Body positivity on film sets

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Note: I have chosen to not include images of people’s bodies in this article. People of all body types deserve a safe, supportive place in the film industry, and I don’t want this article to feel triggering or exclusive in any way.

Today I want to share about something that’s very near and dear to my heart; body positivity in film. By that, I don’t mean I am going to make you a list of body positive movies to watch. Instead, I’m going to be talking specifically about how to cultivate a culture of body positivity on film sets. The film industry has a lot of problems, and one of them is the way that it scrutinizes, monitors, and critiques people’s bodies. This is especially prevalent for actors, who are often told they are too large for roles, are asked to gain or lose weight to land a part, or generally have their bodies discussed and criticized by industry professionals and the media. 

You don’t have the power to change the way the media talks about bodies. You don’t even have the power to change the way your loved ones talk about bodies. But you have the power to cultivate a spirit of body positivity on film sets, especially if you’re an indie filmmaker pulling together your own projects. Here are some ideas for how you can get started.

Work on yourself first.

Before you can influence others, you first have to work on your own thoughts. It’s very common for people to scrutinize and critique their own bodies and those of others, and while that’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s something to work on. There’s a lot of learning and unlearning that comes with becoming more body positive, and it’s all tied up in oppressive systems like white supremacy and patriarchy. It’s heavy stuff, and it’s more than okay if this process takes you a long time… like, even your whole life. I’m not saying you have to be perfectly healed in order to bring a culture of body positivity to film sets, but you need to at least be on the journey. 

Since working on body positivity is such a long process, don’t try to do everything at once. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I have a few ideas of ways you can begin the process, but don’t feel like you have to do everything on this list at once. It might just overwhelm you, especially if this is something you really struggle with. Here are a few quick ideas:

  • Follow a few body positive creators on social media, like Megan Crabbe and Maggie McGill. These are just my two go-tos, but there are lots of amazing creators out there who are sharing really good information.
  • Learn a little more about fat liberation and work on unlearning fatphobic ways of thinking. I really love Aubrey Gordon’s work, and she co-hosts a podcast called Maintenance Phase that unpacks a lot of things about diet culture, fatphobia, and related topics. Either following her on Instagram or listening to a few episodes of the podcast will give you a lot of good information.
  • Follow people on social media who have a variety of body types. They don’t need to be posting specifically about body positivity or bodies in general; just seeing normal people living their normal lives in their normal bodies will be helpful on your body positivity journey. We’re so used to seeing specific body types, even now that plus-sized models are featured in more advertising campaigns; a lot of plus-sized models have a very specific body type, and there are all kinds of people in the world that you should be exposed to.

Treat people with respect.

Of course, I assume you strive to treat all people with respect, regardless of if you’re trying to cultivate body positivity on film sets or not. But there are a few things you can do that show respect in a professional environment that you might not have thought of.

  • Don’t comment on people’s bodies. Yes, even actors, yes, even when it feels relevant. Don’t even give people compliments on their bodies; if someone has lost weight, don’t say a thing. If someone has gained weight, keep that observation to yourself. If a costume or lighting is unflattering to someone (the concept of ‘unflattering’ is something we could unpack as well) just quietly change it or decide to let it go without including them in your thought process. Never tease someone about their appearance, even if you feel it’s really clear you’re joking.
  • Don’t comment on your own body. Maybe you have to be on camera and you’re feeling self conscious. Of course, that’s totally normal and okay to talk about, but don’t put yourself down or make negative comments about yourself. Or, on the flip side, maybe you’re feeling really confident about yourself and how your body looks. While it’s always good to talk yourself up, don’t make it about how your body looks. That has the potential to make other people feel uncomfortable or bad about themselves.
  • Ask people about their boundaries. This could mean checking in before touching someone, even if you’re just going to mic them up, or find out what language they want you to use to refer to them. What sounds like a compliment to you might feel uncomfortable for them, especially when you factor in issues like body confidence and gender identity. If you don’t know how someone feels about certain words, just ask!
  • Find out what types of costumes work for your actors before you get to set. Find out what makes them feel confident and comfortable (physically and emotionally) before they get to set so you’re not springing anything on them at the last minute. Obviously you have a vision in mind for the costumes, but do your best to make them something your actor is completely comfortable with. Not only is it respectful, it will enable them to do their best work.

Create a body positive culture

If you’ve done the inner work, and you’re working on treating yourself and others with respect, here are some other things you can do to create a culture of body positivity on film sets.

  • Create a code of conduct. You can–and should–put in writing that you will never ask actors to lose weight, you’ll never body shame on your cast and crew, you’ll put accommodations in place for people who need them, and you can even make commitments to not use fat suits or not write body shaming jokes into your work. 
  • Hire people with a wide range of looks. For a lot of screenwriters, when we’re writing, we’re picturing a very specific person. There’s no problem with that, but when we let it affect casting decisions, and we only hire people with a specific “look,” it can become discriminatory. Make sure you–and your other producers–are opening to hiring actors with a wide range of body types. 
  • Talk to your cast and crew about your commitments. Be up front with them that you will never criticize their appearance and make it clear that you will advocate for them if anything uncomfortable happens on set. Being a go-to person for problems like this is part of creating an ethical on-set environment.
  • Find ways to encourage your actors in ways that have nothing to do with their appearance. Let them know how good their performance is, tell them you appreciate the energy they’re bringing to set. Actors are in a vulnerable position where they’re being looked at very intensely for much of the time on set, so finding ways to let them know you value them beyond their appearance. No one likes to be treated like set dressing.
  • If you’re filming an especially intimate scene, clear all non-essential personnel from the set and make sure no one is watching scenes on the monitors if they don’t need to be. Remember that intimate scenes are vulnerable and can feel overwhelming or scary, especially if the actors are having to show more of their body than usual. Treat them with respect and give them as much privacy as possible.

What would you add to this list? How do you personally work to cultivate body positivity on film sets, and in your life as a filmmaker? For more ethical filmmaking ideas, check out our free e-book, The Mindful Maker.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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