"What is it like to be a 'plus-size role model'?"
I never considered myself “plus-size.” Never. Oh sure, a size 14 was snug, and I was always able to find XL clothes with spandex that worked just fine. Or sometimes, I found those amazing stores that carry XXL or XXXL but sold them in the same section as the “normal clothes,” rather than in the back of the store where the plus-size clothes always live. You know, the place that never gets vacuumed and looks like an explosion of colorful beach cover-ups?
Here’s a quick question: Why do plus-size clothes always have crazy insane colorful large prints? It’s like the designers somehow think, “Oh, that big girl is so gonna want to walk in the room and make sure everyone sees her.” Listen up, plus-size designers, I am here to tell you, “They see us.”
I never really saw myself as plus-size until “Hairspray” opened on Broadway. Playing Tracy Turnblad was the role of a lifetime! It was all my dreams wrapped up in one. I will never forget one of my first interviews about the show. It was on CBS news, and I was sitting across from a very established middle-aged male host. I was so excited I was going to be on TV! I sat during the commercial break putting on new lip gloss and felt so giddy wondering if everyone that I went to high school with was watching.
Then, the interview began.
“Marissa, I have to ask you. What is it like to be a ‘plus-size role model’?” he asked me.
I remember my face getting warm as I blushed and inside I just wanted to scream, “Did you just call me fat?” I don’t remember how I answered that question that day. All I remember is thinking, “Did Jason, a high school boyfriend of mine, just hear that a man called me fat ON TELEVISION? Did everyone hear that?”
Honestly, I wanted to crawl under the chair. I thought to myself, “Tracy Turnblad was a plus-size role model! I’m just the actress playing her! And P.S.: Why did he just call me fat?”
Then every night, outside the stage door of “Hairspray,” young girls of all shapes and sizes would wait for photos or autographs. I would listen to what they were saying and what they weren’t saying. They weren’t saying, “I love your voice you sing so good.” They weren’t saying, “You are the best actress in the world.”
They were saying: “You make me feel so good. You give me hope that I can be an actress when I grow up. We look like sisters. I can’t stop smiling. I cried throughout the whole show. You are my hero.”
What these girls were saying was “You make me feel OK to be me.”
The character I played made them feel like they could get the guy, they could be the leading lady, they were OK! So after the first few months of the show, and thousands of women telling me they felt empowered because of “Hairspray,” a plus-size role model was born.
I didn’t care about the weird passive-aggressive innuendo from that TV reporter. I just thought about those girls and how much they meant to me.
I loved having a platform that sent a healthy message. But I still had this insane inner struggle where secretly I would dream of losing 20 pounds. Not even 5, but 20!
Here’s a secret. In my dressing room, there was a fat suit.
Yes, you read that correctly, a fat suit — for my skinnier understudy. They kept a fat suit in my dressing room so she could be fat like me!
Production didn’t hide it or place it in a trunk under lock and key (where it belonged) — it was proudly displayed in my dressing room. I remember once Liza Minnelli — yes the real Liza Minnelli — came backstage to meet me. She took one look at the fat suit hanging in the room and said, “Oh, I knew you were wearing a fat suit, I didn’t think you were that fat!”
I obviously let her believe I wore the fat suit.
A tightrope walk for me was to want to lose weight while inspiring people to just embrace who they are. I would be doing an interview for a fancy magazine and the reporter would ask me, “How are you so confident?” At the same exact time I would still be hearing that little voice in my head screaming, “Did you just call me fat?”
It wasn’t even the words or the label. It was the assignation of judgment and the undercurrent of superiority that got to me.
I was beginning to wonder, would this same reporter ask Reese Witherspoon why she was so confident? No, of course not. I knew what the question meant. My little voice would ask, “Why is this an OK question?” I would answer in a sweet way but basically I was saying, “Why shouldn’t I be confident? I have a great career, a wonderful boyfriend and a beautiful home.”
And yet still, I wanted to lose 20 pounds.
As life went on, I was so excited to be cast in “Dancing with the Stars” for their sixth season. Once again it was yet another dream role for me. I got to dance with a hot guy, wear sexy dresses, and have amazing hair and make-up! It was, in a word, awesome.
The first announcement of the show went something like this: “The Olympic Gold Medalist, The Football Star, The Oscar Winner and the Plus-Size Dancer.”
That was me. Not the Tony Award-winning actress! The plus-size dancer, I was the plus-size dancer.
I also must note that at this point I had lost the 20 pounds I had wanted to lose for 5 years.
I was actually 30 pounds down from my “Hairspray” days, but “Plus-Size Dancer” was my title and it stuck.
That year, my son was born via surrogate. I am a cancer survivor and could not give birth to my son, but that’s for another story on another day. I remember holding my newborn baby and I was excited when people told me how skinny I looked after just having a child. Just like with Liza Minnelli, I let them believe I gave birth. I am not going to lie, it felt good being praised for looking skinny.
Soon after, I went on a crazy diet. Not the one with magic pills and where you eat only grapefruit (trust me, doesn’t work). It was the crazy diet where you work out 6 hours a day and eat under 1,200 calories every day: no cheat day, no break, no joke!
Now some people will say working out every day and eating 1,200 calories every day is not crazy. It’s healthy and very doable. But for this all-or-nothing girl, it’s CRAZY.
I did it, I was committed! I had just finished shooting the hilariously funny body image rom-com “Muffin Top: A Love Story.” The day we wrapped the film, we shot a scene where I ate a huge piece of chocolate cake, french fries and well, since we were there, a shake as well.
The next morning, after we wrapped “Muffin Top,” I went to the doctor and got some blood work done. My cholesterol was so high that my doctor wanted to start me on medication. I asked him to give me six months to see if through diet and exercise, I could lower my numbers.
Let the diet commence! I don’t even remember the exact year — I want to say it was 2012 — because all I did was work out. Like all the time. I was so in it, and the more I lost the more I wanted to lose. When I started the diet, I was back at my “Hairspray” weight and once I lost the same 30 pounds, the 30 pounds I gained back after “DWTS,” I thought I would be happy!
I wanted to lose more and was on such a roll. Then I lost 40 pounds! Then 50 pounds, then — OMG — I lost 60! I lost 60 pounds!
You know when people say they wish they were their wedding weight? Well, I was my junior high weight! I was so skinny and happy! Wait, did I say HAPPY? I wasn’t happy. I felt the same. I always thought Skinny = Happy. Except it doesn’t.
Happy = Happy.
OK, so there I was, a supposedly plus-size role model who lost 60 pounds. There are tons of articles all over the media, quoting me saying, “If I can do it, so can you!” I meant it. I couldn’t believe I lost 60 pounds! But listen, I am sorry to tell you: There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
I would be on talk shows and they would show before and after photos of me. Every time, I thought I looked great in the before shot! I mean, I like the “after” shot too, but why pick on the before shot? The before shot was strong and confident, and I looked great! The after shot just looked skinny and well…skinny. I really did lose the weight for health reasons, but it was making me mentally crazy and I lost my breast size in this crazy act of getting skinny and I loved my breasts!
Because skinny does not equal happy, I slowly gained back 20 pounds. I was really down on myself and felt like I was out of control. I went to Fitness Ridge in Utah to try to get skinny again. I thought THIS time if I lost the weight, I’ll be happy. I just hadn’t known how to deal with it before.
While I was there I met amazing women and this may sound full of myself to say — but I only share it because of what it meant to me — these ladies would go on to tell me stories of how I changed their lives at one point or another.
It was these women who finally got through to me.
They would tell me how seeing me on TV inspired them. Watching me dance made them start Zumba classes. I went to all the lectures and really listened. At the age of 41, I heard what I was being told. It’s not just working out and eating right, it’s that, plus the emotional stuff. I never tapped in to the emotional management. I mean, who would? That is the hardest part.
You think not eating cake is hard? Try asking yourself why you are eating the cake?
AHHHHHHH NOW I WANT CAKE!
I left Fitness Ridge and for the first time in my life practiced saying, “I am enough.” It’s about being healthy, not skinny and whatever HEALTHY means to you!
Now, the movie “Muffin Top: A Love Story” I filmed when I was at my peak weight (and I love how I look) is in select theaters and on Video On Demand. It’s all about self-image and female empowerment. Most importantly, it’s funny. I have been to many screenings of the movie and the feedback I always hear is how nice it is to see a woman in a movie who act and look like real women.
I finally understand that no one is calling me fat. They are truly saying, “Thank you for being you.” “Thank you for loving yourself now, not five pounds from now.”
Ten years ago when that reporter first said, “How does it feel to be a plus-size role model?” He wasn’t calling me fat. He was saying, “You are inspirational,” “You are empowering women everywhere.”
I am proud to be a plus-size role model. I am also glad I didn’t listen to my skinny friends when they told me to throw away my fat jeans.
God, they fit good!
Marissa Jaret Winokur is an actress and dancer. Winokur is best known for the role of Tracy Turnblad in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, a performance for which she won a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actress. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.
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