The Word Cloud of Body Shame
Thank you, again, to everyone who shared their stories and contributed to this graphic.
So . . . I had an idea to make a word cloud from body shaming quotes my colleagues and I have received in our careers as a graphic for a completely different blog post. I requested input on my Facebook wall and from the ladies of Opera Diva Dress Collection.
The response was overwhelming. I had over 200 replies in less than 24 hours. By the time I finished transcribing them, I had closer to 300, and comments are still being added.
While was I was thrilled at how many of my colleagues responded, I was not prepared for how intense and emotional the thread would be. Instead of using the graphic for it's original purpose, I need reflect on the process of creating it and why I think it's so important.
I thought I was prepared for the comments that would come in. I've been around long enough that I'm familiar with the ridiculous, run of the mill outfit shaming and body shaming critiques that literally every singer I know - male or female - has received at some point.
I was wrong. Seeing even the most predictable comments all in one place, constantly repeated, was staggering. The nonchalant manner in which so many hyperbolic statements were passed off as irrefutable fact was discouraging. The number of singers who were told to stop singing because of their looks and the multiple incidences of performers losing competitions because someone didn't like their clothes was infuriating.
And the posts from singers who were called out and shamed in front of their peers, the comments that crossed a line from inappropriate to downright cruel, the digs at pregnant women, the flat-out racist statements, the accounts of abusive behavior directed at singers in an attempt to micromanage their bodies, the amount of sexual harassment, the objectification passed of as "help" hurt my heart.
As I started to re-read and transcribe the responses, though - and as posters began to comment in solidarity and support of each other - I was able to scrape my jaw off the floor and appreciate the many valuable lessons we could all stand to learn from this experiment:
Body shaming happens to all of us. It happens to some of us more than others, and some comments are more hurtful than others, but I challenge you to find a singer who has never been shamed for their appearance.
We can't win. I know I've listed it second, but let's call this "The Badass Soprano's 3rd Law of Body Shaming" - for every perceived physical "flaw" for which a singer is criticized, another singer will be criticized for the equal and opposite "flaw." For every post about being too fat, there was a post about being too thin. For every post about being too short, there was a post about being too tall. For every post from a singer who was told to be sexier, there was a post from a singer who was told they looked like a sex-worker (seriously! I can't make this stuff up!). To top it off, some singers had been given opposite advice when their look changed and/or conflicting advice from different sources.
We can find support in our community. Yes, some of the shaming directed at us comes from our peers and colleagues, as well as from teachers, coaches, directors, conductors and adjudicators. But so many more of us are sympathetic, empathetic, and horrified at what our peers have gone through.
"Compliments" are not always positive. While it may seem nice to say someone has a pretty face or is dressed perfectly for an audition, seemingly complimentary comments like that can have a blatantly negative subtext and can be extremely hurtful. Even in their best light, they draw attention away from our voices and onto our appearances, indicating that we are valued for our looks more than for our skills.
It is always ok to stand up for yourself. Many of us who didn't say anything to the shamers wish we had, and I don't recall anyone posting that they had regretted standing up for themselves in the face of inappropriate conduct. Cruel and hurtful comments directed at our appearance are never appropriate. There is nothing wrong with politely but sternly pointing it out when someone's comments and/or behavior are uncalled for.
It is always ok to take care of yourself. I cannot overemphasize the importance of self-care, especially in the face of extremely stressful and toxic situations. Our feelings are valid, even when we can't clearly articulate them. It is important that we not only learn what we need to do to care for ourselves, but that we do it.
Another extremely important topic that came up in the course of this discussion was how to raise valid concerns without shaming each other. While it's a fine line between voicing a concern and body shaming, I believe it is entirely possible to give constructive feedback on someone's appearance. There are, however, several factors to consider before commenting:
Did they ask for your opinion? If someone asks a direct question, they deserve a direct answer. We all want an honest opinion sometimes.
Is it in your professional purview to comment? In certain professional settings, it may be part of our job to provide feedback on the visual aspects of performing. If it's in our job-description, of course, we have to do it. But we must take care to be constructive in our critiques and make sure our comments are directed only toward those whose job it is to address the given concerns.
Is your concern objectively true? Could another reasonable person see things differently? We are all entitled to have our preferences, but we are not entitled to shame others when they don't suit our preferences. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We may find someone's outfit, or even their body a distraction, but that's just our own perception; someone else may have the opposite reaction to the same singer. Differing views deserve equal consideration. We can have our opinions, but if we absolutely must share them, we should take care not to present them as objective facts.
Can you give your concern a context? While there are certainly some aesthetics that we culturally promote as preferable, that doesn't make the aesthetics any less subjective; it just makes them fashionable. It's good for singers to be aware of the cultural context in which our appearance will be judged, but it's important to place the onus for that judgement on the cultural context, and not on the singer's body or clothes. While we may find ourselves "punished" for failing to adhere to a cultural beauty standard, it is important to be clear that we are not actually to blame.
Is your concern actually about appearance? Are you sure? Can you find a way to comment that is centered on how your concern affects on the singer's voice instead of how it affects their looks? While our initial reaction to a singer's appearance may be that there is a a flaw in their visual package , there is often an underlying vocal concern that is more to the point and more appropriate to address.
Can you offer help? Despite all the haters out there, many in our community are starting to speak out about the body shaming culture prevalent in opera and to create body positive resources to help singers look and feel their best. Suzanne Vinnik-Richards and Sara Duchovnay of Opera Diva Dress Collection are publishing a series of articles in conjunction with Schmopera; Barichunks blog (no, Google, I do not mean Barihunks) has some excellent body positive posts (and other insightful and fun-to-read takes on some of singers' favourite topics). Dr. Claudia Friedlander's blog and column in Classical Singer Magazine emphasize fitness and health for singers with focus on their vocal rather aesthetic benefits, and Dr. Friedlander offers fitness assessments for singers by appointment in New York City.
With this blog I'm striving to add my voice to the mix by posting helpful body-positive resources and opinion pieces that promote my belief in inclusiveness and diversity in the opera industry. I've also partnered with Opera Diva Dress Collection to start #divastyleootd as a way for singers to share their style and create a resource showcasing the myriad "appropriate" professional wardrobe options and the diversity of singers in our community. ODDC is sponsoring an Instagram contest for #divastyleootd and offering prizes for our 3 favorite posts during the month of September.
Finally, let me highlight topics that came up in this process that I believe should off-limits for comment:
Comments about someones race or ethnicity. There is no context in which comments on race or ethnicity are appropriate.
Critical comments about someone's daily appearance or wardrobe. As long as we attend to our hygiene and do not violate any dress-code standards for a given situation, how we choose to present ourselves is no one's business but our own. In the event that someone's hygiene is in question or if their wardrobe is inappropriate for a professional setting, there are usually procedures for addressing these concerns that do not involve calling them out or making an uninvited "suggestion."
Comments about someone's weight. Weight is a highly personal and sensitive subject for most of us. We cannot tell someone's level of health or fitness just by looking at them. We also cannot tell if our comments will be a trigger to someone recovering from disordered eating or if someone's weight fluctuation is the result of medication, illness, injury, or other stressful life event. We should never assume that even "positive" comments about weight will be internalized as such.
And when in doubt: ask, don't tell. In the event that we feel a situation necessitates a comment on someone's appearance, we should find a private moment to ask them about their situation, rather than make assumptions about what they can or cannot change.
I am of the opinion, and have stated before, that we singers should be judged on our skills, not on our looks. I know that there are those who do not share my view, and I believe that is their prerogative. But can we all agree that body shaming is not a constructive way to improve our industry?