Inside job

7th November 2014 at 00:00

I didn't go to a further education college or to university. Instead, at 18, I popped my jazz shoes into a knotted handkerchief and set off for drama school in London, where the streets were paved with Elaine Paiges. The college I went to was, and still is, one of the most well-respected musical theatre schools in the country.

There were only about 30 students in each intake and we were split into two groups, which we would remain in throughout the year. These groups would be particularly important in the third year, as our fellow members would be the cast with whom we gave our monthly public performances.

The two groups were supposed to be equally divided with "types", in order to create versatile casts. However, one of the students - a boy as butch as it's possible to be in Cuban-heeled tap shoes - was shagging the member of staff responsible for the split and he used his bedroom charms to fix the selection process.

Sure enough, one group was full of his mates, his previous conquests and as-yet uncharted territory. The other group consisted of fat birds, camp boys, nerds and other misfits that The Shagger considered beneath him.

I had a fabulous time with my fellow losers and many of us, still mates 20 years on, look back on that episode as an enormous bit of luck.

Being judged on appearance would continue for many years. As a jobbing actor, the roles I auditioned for explicitly stated the look that was required and casting directors were not shy about in discussing this in front of me.

I was "acceptably attractive" for approximately 15 minutes in the mid-1990s. I knew that phase was over when I was offered the role of "Fat Lara Croft" in a television commercial. I was a small size 12 at the time and hugely offended.

I was recently reminded of the crippling insecurities that can come from falling short of a certain look. When discussing superhero powers, my female students didn't want to fly or travel at the speed of light - almost all of them said they would choose to be invisible. In the same activity, they were asked what they would change about themselves if they had the power to. These vibrant, funny, clever young women, who glow with potential, didn't choose limitless wealth or intellect. They chose smaller noses or slimmer legs. It brought me back to the days when my self-esteem was handed to me by other people.

It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable. Much of my confidence comes from finding my calling as a teacher and being part of a meritocracy, rather than a world where looking a certain way is an integral part of the job.

Now I view my appearance as a skin cloak that's unique to me and I delight in its endless decorative possibilities. I'm secure that what matters, what makes me who I am, lies beneath. I wish I could convey this feeling to my students; that "acceptably attractive" is defined by them alone. In the meantime I'll tell them that they are beautiful and I'll also tell them that it doesn't really matter. I doubt they'll believe me.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. Find her on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons


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