So, how do you feel about your body? This is one of the questions posed by Embodi(ED), an upcoming documentary theater and dance piece about body image and eating disorders. The play is written and performed by Girl Be Heard, a collaborative theater ensemble that aims to empower young women to tell their own stories, and the young women behind it intend to break the silence around eating disorders and the system that drives them. Ashley Marinaccio, director of Embodi(ED) and cofounder of Girl Be Heard, recently shared her thoughts with The Indypendent.
Alina Mogilyanskaya: What is Embodi(ED) about?
Ashley Marinaccio: There’s a lot of shame and stigma attached to eating disorders and negative body image, and we want to break the silence. We also really want to show audiences that they’re not broken, rather, they’re part of a system that is working to keep them feeling broken.
Capitalism, body image and the diet industry are deeply interrelated. The capitalistic drive to make money perpetuates the multibillion diet industry — there’s a lot of money in making people feel inferior, making people feel less than, making people keep buying makeup, diet pills, workout regimens.
Girl Be Heard is a collaborative theater-writing project. What is your process like?
The girls, who are all in their teens and early twenties, will come in and bring a piece that they’ve written related to the topic. And we listen to all the pieces in conversation with each other and see what comes up. Then we bring all the girls together and start the process of building a show. We ask them at the beginning, what questions do you want this show to raise or answer, what do you want to say with this work? Then it goes from there.
What are some of the most poignant stories that the girls have written about in their plays?
There’s a piece about a young woman who at 8 years old was told not to eat doughnuts because they’ll make her fat. We have another piece about a young girl whose parents would only buy her jeans up to a certain size — with the thinking being that if she goes over that size she’ll be “big.” They don’t want to buy her “fat girl” jeans. Then we have a piece about a woman whose father has been taking her to see doctors about her weight from a young age. When she was 12, he found a doctor who would do a tummy tuck on her. The piece is about how she worked really hard all her life to try and make her father love her and be proud of her by being skinny.
I imagine there are common threads in the young women’s experiences of how their bodies are policed by society. How have these come up?
The girls’ perception of the female ideal is that it’s tall, thin and white, with large breasts. It’s what’s been shoved down peoples’ throats.
We talk a lot about race and whitewashing. Race is connected to everything that we do because race is a part of everyone’s story, everyone’s affected by the way that our country has been built on racism. Racism is inherent to the diet and beauty industries and their standards are made through whiteness. They’re driving people to try to be as white as possible, in their body shape, skin, hair.
All this work we’re doing has a feminist lens to it, and at the same time, it’s not just about women. The girls did lots of interviews with people of all gender identities and the show explores the struggle across the board. Everyone has a different relationship to their body, and everyone comes in with a lived experience of loving and hating their bodies at different moments. Everyone’s on a journey to finding love and peace with it, everyone’s still in process.
You’ve struggled with body image and eating disorders yourself. What has that been like for you?
Where do I begin? I used to dance, and I struggled for years because I was a dancer and I had breasts and big hips. I was pressured to lose weight and there was a stigma around my body because, you know, I just wasn’t thin. I think I internalized that and started equating body and eating with worthiness. So when something hard would happen, I would starve myself, or binge and purge.
These days, it’s still a struggle. It’s still something that I really have to be mindful of. Plus, here I am, the cofounder and artistic director of this feminist political organization. But yet I am entirely consumed and crushed at moments by an eating disorder. My experience has been that a lot of people look to me and are like, how did you get through it? And I think they’re disappointed when I say, you know, I don’t know if I ever did.
How do you reconcile that tension between body image and feminist and progressive politics?
I grapple with it. There’s an ideal, I think, on the left about what it means to be an activist. For me at least, that ideal includes being proud of and loving who you are, and I find that to be antithetical to people’s real struggles with body image. How do you even start the conversation about that tension among progressives, where are the spaces to have it?
As you mentioned, Girl Be Heard and this play, Embodi(ED), both have strong feminist underpinnings. Can you talk about how your engagement with feminist ideas happens in Girl Be Heard space?
We are questioning our participation in a very specific system. There’s a certain amount of the game that you have to play in order to be successful or even to just function in our society. And oftentimes it conflicts with what your politics may be, and I think the body image work really brings that to light and then raises the question of what can we do about it.
We talk a lot about what the process is of creating a space to discuss this. Just that space in and of itself. I think for the performers, what they’re getting out of this is that they’ve been able to think critically about these questions of body image, and read, process, write and do their own work around their relationship with their body, and then connect that back with how society views the body.
Embodi(ED) will run February 11–21 at HERE. For more information and tickets, see girlbeheard.org.