But when a princess developed an eating disorder, I realized something wasn’t right.
Note: All names changed for privacy with permission.
Women are no strangers to the intense body standards placed on us by society. And this prejudice against the female form doesn’t stop in the “ordinary” world. Even the most magical theme park on earth was biased against those who couldn’t fit into a certain princess-like mold — including the girls they hired for the job.
The day before I started my year-long performing contract on a famous cruise line, I had a costume fitting in their warehouse for all my different shows. As I tried on each ensemble in every size — which only ran up to a 10 at this time in history — I’d far from fit any of them.
In the acting industry, and in general, it’s sad to say size matters — especially for women. If you’ve ever wondered where this twisted image of beauty originates from, take a look at an audition breakdown.
Most of them are quite specific about what they want, and it’s rarely someone beyond sample sizes. You grow a thick skin, or you get out, is the way the acting world sees it.
“You can’t be an actor and complain about what they’re asking for,” is an important, yet damaging rule for those who don’t fit in. It means we’ll take abuse for a gig.
I understood their solemn stance on “character integrity,” we all did. No matter how backward we found it. This knowledge is why, when the seamstress sighed, “looks like you’ll need some new costumes, then,” a little of the glitter rubbed off, yet, I remained unbothered because I had to be. I’d signed a contract.
Red Bull and Dry Shampoo: The Princess Diet
As an improv performer, my life turned out easy in the body department compared to some of the others contracted. Namely, the female mainstage performers and face characters or “friends of the princesses.”
After the mainstage casts’ boot camp in Canada, I met my roommate Janice. A “friend” of a certain Southern princess.
As I got to know her, I noticed, even in all the colorful European ports, she didn’t eat much outside of salad and coffee. With our grueling schedules, I didn’t blame her. So, I minded my business, until one day, I came into our cabin to find her crying. I sat beside her on the bottom bunk and let her tell me about her morning.
“They almost couldn’t zip my bodice,” she’d sniffed. “I’m in size ten. They don’t have any others. I could get unapproved for face and discharged from the ship.”
My friend Beth, the only plus-sized character performer told a similar story. She’d roomed with another princess, Kim, a green-eyed beauty with a healthy deposit of adorable baby fat.
Kim had added, with a sad laugh, according to Beth, she needed to go on a diet of “only Red Bull and dry shampoo.”
As performers, we realized our responsibility to portray a “believable” character. “Mold yourself to fit the image, not the other way around,” became our mantra. “Do whatever it takes,” became another.
The word sounds dramatic, but we spoke of survival a lot.
When there are rolling auditions and hundreds of girls on the ship alone waiting to take your spot, you’re dispensable. The world can tell you what you need to be when conforming is a rule. It kept us from leaving the ship at five AM with a trash bag at the next port fired or “unapproved.”
And some couldn’t handle the stress.
“What happened to the princess?”
One princess was a stunning ginger girl named Sally. With her girlish figure and a cherubic, round face, I couldn’t imagine a lovelier casting. Every few weeks, we’d cross paths for our show in the “Kid’s Club” together: The Royal Ball.
Like a pumpkin in a frumpy unisex suit, crown, and cape, I’d twirl and curtsy at her side, in awe. The children loved her. And we often had wealthy families who’d go on many cruises to see their favorite princess, Sally.
But one day, Sally got called into her supervisor’s office after a costume fitting in the zoo. Out of respect, I won’t say much beyond they wrote her up for struggling to lose weight. She received another citation a few weeks later.
Over five months of her eight-month contract, Sally dropped pound after pound. Often, she’d spend her free time in the small gym near the laundry galley instead of visiting the crew bar with friends. One day, after I came back from a contract break, Sally arrived for our ball, and I almost didn’t recognize her.
With a reassuring clap on the shoulder, I’d helped her tighten the tiny bodice she swam in before my entrance. She gave a weak smile as I tucked some chunks of red hair back into her wig cap, fixed her chipped lipstick. How her superiors allowed her to leave the zoo in this state is beyond me, but with our jobs on the line, we had no time to discuss concerns.
Out on the floor, one little girl who’d sailed and met Sally many times before pulled me aside as we played a game.
“What happened to the princess?” she’d asked, and my heart broke forever.
The next time I waited for Sally in the wings for our ball, another young woman arrived in her place. Fearing punishment, I didn’t ask questions, but word got around, regardless. They discharged Sally one morning at a port in Spain for “mental health” reasons.
Janice found Sally crying with a Hefty bag trying to withdraw cash for her surprise flight home from the ATM. Rather than offer Sally help, the company replaced her, like a retired wig instead of a young woman.
I will forever remember watching a beautiful princess lose her sense of self because her body wasn’t up to “princess standards”. And all over a too-tight dress. Character integrity aside, it will always be wrong.
This magical company did it’s best to cast a “Happily Ever After” hue and a little razzle-dazzle over the world. But peel back the pretty pink veil, and you’d notice an ugly, warped vision of beauty the same as any other. Their “princess approval” turned out to be another way to put women and their bodies down, simple as that.
Maybe someday, companies like these will stop pretending to spread love. Then, they’ll spare some of their copious pixie dust, and make some real, inclusive changes. But until then, we must remember the problem isn’t with women or our bodies. And we’re not disposable for our dress sizes.
If princesses existed, I’d like to think some of them would struggle to get into those bodices, too.