Growing up, I was a self-loathing Igor who carried the queen’s books. My job was to be the sarcastic sherpa, quietly providing the farce and adoration then becoming part of the wall when cued. I don’t know when it was, but at some point I realized the obvious truth that I was a hideous goblin under a bridge, that the sound of my voice was like audible feces, and the presence of my body in a room was like bringing a moose carcass to brunch. I adopted the posture that Katie Holmes had as Joey in Dawson’s Creek: shoulders as high to one’s ears as possible, as if I could shrug my existence away. (To this day, I legitimately blame Dawson’s for my back problems.) I ate cucumbers and saltines—not because I wanted to look a certain way, but because I was so sad my appetite disappeared. It was the perfect costume; I was the smallest person in the room inside the smallest person in the room.
And then puberty was like, WA-BAM. Physically, I went from Justin Bieber to Jessica Rabbit. I gained 30 pounds of thigh, booty, and certified American jugs. And I quickly learned big boobs have the effect of announcing your presence in a room as if you’re cradling Gilbert Godfrey singing the opening to the “Circle of Life.” Pretty hard to disappear into the wall, which is what I’d taught myself to do before my tits grew to the size of pudding-filled manatee pups.
So in my 20s, I had to work doubly hard to disappear. The word “sorry” escaped my mouth a hundred times a day. I spent most of my time at parties trying to convince women that I hated myself, then had social hangovers about those conversations.
But then in the weirdest turn, I became an actor who auditioned to play women who say things like, “Does this look like mauve to you?!” Women who look in the mirror and see something beautiful. A nightmare for the terrified tiny person trapped beneath the blonde and boobs.
Then I booked Glow, a series about women’s wrestling in the 1980s with a cast of 14 women. I panicked. I’d hoped I could skip thinking about my body as an existing thing altogether. Being an actor offers the option of thinking of your body as the gross ghost between your head and the floor made up of triceps, obliques, and nipples. Having to use this gross ghost in a functional way was not something I had ever thought about.
In the month leading up to shooting, the 14 of us learned to wrestle. We started with somersaults, like in preschool. They showed us a video of ourselves doing the move to help with form. Watching my thighs jiggle, I made a mental note to Google-image “meadow” to erase the sight from my mind. Eventually, we learned choreography and partnered up. That day, I was paired with Kia Stevens, the one cast member who is an actual professional wrestler. (Google “Awesome Kong” and have your mind blown.) I was, of course, terrified. I wanted to say sorry more than ever. Sorry I suck, sorry if I smell, sorry if you hurt me. I had stumbled through the solo stuff like a boozed-up newborn deer, and I knew partnering was going to be a disaster. The encouraging cheers from the 12 other women just felt like apology IOUs. This was the body that should be part of the wall. Not here.
Kia locked eyes with me, asking gently if I was ready. I braced myself for a sequence of stepping on her toes and a finale of breaking my back.
But then…we just swam. Kia’s arms wrapped gently around my neck like my head was an injured piglet. She pressed her hand against my back and moved with me, like she was walking me into a big presentation I was too scared to go to myself. I moved where she told me to go. She made sounds like she was conjuring spirits around a cauldron. So I made them too. When my bicep I spent my entire twenties hating circled her neck, she screamed to the sky in faux-pain, as if I were the most powerful being who had ever touched her. I pressed my huge boobs into her back to “worsen” the pain, and she begged for mercy between death-gasps. For the first time in my life, I could feel my whole body listening. Go here. Come here. Be still. Take charge. Now one, two, three, fly. Like I had practiced as the drunk fawn, I tucked my chin and kicked my legs over my head. But this time Kia’s hands were on me the whole time, turning me in the air like I was an anti-gravity baby. I slammed to the ground, screaming to sell the fall. The 12 other women pounded the floor with their feet and fists and howled at the ceiling. Then my moment was over and the next duo scrambled to the center of the ring, taunting an imaginary audience. We were all mermaids with muscle. I howled back at them.
The months that followed are hard to describe. Studio 54 in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts, maybe. The 14 of us put our faces in each other’s armpits and crotches, grabbing the meat of each other’s stomachs and thighs as we scream-danced each other to the ground. My body was listening, talking. To her body, to her body, to her body.
I saw our power in other ways too. I won’t name names, but sometimes a TV set can be a shame-and-fear obstacle course for an actress. Ten points if the sexist-gargoyle producer tries to flirt with you after you’ve gone through hair and makeup, so you don’t disgust him. Don’t make eye contact with the Philly cheesesteaks they bring out for the crew. Laugh hard at the lead male actor’s improv, then be word-perfect for your line, “Oh, you boys!” Glow was the first set I’d been on run by women. It was a magical never-never land run by type-A amazons. I saw power and care together for the first time. Seeing women possess those two things simultaneously was a huge lesson for me.
Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch commanded our set with a greater authority than any of the bro-gargoyles of yore, but with open arms, back rubs, and eye contact. This created the constant sense of: You are loved and celebrated—and now that you’re comfortable, please give us your goddamn guts and soul so we can make the best thing possible. Also, have this Philly cheesesteak for God’s sake. Alison Brie taught me you don’t have to choose between being liked and having a voice. I watched the crew cry-laugh at her genius bit involving a jig, then suddenly snap to attention to answer questions I hadn’t thought we were allowed to ask. I followed Alison’s lead: If I didn’t understand the scene, I’d ask a question. If I didn’t feel comfortable with something, I’d raise my voice. Her bravery was contagious. And in a shocking twist, no one died.
One day during filming, I stood in a tiny glitter diaper of a costume in the middle of the ring. My body was harder from giving it protein and vegetables and treats every day so that I’d be strong enough to throw Alison Brie into the air. I was flexible from stretching every day so I could guide Marianna Palka safely to the ground. My stomach was tight because I needed to engage my core when Kimmy Gatewood swung me into a suplex. I hadn’t winced at the mirror in months. I stood taller. I took up space. I was in an American flag unitard. It was November 8, 2016. Luckily, I was already learning how to push through shame and put up my fists. On January 22, in Washington, D.C., I screamed at the sky and pounded my chest in power and pride, like the mermaids taught me to.
Glow is now available for streaming on Netflix.