by Katie Boland
About a year ago, my friend Sarah Gadon directed an episode of the documentary series Reel Side. Her episode focused on her relationship with photographer Caitlin Cronenberg. Best friends and collaborators; Sarah is almost exclusively photographed by Caitlin. But more than their relationship, Sarah’s episode is about her image. It’s one she’s skillfully creating.
“A lot of times I look at photos of myself and I have these mini-crisis because they don’t even seem like me,” Sarah’s vulnerable voice over says as we watch her being photographed in wigs, ball gowns and six-inch high heels. In the pictures, she looks waxen and angelic; too perfect to be real.
As an actress. I felt that her episode was speaking directly to me. I play between the ages of twenty and thirty. Being a woman my age, I am judged on my looks more than any other type of actor. At this point, my reflection in the mirror is so blurred that I have no idea what I actually look like.
There’s the three dimensional me who’s writing this article in real time, with wild hair, glasses on and the five pounds I’ve been trying to lose for six months. Then, there’s the me I’m trying to be, the one who is sometimes in movies and photographs. She follows me like a shadow, ghosting around my life.
It’s a strange to be haunted by a fake version of yourself.
I watch her on screen, I see her in print. I choose her Instagram filters. I’m with her as she gets photographed at events. ‘Put your hand on your hip and don’t stand straight on towards the camera, twist your body a little, you’ll look thinner’ I tell her.
I like her, I guess, but she’s exhausting and responsible for an almost schizophrenic split in me.
When I get dressed for interviews or events it feels as much like a performance as any character I’m playing. I am never sure I’m getting it right. Does this blouse make me seem like a serious actress? Is this black dress too dark with my hair? How will those sequins shine with the flash of a camera? Am I succeeding in projecting a version of myself that is better than I really am?
I think the crux of my image crisis is that I know I put a lot of work into being something two-dimensional. I am aware that I am trying to be an object. My goal is to be something not real.
In moments, I am overwhelmed by the craziness. Why am I a willing participant in all this? As I watch my actress friends and I get smaller and smaller, I wonder, what will the little girls think? Won’t they fairly assume that they, too, should take up less and less space?
Sometimes, I imagine myself in a second life where I am not an actress. I’d like to think I would be the kind of principled woman who doesn’t care what she looks like.
But the truth is, in this life, I am a ‘bad feminist.’ If I want to be successful, I have to care about how I look more than is healthy. Mostly, I am numb and resigned to this reality. No one thrust it upon me. This is a game I’ve chosen to play and one of the rules is I have to pretend it’s effortless. I have to pretend that I’m not playing anything at all.
Often times, whatever I’m striving towards feels unreachable. An old agent once asked me why I thought I wasn’t famous yet. Shocked by the question, my mind raced for an answer. “My auditions aren’t good enough?” I offered. “No,” he said. “You just aren’t the right kind of pretty. You’ll never get the Rachel McAdams parts.”
I left his office crying, but I’d heard what he’d said before. I hear it all the time.
Whenever I don’t get a part because “I’m not the right look,” it stings but I know how to protect myself now. I switch immediately to the other me and walk towards a mirror, looking harder at ‘her’ than ever before. It’s not me that’s not good enough, I tell myself. It’s her; the fake me.
Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men a show based on image and perception, said, “Identity is a part of drama to me. Who am I, why am I behaving this way, and am I aware of it?”
A part of me must like behaving this way. One of my first memories is wanting my mom’s deep red lipstick on my own lips. When I got a little older, I made her dress me in party-dresses and patent leather shoes no matter where I had to be. I would walk alongside her on my way to school, pretending I was a princess, or on my more serious days, finally the queen. Even before I was paid to be an actress, I was seduced by the idea of being someone else. I was enamoured with the act of being glamorous, the escapism playing dress up offered. I’ve always been able to disassociate.
TIFF was a month ago. It is the height of image anxiety for Canadian actresses. Ten days of events, fake eyelashes and outfit organizing. Near the end of the festival I ran into an old friend. “I spent three hours on my hair,” she whispered to me through gritted teeth. We embraced and then had our picture taken together, hands on the smalls of each other’s backs, ankles crossed, standing tall. We smiled like this was the most natural thing in the world.
I walked off the carpet, my eyes still starry from the flashing cameras and I quickly lost her. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her sucked in a conversation with a director I knew. I wanted to find the bar.
Thirty minutes later, I found my friend in the ladies room. We were barefoot and a little drunk, with toes newly blistered. Our stilettos hung over our shoulders. As soon as we laid eyes on each other, we grinned at each other like children who’d agreed on something forbidden. She started taking off her Spanx.
“The glamour,” she snorted.
I couldn’t help but think that this was the more interesting picture, the image I wished we shared with the world.
Katie Boland is an actress, writer, and producer.