"Fat has become the ultimate anti-feminist issue," writes Sara Keating in her piece about fighting objectification through theater. The banishment of fat, and the pursuit of thin, is the subject of Skin and Blisters.
Skin and Blisters is a new play by Audrey O'Reilly, for Team Theatre, Ireland's leading theater-in-education company. The goal of the production is to open dialogue about weight, perfectionism, and the pressures to be thin. It is aimed at girls 12-15 and features a 13-year-old protagonist named Ella, who suffers from an eating disorder. Ella starves herself in attempts to create an ideal identity; she uses food not only to shape her body, but to provide her life with form and structure. She comes to believe that "you can bluff rich, pretty, popular; you can bluff anything except thin" (a sentiment that brings to mind Kate Moss's twisted dictum "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels") and she embraces the quest for a smaller body with fervor. Thin becomes her identity, and fat the enemy.
Keating argues that the strength of the play lies in the willingness to explore the various issues that fuse together to cause Ella's disorder. O'Reilly may reference the media through the sets and the scene, but they are not the main culprit. Ella has been influenced by her sister, her friends, her desire to separate herself from her parents, and the painful social hierarchies of junior high school. Although there are glossy pictures of actors and actresses lining the walls of the pink set, they didn't do this to her. Ella is doing it to herself.
While Skin and Blisters may have certain theatrical merits (an earlier review, also by Keating, suggests that it does indeed have some), its purpose is to educate. Team's drama-in-education program provides teachers with resource material, information that is distributed after the play has finished. Students are encouraged to talk about what they have just seen, what they've learned from Ella and their supplemental materials. Keating explains:
The educational aspects engage with teenage interests too, through a potted history of beauty and fashion. Students examine how fashion has manipulated women through the centuries, literally shaping the way they see themselves. They learn how, in the 1800s, corsets imposed the hourglass figure and internal problems on women, whose lungs were often constricted to the point of fainting; or how vinegar and cat dung dissolved the hairlines of the social elites (the "highbrows"); or how leeches and lead helped women achieve pale complexions, with an order of blood loss or poisoning on the side. If these measures now seem absurd, so, in the future, will contemporary trends such as injecting dangerous bacteria and cow fat into lips and cheeks, painting our bodies orange, or binding our feet in perilous high heels.
The workshops aim to not only talk about fat vs. thin, but also the more general issues that surround our bodies. Fittingly, Keating begins and ends her discussion with quotes by Susie Orbach - first with Fat is a Feminist Issue and finally with a piece from her newest book, Bodies. The connection is obvious - Orbach is working against the same kind of obsessive culture of perfected physicality that nearly destroys Ella - but it also underscores how difficult these concepts can be for young girls. We are urged to "re-corporealise" our bodies, an idea that many 12-15 year-old girls will probably struggle with (hell, I'm not even quite sure how to re-imagine my body). The beauty ideal has become so pervasive, and also so often analyzed and decried, that even as a teen I felt deaf to the discussion, worn out by conflicting messages. O'Reilly's play aims to throw some new life into the message, waking girls to a message they've surely heard before through the use of a new medium. Keating criticizes O'Reilly's occasional use of shock tactics in Skin and Blisters, but maybe the entire issue could use a little jolt.
Image via Irish Theater Magazine