In 2017, the Roaring Girls – a feminist-driven theatre company – presented their project Beach Body Ready, an explorative show which seeks to spread body positivity and have fun doing it. To talk about the production, we caught up with Sarah Penney, one of the three actors involved, and discussed the motivation behind the creation of the show and the ways in which it has changed her own relationships with her body.
How did the idea for Beach Body Ready come about?
Three of the fat lasses in the company got stuck in the back of a Ford Fiesta and we’d never’ had a conversation about our bodies that was filled with so much laughter – and not just about the things we wanted to change. We thought there was something really magic about that and we wanted to create a show that was sort of a celebration really.
Why did you name the company Roaring Girls?
To roar is usually to laugh a lot and we do. Lizi in our company laughs particularly loudly – you’ll always spot her if she’s at a theatre show. We wanted to create something that felt female- and feminist-driven but also sounded like a good laugh. There’s a brilliant book which we only found the other day actually which is called, Roaring Girls: The Forgotten Feminists of British History and I think that really sums us up. As a company we are proud feminists; we are shouting about our work, we’re shouting about other women. It’s about lifting other women up and giving a platform to some brilliant people.
Will you be targeting schools with it, or have any schools approached you?
Yeah absolutely, we’ve had an awful lot of outreach from schools wanting us to go in and do the show with their young people so we’re currently working on a schools’ version. We have a school pack available on our website and we’re running self-esteem workshops alongside of that. Hopefully we can be a bit of a catalyst for change for young people.
The show is autobiographical, would you ever change that format?
Our work is often rooted in truth and the stories that we tell are so authentic because they are our own, but we’re very open with the sort of work that we make and to other people’s stories. Through the process of making a show, we engage with different groups and different communities and we share our stories in the hope that they’ll share theirs, so it’s often a mutual exchange and that adds to the richness of the work. Alongside Beach Body Ready we have a zine that we’ve put together with different women from across the UK who have contributed stories, poems, blogs and illustrations, all to do with their own body image. We understand that Jess, Rachael and I are three white, cis, able-bodied women and we don’t represent everybody’s experiences, so we hoped that this zine would be an opportunity for other people to open up conversations around body image. It’s about recognising your own privilege and opening up a platform for other people to share their voices.
Are there any particular women at the moment whose work you’re a bit obsessed with?
We’re really inspired by the work of Bryony Kimmings and Selina Thompson, they’re two brilliant, fierce, feminist, fun women who make autobiographical work in the same way that we do and tackle important issues in really accessible ways. Those are the sorts or artists we look up to. Also, Scottee with his show Fat Blokes. We had the privilege of meeting him once and he was marvellous.
Have men approached you about this show with their own stories about body image?
Generally, our work is targeted towards those who are female-identifying, but we’ve had so many men come along to the show and share their own experiences with their bodies. They’ve also recognised themselves in that equation and have made an active pledge to change the way that they respond to their friends and families, in relation to their body image. We’ve had so many brilliant men come up and share their stories with us as well. There’s no denial from us that men suffer from issues to do with their body image, but I think that women tend to be bombarded with it everywhere that we look. Whether it’s on the front of a magazine, a film, influencers on Instagram or the Kardashians, there are all of these people negatively influencing young women and raising us to believe that we’re not good enough. I do think that it affects women in a slightly different way than it does with men.
If you could abolish three words from the world, what would they be?
‘Not good enough’ – I think those are definitely the three words for me. Rachael and I – who are two of the fat actors in the show – are completely comfortable with the word ‘fat’. For us, it’s something that we have reclaimed. It’s not a word that means you are lazy, gross or uneducated, I am fat in the way that Roald Dahl used to call characters fat; it’s a descriptive word and actually it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We just need to stop telling ourselves that we’re not good enough.
Do you think the working-class are represented enough in theatre currently?
Absolutely not. Traditionally theatre – and the arts in general – has always been a middle-class profession, and I think even working-class people like myself who now work in it, are considered to be middle-class by others. The level of money that you need to finance yourself in this career does put up a barrier for working-class communities and artists who often have to work for free just in order to get their work on any platform. I think that it’s changing, now more than ever, theatres are wanting to hear those stories. We’re also seeing more shows from people of colour and people outside of the binary; that really makes my heart sing.
It takes some confidence to do what you do on stage – did you always have that?
Absolutely not. In 2017 when we first started making the show, I wore a swim dress that covered my stomach and went down to my knees. I’d always been really ashamed and embarrassed about my body and I had been taunted and bullied for it over the years and making the show has been the most cathartic experience. It’s just made me get to a position where – I still don’t like my body, and I don’t think this show tells you that you have to but – I accept that it is my body, and it’s ok to not like it but I’m not going to be embarrassed and I’m not going to hide myself away any more.
Beach Body Ready tours from 10 March, coming to the Old Fire Station in Oxford 2 June. To book your tickets, visit theroaringgirls.co.uk