Marissa Jaret Winokur’s powerful essay on being defined as ‘plus size’

Marissa Jaret Winokur (who blew us away as the original Tracy Turnblad on Broadway and rocked our world on Dancing With The Stars) recently wrote a piece for xoJane (later published in Time’s “Ideas” section) entitled “I’ve Won A Tony But I Still Get Announced As The Plus-Size Dancer.”

In the piece, she tells us how she never really saw herself as plus-sized until she starred as Tracy Turnblad on Broadway and all of a sudden newscasters were referring to her as a “plus-size role model” and fans at the stage door were telling her  “You make me feel so good. You give me hope that I can be an actress when I grow up. We look like sisters. I can’t stop smiling. I cried throughout the whole show. You are my hero.”

As proud as Winokur was to be a role model, she had mixed feeling about being assigned the “plus-size label.” After all, when the contestants were being announced on Dancing with the Stars, others were announced as “The Olympic Gold Medalist, The Football Star, The Oscar Winner.” whereas Winokur was announced not as “the Tony-Award Winning Actress” but “the Plus-Size Dancer.” Winokur was sick and tired of her weight mattering more than her accomplishments.

So she went on a diet that she describes as “…the crazy diet where you work out 6 hours a day and eat under 1,200 calories every day: no cheat day, no break, no joke!” On the diet she ended up losing sixty pounds. Here’s how she describes the aftermath of her weight loss:

OK, so there I was, a supposedly plus-size role model who lost 60 pounds. There are tons of articles all over the media, quoting me saying, “If I can do it, so can you!” I meant it. I couldn’t believe I lost 60 pounds! But listen, I am sorry to tell you: There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I would be on talk shows and they would show before and after photos of me. Every time, I thought I looked great in the before shot! I mean, I like the “after” shot too, but why pick on the before shot? The before shot was strong and confident, and I looked great! The after shot just looked skinny and well. . .skinny. I really did lose the weight for health reasons, but it was making me mentally crazy and I lost my breast size in this crazy act of getting skinny and I loved my breasts!

Winokur had conflated losing weight with personal happiness, but as she explains:

I wasn’t happy. I felt the same. I always thought Skinny = Happy. Except it doesn’t.

Happy = Happy.

After gaining back 20 pounds and feeling like she was spinning out of control, Winokur enrolled in a fitness program in Utah in which once again she was told by women that she was their role model. But this time Winokur really took their words to heart:

I finally understand that no one is calling me fat. They are truly saying, “Thank you for being you.” “Thank you for loving yourself now, not five pounds from now.”

Ten years ago when that reporter first said, “How does it feel to be a plus-size role model?” He wasn’t calling me fat. He was saying, “You are inspirational,” “You are empowering women everywhere.”

I am proud to be a plus-size role model. I am also glad I didn’t listen to my skinny friends when they told me to throw away my fat jeans.

God, they fit good!

The entire essay is well worth the read. Winokur gets into a body image issue rarely talked about- a woman who is celebrated for being “plus-size” who, on the one hand wants to honor her fan base, but on the other hand, deep down wants to be a different size. And then when she did achieve her weight loss goals, she is completely honest and upfront about her realization that a number on the scale, for Winokur, will never actually equal happiness. Winokur now labels herself a “plus-sized role model” but she had to come to that term on her own terms. We need more stories like Winokur’s, women who are ultimately positive role models, but don’t shy away from revealing the bumps along the road in their journey to becoming role models.

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