink whatever cordial was and laugh with my best friends.
Red-haired orphans made up half my cultural context as a kid. Growing up, my best friend and I lived on opposite sides of the neighborhood. When we played, 90 percent of the time, we playacted the character of Annie, the scrappy orphan originally made famous in comic books. Our version came straight from the screen—big red wigs, skinny arms. We knew what we were supposed to look like. I was fat and she was Black, and neither of us looked in any way like the movie character. Still, the other option was to be the keeper of the orphanage, Miss Hannigan. Usually, we flipped for it. In most games, losing meant you had to do more chores. In Annie , losing meant you got to do none of them.
Whoever got to be Annie got to sing the best songs, belt them out. We sang about hoping our parents were out there, somewhere, maybe. Maybe they were good. Maybe they were kind. (They were actually at work, or at PTA meetings, or grocery shopping, and yes, they were good and kind.) Orphan games and orphan narratives felt important as a child because a family chose you; they were not stuck with you, by the machinations of fate. I loved the feeling of being picked.
We lived in the double Annie generation: born after Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan and right in the prime time for the 1999 television adaptation with Kathy Bates in the role. We didn’t remember the names of the Annie actresses. We didn’t want to. We wanted to be them, to slip ourselves into the world of the orphanage like paper dolls, dressed in her shiny shoes and red dress.
Since the beginning of theater, there have been stock characters: the chorus, the fool, the hero, the ingenue. Ingenues are pure and usually need a little saving at some point in the story. Most necessarily, they are wanted and beautiful. Annie is the first role like this that young aspiring actresses might want, that we can actually play. Her songs echo the usual beats of the ingenue role—longing and looking not for romantic love but for the filial kind. Little ingenues could grow into Lauries ( Oklahoma! ) or Marian the Librarians ( The Music Man ) or Cinderellas ( Cinderella ). The audience believes not just in a little Annie, but in her being. Verisimilitude embodied. She looks like someone who can be loved.
In fifth grade, I auditioned for the school musical and was given the largest part assigned to someone in my grade. The show, Krazy Kamp , was set in a summer camp. My character was Theodora Wolfswinkle, a girl who continuously gains weight with the help of pillows stuffed beneath her costume. I don’t know why calling it Crazy Camp would be less funny, and I don’t know why a show designed for children needed a fat-shaming role. Twenty-plus years later, I still have the videotape that I could watch if I still owned a VCR and wanted to cringe for two straight hours. For one gag, I had no lines but sat on a bench in the corner of the stage. As dialogue proceeded around me, I pulled item after item out of a popcorn box—popcorn, chocolate bars, and an apple. To close the scene, another character walking by tossed off the comment not to eat the box, “even if there was butter left on it.”
I had wanted to be a hot dog. What did it matter why the applause came, even if it came at the expense of your image of yourself?
A year later, at a ceremony for my sister’s gold award in Girl Scouts, I met a teenager who had played the same Krazy Kamp role at our school ten years before I did. We looked at each other: she, now a skinny teenager. Me, euphemistically called “big boned” by people who loved me and didn’t know better. It was fun , we agreed. The role. Wasn’t it?
When I was thirteen, I had a chance to audition for a production of Annie . We moved to a new state, and the only thing I liked was that the new school had real musicals. Real shows I had heard of, with titles not misspelled for comic effect. By that point, I had toured with a children’s choir for several years and taken voice lessons. In choirs, appearance didn’t matter as much as blend, a part disappearing into the greater whole. In music, I could blend, but on the stage, I took up too much space. The wrong kind of space. I was tall and big. In the autumn, I’d been cast as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and been teased as much for laying my head in a girl’s lap as for wearing a donkey’s head. I was taller than most of the boys in my class. Still, I crossed my fingers and hoped to play Annie anyway, to be the ingenue not just in a living room adaptation, but on a real stage.
In bed at night, I squeezed the fat on my thighs and sides between two fingers until they ached. Faith as a teen meant bedtime prayers still worked like birthday candles. Make me thin , I told God. Make me pretty . I added to the list: Make me Annie .
The cast list went up, and the expected choice was cast (she was great, by the way). In a moment of clarity, staring at the list of names, I realized, even in that prime everyone-is-awkward phase, I would never be mistaken for the ingenue. I was cast as the understudy for Miss Hannigan; my primary role was the maid who says, “Soap, no bubbles I think!” during the song that welcomes Annie to the mansion.
I played a lot of moms after that. I played a lot of sixty-year-old women. I was Lady Bracknell ( The Importance of Being Earnest ) and Queen Aggravain ( Once Upon a Mattress ) and Dolly Levi (for me, The Matchmaker , but more famously Hello, Dolly! ). If you’re not an ingenue—travel-sized, for better whisking away into some bright sunset—then you get to get cast as a mom before you even get your first period.
I was a child in the nineties, a teenager in the aughts, and in neither of those decades were there many popular depictions of people larger than a size six finding their person. In the nineties, anorexia was king, or more accurately queen. Allison Yarrow’s book 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality tracks both the rise of public representations of toothpick-thin models as the norm and also the surge of affordable but horribly body-image-focused brands like Victoria’s Secret . Sexy is thin. Sexy is very thin, but big breasted. Sexy is tall, but not too tall. These first models (literally and figuratively) become targets that young people point their arrows toward.
If you’re not an ingenue—travel-sized, for better whisking away into some bright sunset—then you get to get cast as a mom before you even get your first period.
More than just print models, the popular culture on TV and movies couldn’t help but reshape expectations. A study conducted in 2003 by the American Journal of Public Health shows an underreprestantation of obese people on television compared to the general population, but also a gap between the portrayals of male and female characters. Obese female characters were less likely to be shown in romantic relationships and more likely to be shown eating and talking about their weight.
Don’t eat the box, even if there’s butter left on it.
The makeover scene is a movie staple, and the earliest I ever saw was in Annie . Annie, brought home by the billionaire, is bathed (soap, no bubbles I think!), brushed, and dressed. The (pretend) dirt is removed to add (pretend) color to her cheeks. She transforms from the every-girl to the only-girl. Ragamuffin to richamuffin. In college, I discovered my makeover, my secret weapon, my shortcut—the corset. My fat pouch disappeared under the fine boning. Corsets were armor and Band-Aid all in one—fix and cover, squeeze and support. In period plays like Our Town , I shoved myself into a corset that rearranged my internal organs to look like the approximation of an old Coke bottle, except with breasts at the top. A shelf of breasts, sore but sturdy enough, on which to rest a cup of coffee. But it didn’t actually make me thinner.
A college boyfriend, another theater person, once told me, “If you lost ten pounds, you would be beautiful. Not that you’re not pretty now.”
Not that you’re not.
I didn’t mind his analysis of my body at the time, or at least it didn’t come as unexpected. Theater was judgment. Beyond considerations of talent, making a show means making a series of artistic decisions. Some materials are paint on canvas, and some are bodies. Please, decide if I’m too tall, too short, or too fat. Judge my hair and the size of my breasts. Line me up against possible love interests to see if the collective imagination in a dark theater could make me believable as someone that could be lovable. I wanted that attention, craved it—craved the focus of an audience on my imperfect body as if their gaze would hasten some sort of metamorphosis. Their eyes as incubation light over the egg I was. Isn’t that what “being seen” means? That I have become worthy, finally, of adoration?
A college roommate of mine had done international modeling. The box above our microwave was stashed with apples and tablets. She swore by pink lady apples—they had the fewest calories, she said—and orange-flavored powdered laxatives. I bought the laxatives, but it felt like choking down sandy Gatorade. I finally bought an over-the-counter diet drug whose warning section was mostly about my intestines, a lesson in anatomy with caution symbols printed on the side. A lot about being thin had to do with bowels. It seemed like skinny girls had an intestinal secret they never shared with the rest of us. I took one bottle of the pills, then another. I bought clothes in the next size down and waited to be beautiful. Is the secret to being beautiful feeling disgusting most of the time? A revelation.
At the time, I never would have labeled what I did disordered eating, mainly because my life found the order I’d craved. I lost twenty pounds. I stopped playing moms and started playing love interests. In the dressing room, preparing for a show with only a bowl of Special K in my stomach, I would run my hands up and down my flat stomach and stare in the lighted mirrors. I think I’m gonna like it here .
When I moved after college for grad school, theater fell out of my life. I didn’t have time, and soon I was married and soon I was a mother. Days tumbled over themselves, days when I was so tired I forgot I even had a body until it came time to feed a smaller one. Postpartum, I pondered for the first time in years the manipulation of my body during college and tried to make amends to it. I have been gentle to my body, or tried to be, since then. I’ve forgotten the lines from the shows I acted in years ago, but it’s taken much, much longer to unlearn the internal scripts of body negativity.
I’ve forgotten the lines from the shows I acted in years ago, but it’s taken much, much longer to unlearn the internal scripts of body negativity.
The people in my town don’t think of me as a theater person. Over glasses of wine with girlfriends a few years ago, one mentioned she had also done college theater. There was a moment of recognition there, the ache of anticipation before the cast list posts, the heat in your stomach from a good line reading, but the moment passed. I don’t want to be eaten anymore. I’m okay not being a hot dog. I don’t want to be an orphan, and I don’t need to be an ingenue.
But my children are starting to love theater. We watched Annie on Mother’s Day last year. I was doing research for my novel, weaving children’s theater into the plot, and needed the soundtrack fresh in my mind. We rewatched the first half over again, my daughter chirping at me later when I asked her to pick up her room, “I love you, Miss Hannigan.”
I worry. I wonder how to prepare my children. It’s okay to wish you were something else, to play that out in front of an audience. To sing about love maybe being far away or near, and to dress yourself in a smile or a corset for fun. All I can do is to teach them to love themselves and hope that it’s enough. Unlike a hot dog, and unlike me, they don’t need everyone to be in love with them.