Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Singing the Body Image Blues

When I was a kid, singing and performing was my entire life. From age 5 to 18, my mom spent most of her days and nights carting me from play rehearsal, to ballet class, to private voice lessons, to recitals and even to auditions in NYC. Most of my childhood memories involve being backstage and in full makeup and I did it quite well. Getting "the lead" or winning first place in a singing competition was not unusual for me. I had talent. I knew it, and most other people who heard me knew it too.

As I got older though, things got a bit more complicated. In my early teens I was precocious and mature-looking, but still very much in the awkward years. I could pass for a young adult and often went for roles against women 5 or 10 years older than me, but on the inside I was still a child. Insecure and very self-conscious. I was also not thin. I hesitate to say I was fat or even "big" but I also wasn't small, petite, slim, or the typical "ingenue" that gets cast in musical theater roles. As I was coming of age the pop star singing idols were no longer cute, curvy ladies like Amy Grant, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson but skinny half-naked vamps like Britney and Christina.
DANCE 10, LOOKS 3...

At age 10 or 11 I was too "developed" to play Annie and because I was completely flat-chested, this basically meant I was too big. Shortly thereafter when I was double-cast in a professional production of "The Secret Garden" with the lead role of Mary Lennox, my counterpart was a good 20 pounds lighter than me.  During rehearsals for this show I would eat Happy Meals for dinner regularly since it was in Alexandria, VA, an hour drive from my home. That soon came to an abrupt end when I became terrified that I might grow out of my custom-sewn costumes. I was already "the big one" but how embarassing would it be to force the costume department to make me all new clothes because I'd gotten even bigger?

In addition to the regular pressure that comes along with being a not-skinny person in a skinny-obsessed world, I had people in the performing world constantly commenting on my appearance. I was too tall, too ethnic, bigger than the male lead (they're always SO small too), or just not the right look. The summer before my sophomore year of high school I got the coveted lead role of Maria in "West Side Story" with the caveat from the director that I had to "go down a size or 2 before opening night." My face gets hot just reliving this memory. I was 16 and a nice but rather full-figured size 8/10. I had just gotten the lead role that I'd always wanted to play but at that moment I wanted to die. That was one of the first moments I can remember where I truly felt hatred for my body. I lost the weight and played the role, but the damage was done.

The next year, I had the opportunity to record an album- a real R&B album- with a local producer who heard me sing in a talent show. He had worked with Toni Braxton who was also a Maryland girl and owned a real recording studio. He thought I had a chance to make it and I spent an entire summer recording original music with him. After I went to get some photos shot for my album cover, I remember thinking I looked "ok" and agreed to use one particular shot. My producer looked at it and remarked to me with a laugh that we could position me like a white Jill Scott.

Jill Scott. Now he, being an African American male, thought this comparison would suggest that I was a classy, low-voiced, soul singer without the need for gimmicks and to show skin. To me- a slightly overweight white girl on the verge of an eating disorder, this meant only one thing. I was officially fat. The sad thing is, I don't know if I ever spoke to him again after that day. I don't know what I told him or my parents or myself. I think I just left and never answered his phone calls. I must have blocked it out of my memory because I don't even remember his name. And the recordings we did? Nowhere to be found. I haven't heard them since I walked out of his studio and I couldn't hum a single tune that I helped him compose.

When I left Maryland for NYC to attend Columbia a lot of people from home thought I was pursuing performing but I was not. I knew I was smart. And capable. And in school or work, I thought, they judge you for what you can think of and do, regardless of what you look like. Somewhere deep inside of me I made an unconscious decision to never perform again. I told my mom that if she wanted me to use my "gift" of singing she ought to pay for me to get liposuction and breast implants rather than more vocal coaching. I was young, stubborn, and deeply, debilitatingly self-conscious. I believed that unless I was pop-star pretty and thin, my talent was not marketable and thus useless.

Oh what a fool I was...I don't regret not becoming a professional performer. I'm not thick-skinned and it's a tough business, to say the least. What I regret is that I let a big part of my specialness die and didn't even think twice in doing it, becasue I got along ok without it. I was lucky to be smart, hard-working and good at making teachers and bosses happy. I was even better at making myself believe that my singing wasn't important to me and that it was more practical to do things at which I was less likely to fail. What I regret is that I let the negative voices inside my head drown out the positive ones. I let myself down and let my God-given talent go to waste.

This weekend around a campfire in Sag Harbor a group sing-along suddenly started to break out into solo performances. First a classical singer doing her rendition of Summertime. Then a showtune gal. Somehow a few seconds later the spotlight on me and I broke out into one of the only song I knew I would still remember the words to and which seemed appropriate on 4th of July weekend, "The Star Spangled Banner." I used to sing that song at local baseball games acapella and I always enjoyed the way I sounded and the accomplishment that came along with nailing those high notes. It's a hard song and I was somewhat surprised to hear that I still got it. A few minutes later they asked for an encore and a few minutes after that I was doing a duet to "Landslide" with the showtune gal.

The girl sitting next to me was only 18 and heading off to college this fall to study musical theater. When she told me she loved my voice I admitted the secret to her: that was the first time I'd sung in public in over 10 years. She was shocked, and I made her promise me she'd never stop singing no matter what. Several times. She probably thought I was a crazy old lady but I don't care. We were strangers who somehow ended up sitting together talking and whether she needed my advice or not, I needed to give it to her. I felt almost like I was talking to my younger self. And healing a wound that until recently, I didn't even admit was there.  I don't share this now because I'm sad about it, more wistful I'd say. I don't want to drop everything and become the next American Idol, but I do want to encourage anyone who has a passion for something that might not "pan out" to keep doing it, no matter what anyone tells them or how much inner doubt haunts them.

Where are we making ourselves feel small when really, we have all the potential in the world? 
Where do we discard our dreams, because we're just too scared they won't come true? 
Why can't we realize that any talents we have are truly gifts from God, given to us for a very specific use and with a short shelf life (one lifetime)? 

The thing about giving up on yourself is that it doesn't hurt anyone but you.

"Wordly and spiritual gifts are just that - gifts, lent to us for a purpose." - Sally Kempton