This came to me in the form of a facebook note last year and it seriously changed my life. I had already been a weight watcher for about 2 months, but this really solidified how important it was to stick with it and how important it is to love your self and your body.
I think every actor should read this–especially if they are in their senior year at a conservatory program. I probably would have been a lot healthier and happier if I’d had this kind of advice.
By Sarah Knowlton
For me, it is just a number, but it’s also much more. It’s a way to stay in touch with reality. It’s freedom from dizzying body dysmorphia. It’s my way of stepping out of the river of media distortions of what a woman should look like. It’s my touchstone to what “health” actually means.
I had no weight problems until my mid 20’s: was actually naturally very slim, if by natural you mean smoking as many as 2 packs of cigarettes a day from the age of 15. Even before I quit smoking at 30, the weight was sneaking up on me. Slimfast brought it down, and then it went back up. Atkins brought it down; afterwards it went up further than before. There was never an approach that addressed the problem of being an animal that has to eat several times a day (O to be a snake and swallow one big rodent a month!)
Meantime, the slings and arrows of being an actress in the late 20th and early 21st centuries were wreaking their particular, subtle havoc on my psyche. While on the coffee/cigarettes/workout-4-or-5-hours-a-day/7 days-a-week diet, I was on a sitcom that sent me to a nutritionist to lose weight. I was a size 2. They wrote jokes in the script about my character being fat. I’m not kidding. I was “released from my contract” (fired) after the first season, assured I was a wonderful actress, “just not what the show needed at the time.” I was convinced I was fired for being too big. That and I wasn’t very good on the show, which, truth be told, I wasn’t. (Then again, if they give you a bent frisbee, it doesn’t matter how good you throw it.) Years later I found out it was because the head of the network wanted a blonde on the show. Also, due to my height, it was harder for them to frame me in a two shot with the star than the blonde they replaced me with. Welcome to Hollyweird.
ANYway… The following years had their ups and downs. On more than one occasion an agent asked me to lose weight. That’s always a fun conversation. Then I got a series of corseted jobs. Corsets are wonderful things, aside from their history as tools of suppression and physical torture of women. Corsets used in theater are fairly comfortable, and I made a very happy, sexy and employable truce with my bigger (not biggest, that was yet to come) self. I did a musical spoof of film-noir as a Jessica Rabbit-esque vamp, a Shaw play, a Gershwin musical, and one of Lear’s daughters; all fabulously corseted, beautifully dressed, unapologetically womanly characters that were all deliciously larger-than-life. I felt like a stallion straining against its saddle. Only I think stallions are male. But you get the idea: strong, sexual, potent, wild, barely tamed, and full of Life with a capital L.
Somehow, I went from bigger to biggest. I knew I was gaining (didn’t own a scale), but I kept booking jobs. By this time I was back in L.A., and had found my niche as the youngest, prettiest, thinnest of all the old, ugly, fat actresses. But I started to feel bad: tired and out of breath. I noticed myself looking not as cute in pictures, seeing my knees getting a little knocked, and being treated as increasingly invisible by men and thin women (It’s true: White men and skinny bitches of all races see right through you when you’re zaftig. Assholes.) A friend challenged me to go vegan and train for the L.A. Marathon with her. I took her up on it.
Training for my first marathon, believe it or not, was when I got to my highest weight. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon: for some godforsaken reason the first marathon often adds weight (WTF!!) I was also carb-loading pretty much every day, doing the pasta/rice/bread approach to veganism rather than the whole fruits and vegetables route. And I got big. I carried 185 lbs that first 26.2 miles. Only then, after I’d found the discipline of running, was I ready to face the discipline required to learn how to eat.
Thus began my life in Weight Watchers. I hit it. Hard. Never looked back, never faltered, did it like I quit smoking: once and for good. Practiced portion control. Wrote down everything I ate, diligently. Discovered these things called fruits and vegetables (They’re on the side of the supermarket, not in the aisles. They’re the things with no packaging. I know; it’s weird.) Lost 20 lbs my first 3 months, 20 more over the next 5. That got me to my healthy weight goal. But I live in Kookytown, Hollywood, and once you start getting a lot of praise, attention and positive re-enforcement for losing, it’s hard to stop.
I went down another 10 -12 lbs. I was barely within Weight Watchers healthy weight guidelines for my age and height. I kept running, completing 6 more marathons and 6 half-marathons, but I also kept restricting: eating the number of points required to keep losing, not the amount needed to maintain an even weight. Then I got a terrible intestinal virus one weekend (being underweight can weaken your immune system: Who knew?) and dropped 7 lbs in 3 days, bringing me under the WW minimum weight for me. I had my first audition for Desperate Housewives that Monday, but was too sick to go. I was finally thin enough to be on Desperate Housewives, but was too weak to make it to the audition. I recovered from that illness, and put a little weight back on. But the bookings just … stopped. I had my slowest professional year to date in 2008. How could this be? I’m Hollywood skinny, in Hollywood! I’m the weight I was when they sent me to a nutritionist in ‘97!! Something was wrong: I wasn’t I getting what I wanted!!!
The answer is, I’m 12 years older than I was in ‘97. Not that I necessarily looked healthy then. But the face changes with time, skin has less elasticity, and what may have been cute at one age can leave a girl looking like Skeletor at another. Catherine Deneuve said it best: “There comes a point in every woman’s life when she has to choose between her face, and her ass.” I had reached that point. I got up my courage to ask my agents if they thought I should gain some weight, and half of them answered “yes” so fast it was as if they’d been praying for me to ask. One said I used to stand out because I looked like a real person: now I just looked like everybody else out here. Others thought I was out of the character actress type, but not able to be competitive in the leading lady type. My mom asked me which one I wanted to be: my response was “I want to be the one that books jobs again.” I’m kind of whorish that way.
So I started to deliberately gain. And after a weekend in San Francisco of sundaes, french toast, and soup served in bowls made out of bread, I went to my Weight Watchers leader and asked for help. And she gave me a strategy to put some weight back on exactly the same way I’d taken it off: slowly, methodically, mindfully, and nutritiously. And the scale became the thing that would tell me how I was doing. If I could pull this off, I could lose and gain deliberately, free of emotion and judgment, healthily, in control, non-secretively, supported, and sanely. Moderation: the final frontier. There I might find freedom from fear of food.
After 15 years of being told to lose weight and stay skinny, gaining isn’t as easy as I would have thought. Even new habits die hard, it turns out. I realize not a lot of people are going to want to listen to me complain about this. An actress friend told me it was “her dream” to have her agents tell her to gain weight. My response to that is whether they’re telling you to lose or gain, it’s not good because it means something’s not right and you’re not making them or yourself any money. I’m still running ‘cause I love it, and they give you medals. Now I’m learning to eat like a runner instead of like a Hollywood whacktress.
So I put 5 lbs. on. And I kept it on for a month. And I booked a Desperate Housewives episode. My agents joked that all I had to do was gain 5 lbs and look what happened! That could be true. It could be coincidence. I find this business maddeningly random. But I have to believe them when they say my face looks better when my ass isn’t as small as I can possibly make it without surgery. They even said I could gain another 5. Maybe I will, maybe not. I don’t know yet what my ideal fighting weight is going to be. It’ll probably keep changing as time keeps passing, I keep ageing, and hopefully keep growing as an actress.
What I do know is every Tuesday I can go step on the same scale and find out what is really going on with my body, ‘cause I can’t tell on my own what reality is. At my heaviest and most unhealthy, I was back in a corset doing “Sunday in the Park with George,” feeling powerful and sexy (when i wasn’t struggling to catch my breath.) At my Desperate Housewives fitting, while the costume designer was telling me how slim and fabulous I looked in the tightest, lowest-waisted pair of jeans I’ve ever worn, all I felt and saw was fat. I can’t see reality. But the scale at my Weight Watchers meeting shows me what my healthy body “looks like” numerically. Not my body-as-others-see-it, not my body-as-a-marketing-tool, not my wildly distorted perceptions of my body. It looks how it looks, and it does what it does for me. The number on the scale makes me aware of what I’m doing for it. And I get to choose what I’m going to do for it from one week to the next, one gig to the next, one year to the next. And that’s pretty invaluable.
Plus I got to be on Desperate Housewives.