Tuesday, 6 November 2012

On body image...

I'd like to take some time to write about something which I think is often on singers' minds.  This is an issue which, for personal reasons, hits very close to my heart.

I am talking about body image.

As singers, as performers, we are subject to constant scrutiny by ourselves as well as others.  And we feel this scrutiny acutely.  Scrutiny of our singing, our acting, and our musicality, of course.  But also scrutiny of our physical appearance.  These days more than ever, it matters what you look like on stage.  And not just because it's good to be physically fit and move well on stage.  And not just because it's easier to believe you're dying of starvation and tuberculosis if you're slim.  And not just because people with your voice type tend to be more petite, athletic, slender, whatever.  We've all heard these arguments, and many more.  But let's be brutally honest here - the truth is, the audience likes to look at something pretty.

Now, I don't think it's entirely a bad thing that singers are encouraged to take care of their appearance.  In moderation, this attitude can encourage us to eat well, exercise, and stay clean and well-groomed.  These are things which will help us feel better about ourselves and be in a better state, mentally, physically, and vocally.

However, taken to extremes, this attitude can lead to all kinds of nasty things.  Crippling self-consciousness.  Obsessive calorie-counting.  Yo-yo dieting.  Grumbling about the "hot" singer who gets all the roles because of their looks.  Speculating that the overweight singer will never get work because they're "too big".  Where does it end?

I have to say, as a singer today, I really worry about the disproportionate emphasis which we put on our outer appearances.  It's really no wonder that this young mezzo got things backwards and asked Joyce DiDonato if she should dye her hair (and by the way, Joyce's response is awesome).  Of course it is good to take care of yourself and present yourself well.  But singers need lots of confidence - true confidence - to succeed.  And true confidence relies on much more than what you look like and how much you weigh.  If we place too much of our self-worth on what we look like, we're putting ourselves in a dangerous position. 

I should know.

My eating disorder was not sudden or dramatic.  I didn't starve myself to the point of crisis.  My parents never had to wheel my skeletal body into the hospital to be force-fed through tubes.  But rather, throughout the course of 4 or 5 years - most of my early twenties - I was addicted to a cycle of binging and purging and self-starvation.  It wasn't continuous.  There were periods lasting several months when I was eating "normally" and was convinced that I was "cured".  But something would always happen - a breakup, a bad mark, or some other perceived failure - to trigger a relapse.

Why was I bulimic?  I have thought about this a lot.  There were some contributing factors you could point at.  I am a perfectionist.  I love to punish myself for perceived shortcomings.  I tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality.  And of course, I have never had a healthy relationship with food.  I overate as a child and dieted as a teenager, and I basked in the praise when people noticed the weight loss.

I began binging and purging in my first year of university.  Looking at it one way, it would seem the whole thing started when my first boyfriend broke up with me.  But really, there was much more to it than that.  I was completely overwhelmed.  From being an over-achieving top student in a small-town high school, I'd been thrown into the unpredictable, competitive world of singing.  Suddenly studying hard would not guarantee me an A+.  I was up against talent and style and looks and gossip, and a million different opinions and criticisms flying about like poison arrows.  I looked around and felt - quite sharply - that I didn't measure up.

Everyone around me seemed so capable, so confident, and yet, no matter how hard I worked on my singing, it was never good enough.  I felt I had no control over it.  Either you were good or you weren't, and I clearly wasn't.

And so, in a twisted leap of logic, I started to control what I could control.  Maybe my voice wasn't as glorious as that other girl, but at least I could run further than her.  At least I could weigh less than her.  At least I could stop the calories from going into my body.

It became an addiction.  It became my way of coping, or not coping, with everything.  I felt that controlling my body was the answer to everything.  I felt that if I lost ten pounds everything would magically get better.  I placed all of my self-worth on the numbers that showed on the scale.  Ironically, the skinnier I was, the fatter I felt.

It is the most unhappy I have ever been in my life.

I wish I could tell you how one day I magically snapped out of it.  How someone said or did the right thing and then it ended.  But it wasn't that simple.  I went to a therapy group.  I left the therapy group.  I came back to the therapy group.  I took a year out of music college.  And after many recoveries and relapses it eventually faded away.

As I recovered from my bulimia and grew stronger, as I learned to accept and deal with who I was, I found that my singing improved dramatically.  I stopped punishing myself and pushing myself to impossible standards and I began to see myself grow.  I released myself from my self-imposed confines and I began to see what I was truly capable of achieving.

My eating disorder wasn't really about food or weight.  It was about avoiding emotions.  It was about hiding from myself.  But I believe it manifested itself this way because we live in a society that's obsessed with appearances.  And the most obvious thing, the easiest thing, was for me to look on the outside of myself instead of within.

The reason I'm sharing this story is that I'm concerned.  I'm concerned that as an insecure young singer under pressure, I found it easier to go on a diet than to address my own thoughts and emotions.  I'm concerned that other insecure young singers under pressure will do the same.  I'm not by any means trying to blame my eating disorder on the pressures of the singing industry.  But I do think it's worth our while to take a step back and examine the messages we're sending to ourselves and other singers about appearance and self-esteem.

As performers it's only natural to want to look as good as we sound on stage.  But to really look good, you have to feel good.  You have to have true confidence in who you are - not just the looks, but the voice, the heart, the whole package.  It might seem easier to focus on the outside, to control something visible and obvious like your weight. But if you don't begin with what's inside you - if you don't learn to develop your mind and your heart first - you may end up an empty shell.

So yes, we should try to look our best.  But the way we look should be the icing on the cake.  There are more important things we need to address to keep ourselves healthy, happy and whole.  Facing yourself, facing your emotions, learning about the world, growing up - these are all painfully difficult things to do, but also extremely important.  And in the end, that is what will shine from your eyes when you're singing.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing- very pertinent not only for singers but all women who work in performing arts! (And arguably men too... though perhaps to a lesser extent.)