How I’ll be facing my biggest body image fear, on camera

I’m five feet three inches tall, I weigh 175 pounds, and I’m not supposed to say any of that in public. I’m certainly not supposed to accept it as the way that I am right now, without hating myself or feeling embarrassed. And I’m definitely not supposed to take my clothes off on camera while I weigh this much, at this height, at this age (34). And yet I’m doing all of that within the next few months. What’s more, I want you to see the results.

Yes, I’ll be taking off my clothes for art. Not to model for an art class, although there was a time when I was itchy enough for money that I would’ve done that. And not for a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a webcam show or an adult film. Nope, I’m doing it for my comedy short film The Focus Group, in which a woman agrees to allow a focus group to analyze her body — spoiler alert, I’m playing that woman. I’m also executive producing (eek!), writing (yay!) and co-directing (with my friend Adam Wirtz!). I’m even raising funds for it via Kickstarter, and at present over 160 people have donated, including one of my personal heroines, Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, who kindly agreed to be an associate producer on the film (this basically means that I get the thrill of putting “Associate Producer, Roxane Gay” in the credits without bothering her for anything else. I like it. I’m psyched about it. I’m geeked out about it).

In my career as a comedian and author, I have found that the most powerful thing I can do is go after what scares me most. As someone who has suffered her whole life from panic attacks, anxiety, and agoraphobia, I’m inclined to run away from the fear — to hide from it in my bed for days on end if necessary, even to the extreme of wanting to kill myself to get a permanent break from the pain of always being scared of everything (planes, trains, automobiles, a crowded street, an empty street, even down to using the bathroom or brushing my teeth). But when I took my first sketch comedy writing class at the People’s Improv Theater (PIT) here in New York City, I saw words painted above the audience’s seats, in a place where only the onstage performers could see them: FOLLOW THE FEAR. It’s a maxim that is oft-repeated among improvisational comedians, and while I don’t do improv, I’ve taken this particular lesson to heart. 

When I was scared to reveal my history of mental illness, I did a live show about it. This turned into a book proposal, which turned into my first book, Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. Now it’s an audiobook with Audible and a pilot in development at ABC Family with executive producers Diablo Cody (heroine!) and Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films. I also travel to colleges to talk about mental health. It’s the most rewarding thing I do, because it encourages strangers to talk to me and to each other about their own struggles.

Now I’ve turned to another thing I fear: being physically bigger than I used to be. Feeling strange in my own skin. Feeling awkward. Feeling unattractive. Judging myself more harshly than I would ever judge another person. Hating this body that carries me through life, that enables me to experience joy and pleasure and happiness. Rather than hide that fear, I want to shine a spotlight on it in the hopes that I can shrink down this particular demon by laughing at it. Of course I’m scared, but maybe, as with my memoir, my addressing this issue head-on will inspire other people to talk about it, to deal with it in their own lives, and to feel less alone.

Ultimately, my career goal is twofold: 1) To keep a roof over my head and 2) To make people feel less alone in a scary big world. And if it takes me showing my belly on camera to do it, well, I’m happy to show off my rolls in all their glory. Because to be perfectly honest, I’m fine as hell no matter what my size — and so are you.

You can learn more about Sara Benincasa’s film The Focus Group on her Kickstarter page.

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