Play bares all to tackle issue of body image

Dalhousie Women’s Centre and Dalhousie Theatre Society’s first collaboration was an intimate one

Janel Heighton and Josh Hood each went through a different process to accept their bodies as they are today. (Photo: Amy Crofts)

Four actors with the Dalhousie Theatre Society had to face their fears when they performed the monologue series "In Their Own Image" last weekend.

"The idea of getting on stage naked terrified me to my core," said Rebecca, a fifth-year theatre student at Dal, who wasn't comfortable having her last name published.

The performance showcased how each actor sees themselves as opposed to how the world sees them.

During the first act, the actors dressed casually and spoke about their clothing choices. In the second act, they dressed in outfits they wouldn't normally wear but were significant to them.

One performer wore a business suit that made him feel like a child dressing up in his father's work attire. Another performer wore a belt she earned in martial arts, a significant accomplishment in her life.

It wasn't until the last two acts did all actors, two males and two females, strip down to their most vulnerable.

Rebecca found that being naked on stage created a different relationship between actor and audience.

"People have been meeting our eyes, making eye contact," she said. "I feel like the audience saw me as a person more than a performer."

In the backroom of the Plan B retail co-op on Gottingen Street, performers delivered their personally prepared monologues to about 20 audience members each night. The production ran for three nights.

"The actors were really talking to us, as opposed to a giant auditorium. We got more involved with the stories and connected to the actors that way," said Elizabeth McGiffin, a first-year social work student at Dal who attended the performance. "I got a lot more out of it than I expected."

Playing it out

The monologue series was the brainchild of 21-year-old Dal student Josh Hood during a gender and women's studies class.

"It was just an off-hand comment [during class]. A large proportion of people were unhappy with their body and their appearance," he said. "And I, having always been comfortable and happy with how I look, thought that was a very sad thing."

Hood was volunteering at the Dalhousie Women's Centre as part of an experiential learning component to one of his classes. In September, he approached Hayley Gray, advocacy and outreach co-ordinator for the centre, about a producing a series of monologues.

Coinciding with the "In Their Own Image" performances, the centre launched a discussion about body acceptance last week. The discussions, entitled "Sharing the Struggle," will continue through February.

"We talk about the 'double shame' [of body image], feeling ashamed of your body as well as feeling ashamed of being ashamed," said Gray.

Digging deeper

For Dal student Janel Heighton, taking off her clothes in front of an audience wasn't even the hardest step. Although she is satisfied with who she is now, the production made her confront feelings she thought she had buried in the past.

"I was definitely going back into my past and reliving my suicide attempts [when I was 15]," said 19-year-old Heighton. "It was very hard to talk about it but I'm so glad it was something that I was able to bring to light."

Rebecca on the other hand, has not come to terms with her body yet.  She has been on diets since the age of eight.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in April 2011, attitudes toward body image change significantly during puberty. Perspectives about body image and ideal weight formed at an elementary school age affect the development of eating disorders, weight issues, and self-concept later in life.

For Heighton, the performance was "life-changing."

"It was very energizing once I got comfortable with the idea of being naked in front of a group of strangers and I loved it once I got into it," she said.

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