Making an Appearance: Beauty Demands and Performance Work

Trigger warning: this post discusses issue related to body-image and includes references to disordered eating.

Earlier this year, Game of Thrones and Bodyguard actor, Richard Madden, criticised the "unrealistic" appearance demands facing performers. He reported having had "numerous jobs where you're told to lose weight and get to the gym" and recounted doing the "barely eating, working-out-twice-a-day, no-carbing thing" ahead of filming certain scenes.

Madden is not alone in his concerns about the appearance expectations facing performers. Stars including Jennifer Lawrence, James Corden, and the late Carrie Fisher have all spoken out about appearance-pressures in the film industry.

But it's not just celebrities who experience these kinds of demands. The findings of the "Making an Appearance" research project highlighted the widespread nature of appearance-pressures facing people across the performance industries. 

Making an Appearance
"Making an Appearance" was a nine-month research collaboration between the Centre for Contemporary British Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London and the Women's Committee of performers' trade union, Equity. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship. The research was designed to explore the kinds of changes performers make to their appearance, both of their own volition and at the request of employers, in order to get work. It considered the ways in which performers' bodies are policed by industry gatekeepers and how performers respond to this policing. The study also examined how aspects of gender, race, age, and disability might impact on the expectations and experiences of appearance.

In April, we launched an online survey and conducted follow-up focus group and interview discussions to explore these issues. The findings highlight the pressures that many performers face in relation to appearance.

Appearance Pressures
Over three-quarters of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: I feel pressure to look a particular way in order to get work. In response to this pressure, performers reported making changes to their appearance to try and fit more closely the look that they believe an employer is seeking. For example, just 4% of respondents had never altered their appearance ahead of an audition or interview.

Nearly two thirds of respondents had been asked to make a change to their appearance for work. Some of these changes were relatively superficial and involved trying to look more like the character they were portraying. For example, of those respondents who had been asked to make an alteration, making a change to hairstyle was by far the most common request (67%), followed by dyeing hair (45%). In other cases, the requested change was related to conforming to a general aesthetic expected of performers or an accepted beauty standard. For example, one third of those who had been asked to make a change to their appearance had been asked to lose weight.

The nature of appearance expectations and beauty demands varied depending on aspects of identity including gender, race, age, and disability. For example, two thirds of minority ethnic respondents felt that their race intensifies pressure on appearance, while nearly three-quarters female-identifying and non-binary respondents felt their gender intensifies pressure on appearance. However, one particular issue cut across all these demographics: weight, dress-size, and body-shape.

Weighty Matters
Concern about weight and body-size was a recurring issues in the responses. Half of respondents had tried to lose weight in the run-up to an audition or interview and reported using crash diets, dehydration, laxatives, and bulimia as methods to try and change the shape and size of their body.

Body-shaming was a common experience for many respondents, with just over half reporting that they had received criticism of their appearance from someone in the industry. Worryingly, responses suggest that such experiences can have enduring consequences for performers, as three quarters of those who had received negative comments reported that the experience had made them feel differently about their body.

The nature of this criticism varied, but a significant amount of it related to weight, dress-size, and body-shape. Responses painted a stark picture of body-image pressures in the industry:
"An agent told me the reason they weren't going to sign me was because I needed to lose weight, I told them I was a size 8 and they didn't believe me."

Respondents suggested that their impression of their appearance is shaped by their performance work:
"I'm a size 10-12 and I feel fat. I'll go into castings and I'm like 'oh my god, I'm an elephant compared to all these other people'. But it's just because there's this pressure on people to- I don't know why though, we just feel this pressure that we've got to be small to be seen as, you know, that's what actresses are. They're thin."

Numerous responses suggested that weight, dress-size and body shape are inherently related to employability:
"On more than one occasion I've been told that I'd be great for the part if I were thinner."

The ides that to be "castable" means being thin was raised by many respondents:
"My agent and casting directors have criticised my size/build and have encouraged me to lose weight to make me more castable."

These aspects of appearance were also seen to impact on the type of roles in which a performer can be cast:
"I managed to lose weight and the roles I then played changed massively as a consequence, i.e. I was then given storylines with sex scenes and affairs."

The idea that certain roles can only be played by thin performers was raised by many respondents:
"I have been told that due to my size (an average 14 dress size) I cannot expect to play lead roles, romantic roles, and have been excluded from casting calls that require 'beautiful' or 'attractive' actors."

This issue of casting has consequences for both the industry and wider society. On the one hand, appearance-pressures can have significant consequences for performers' wellbeing and mental health:
"[there is] a lot of emotional cost in maintaining appearances and worrying about 'how I should look' and things like that and then telling myself off for that because I look how I look."

On the other hand, defining beauty by dress-size and restricting plot-lines by appearance contributes to how we imaging ourselves and our society. As one interviewee reflected:
"I don't often get cast as a romantic lead which I think is a lot to do with the way I look. And that's quite a hurtful stereotype to perpetuate, not just for me, but for audiences watching things. If you never see yourself represented in a variety of ways, as being able to be whatever you want. If you never see your body-type or similar appearance to you being able to be a variety of things then it's going to lower your self-esteem."

Reserving roles that command love and respect for the best-looking performers has potentially far-reaching consequences and risks feeding the lookism already inherent in society.

Looking Ahead
An actor's appearance generates meaning in performance and a large number of respondents suggested that they see appearance-related work as integral to their job. However, respondents also suggest that greater recognition of the labour inherent in maintaining a "castable" appearance is needed. The time, money and effort involved in making an appearance is often substantial, but largely unacknowledged. Furthermore, thinking more creatively about what might constitute a "castable" appearance could have benefits both within and beyond the performance industries.

You can follow the "Making an Appearance" project on Twitter @MakeAppearance and read the report of our findings here. 

Sara Reimers (Royal Holloway, University of London) is an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British Theatre.  Her Fellowship, which is a partnership with the Women’s Committee of Equity, explores actors’ experiences of aesthetic labour and the pressures they face in relation to their appearance.  This project builds on her AHRC-funded PhD research, which examined casting and the construction of femininity in contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s plays. 


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