Entertainment & Arts

Why body image is a weighty issue at the Fringe

Beach Body Ready with The Roaring Girls Image copyright Tom Arran
Image caption The Roaring Girls have a show called Beach Body Ready

There are more than 3,000 shows at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, showcasing everything from political satire to hip modern reinventions of the circus big-top. One theme which has emerged this time is body image. But why's it become so popular now?

The Fringe attracts fans of dance and magic and serious drama but the majority of ticket-buyers probably hope to get a laugh. But that doesn't mean no-one's talking about topics which matter.

Daniel Lobell is a stand-up based in Los Angeles and currently on his third trip to the Fringe. His show Tipping the Scales centres on the fact that he weighs more than 24 stone. It's about his attitude to his body shape but also about the attitudes of people he encounters.

"I did a related show last year," he says, "but now I'm in a very different place with my weight and I have new things to say and a whole new perspective. There's far more hope in this show."

Image copyright Bazza Lawrence-Panter
Image caption Elisha-Grace Lawrence (l) and Niamh Callan's show looks at the pressure women face to look a certain way

In the last 12 months Daniel has lost 55 pounds. He says he's a far happier man for it.

"I think most people are ignorant of what it means to be a very overweight person and that's reflected in how they treat us. But my show this year is far less bleak than it was. The change in my life was a combination of all the things I've done: it's been spiritual and therapy-based but also I turned things around with positive thinking.

"In the show I say that being severely overweight isn't just about loving sandwiches - it's about addiction. If you're fighting against drugs or smoking or drinking it's all the same fight."

At home in LA Daniel has been working with adolescents with drug addiction problems. "These are kids between 11 and 17 who are fighting addiction to heroin or cocaine or maybe they've attempted suicide. Working with them persuaded me that I should be fighting the addiction I suffer from."

On stage in Edinburgh Daniel finds humour in what may seem a grim topic.

"But the greatest gift anyone can give themselves is to free yourself from the prison of your mind. I find audiences here often find a resonance with their own struggles. It's not necessarily to do with weight or body image."

Image copyright Daniel Lobell
Image caption Daniel Lobell's show focuses on his attitude to his weight and how his size affects the way he's treated

Michael Livesley, who's based in Liverpool, has also taken to the stage in Edinburgh to talk about his path to weight loss. He makes his living primarily from doing TV voiceovers and he used to weigh in at more than 20 stone.

"I had a lifestyle which went from watching TV on the couch to going to the kitchen to eat too much food. Then I'd go to a nice comfortable sound studio to record stuff.

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"Inside I suffered from what's been called Paradise Syndrome: I wasn't allowing myself to be happy. But I had two good mates who I always thought were lazier and even less fit than I was and they both died. I knew things had to change and that's why I'm in Edinburgh.

"Exactly a year ago I told myself I would do the Fringe this summer to talk about how I'd turned things around with my weight. It was a way of increasing the jeopardy. And the tactic of frightening myself worked. I have a big image on stage of how I used to look and sometimes people can hardly believe it.

"I describe the show as about fear, fry-ups and freedom and I know some people have found it really inspiring."

Beach Body Ready is a very different show with an all-female, hyper-dynamic cast of three.

Lizi Perry of the Hull-based group The Roaring Girls is quick to head off euphemisms such as "plus size".

Image copyright Martin J. Dixon
Image caption Martin J. Dixon tries to promote body positivity in his show

"We're happy to use the word fat in the show and two of the three performers self-identify as fat. Our company is about making theatre which is fierce, feminist and fun and body image seemed an important topic many women are thinking about.

"With Facetune now such a thing this is an issue for men too but Beach Body Ready is definitely drawn from the personal experiences of Rachael Abbey, Sarah Penney and Jess Morley."

Like most things at the Fringe the whole show is limited to 60 minutes. Beach Body Ready packs its hour with humour and music but also with sharp insights into how people view fatness - especially female fatness. Jess is the slim one of the trio but she too talks about body image and her former addiction to the gym.

Lizi says: "We wanted to make something which was joyful and celebratory but also brutally honest. We don't pretend that everything's solved and that we've all come to love our bodies. But when we talk to audiences afterwards people often have their own stories to tell and you can see we've opened up a conversation."

Tea... with Milk is the first show at Edinburgh for the performers and writers Elisha-Grace Lawrence and Niamh Callan. Elisha-Grace says the first inspiration for the show came from watching a Thames Valley Police video on consent in relationships.

Image copyright Harry Elletson
Image caption Katie Greenall wants to counteract the negative stereotypes around being overweight

But Niamh, like others in Edinburgh talking about body image, mentions the app Facetune as a big new influence on women to look good if they want a relationship at all. "Though we also say in the show that if you want to look a certain way or shave your legs or whatever that's your decision. No-one should criticise you for it."

Director Nicole Acquah says their attention was drawn increasingly to advertising. "I think women are under constant pressure from adverts to look a certain way. Even young girls look at these images which have been digitally altered and it influences them. Even a few years ago it wasn't so intense and we wanted to say that on stage."

Martin J. Dixon is a 29 year-old comedian from London who has a solo show on the Fringe called Monster Gay. The show's mainly about what has embarrassed him about himself.

"A lot of it's about body positivity which is now really becoming an important thing. We're all used to hearing that people are getting bigger but I think people are fed up with being told how to look. So in the show I say we should take our bodies as they are and love them.

Image copyright Michael Livesley
Image caption Michael Livesley brings his former self to his gigs

"We're all supposed to have big lips, big bums and small waists. And men are supposed to have visible abdominal muscles which for most people is pretty well impossible. So can't we look at a muffin top and says that's good, that's attractive?

"In the gay community there's a focus on being perfect physically which I was very aware of growing up. Most of us won't ever match that ideal and it can feed into the self-hatred young gay guys can feel. I want people to laugh at the anecdotes in my show but there are serious problems with the false images we're fed, especially online."

Katie Greenall didn't hesitate to call her solo show Fatty Fat Fat. "It's about my experience navigating the world in a fat body, using a lot of humour. I think maybe this is the year when Edinburgh is showing the effect of the fat acceptance movement: it's something which has been getting more attention in the mainstream.

"So I've taken 10 anecdotes from the age of five to 23, where I am now. At each of those points my relationship with my body changed because of people's interaction with it. And I weave that in with moments where I hope the audience will think about fat acceptance more generally.

"My generation has a really complex relationship with their body image. And as the performers on the Fringe are mainly young it's natural it should be a big topic now.

"We're constantly fed in the media that fat people are lazy and I wanted to put something on stage to counteract that. One thing the show does is allow fat people to see themselves represented positively, which is rare.

"I know that some people have seen the title Fatty Fat Fat and they think they're coming to see some sort of rip-roaring comedy making fun of fat people.

"There are so many conversations we need to have about all these different marginalisations, not just about being fat. But social media is fuelling an obsession with looks. In an Instagram-heavy world it's important we have all these stories on stage."