Why watching a gender blind production of “Romeo and Juliet” boosted my body positivity

Some habits are harder to break than others. Like so many people, I’ve spent a long time trying to practice body positivity, but I still can’t come to terms with how harshly I speak to myself. Early on in my life, my mother taught me that bodies don’t need to conform to other people’s ideals — but I didn’t fully digest her words. My cycle of self-criticism only grew heavier, and I felt like I was failing my mom, too. When I turned 20, I hoped that I’d uncover some fountain within myself, a previously dormant source of self-love spurred into action as my teen years ended. Surprise surprise, no such luck. I just couldn’t internalize the body positivity I tried to advocate — and it sucked.

Then I came across Merely Theatre. They were touring with productions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, and coming to a small venue in the town next to mine. At the time, I had no idea they would turn out to be the spark I needed to change my perspective. I just knew that I was beginning to like Shakespeare.

I bought tickets, only discovering shortly before the show began that the group performed gender blind theater.

What did that mean? Well, in the company, there were five women and five men. For every show that they toured, each role was rehearsed by both a man and a woman. This was to ensure, I learned, that when they moved to a new location, any five actors could be selected for that run of performances.

Their genders could be fluidly jumbled. The result? Our performance featured a female Romeo.

Why was this the big boost that my body positivity needed? The gender blind casting meant that fitting into pre-designated appearances was pretty low on the list of priorities, which had a huge impact on me. The actors’ bodies were center stage, but the focus was not on their shapes. The performers were enthusiastic and invigorated, and their builds were irrelevant.

The only thing that mattered was how they immersed themselves in gesture, tone, action, and speech. Their major concern was sharing a story. It felt great.

It sounds cliché, but the message felt clear: Creativity is my body’s greatest ability.

So often I had (mis)judged the value of mine, but the show reminded me that my body can create. Feel. Think. Get swept up in the moment.

It is important to note that the company’s explanation of their method could be a little more inclusive.

People who identify as agender or non-binary are left out of the male-female conversation, but such phrasing can be tweaked.

By changing this language, the company would fully embrace all identities, a move that is so important for the LGBTQ community. As it stands, Merely Theatre is already moving in a hugely positive direction. By prioritizing the story, rather than the genders of the actors telling it, they remind us to see and value the person before their gender. And they address an imbalance in casting that we need to correct.

After the show, I came to realize my own exhaustion. The actors were worn out by a full-on performance, and I was totally exhausted by my years of self-criticism. Here were people — bodies — charged with the desire to make something. To bring empathy. To spread entertainment. None of their abilities depended on what kind of body they had. If I could direct even the smallest amount of energy away from scrutinizing my body, it would make all the difference in how I feel in my life.

I’m not suggesting that watching the performance was an instant cure. My own experience with mental health has taught me that instant cures don’t exist, and anxieties can never be “switched off.” It takes work. It takes time. What this production did, though, was give me a prompt — a reminder to challenge those negative inner voices, while listening out for new ones.

Jemima Breeds is a Literature undergraduate at the University of Exeter, where she is into walking, baking, and jewelry-making. She is often journaling ideas for children’s fiction while listening to rock music and cuddling dogs.