The Skinny On Stunt Work: The Conundrum of the Female Performer

Eating_disorderMany people look at stunts as being a thankless job. Stunt performers often train many hours a week to achieve a list of skills of a modern day super hero. They assume all the risks involved in a film’s shoot list, and remain largely unrecognized for their efforts beyond the credits at the end of the film. They may gain recognition within the stunt industry, with awards ceremonies specifically aimed at them, yet they aren’t celebrated in the more recognizable film awards such as the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. All that being said, the performers who do work in the industry, generally love what they do, and accept the industry for what it is.

Female stunt performers, however, have additional challenges, some of which were highlighted in a recent article on Cracked, called 5 Reasons Doing Movie Stunts Is Harder than You Think. As the writer points out, stunt women often have to do stunts in skimpier wardrobe than the men do, doubling for actresses who sport outfits that leave little to the imagination with no room for the protective pads men can more easily hide under pants and long sleeved shirts. But this is only a part of the problem.

Because the actresses they are doubling are often quite a bit skinnier than the average woman, in addition to wearing revealing clothing, stunt women are often expected to “slim down” to more closely match an actress. Sometimes, it’s innocent enough, only a few pounds. Other times, they want the stunt performer to drop as much as 10-15 pounds in a few short weeks. This is where it can be problematic. It can be very damaging to a woman’s health to drop so much weight so quickly, and still maintain their usual exercise levels, or even increased levels to ensure the speedier weight loss. It can make them vulnerable to gall stones, electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition, dehydration with symptoms like headaches, irritability, hair loss, menstrual difficulties, etc. Read more about the potential dangers of rapid weight loss. And if the deficient eating continues, there are even worse problems a woman can face.

My Story of Loss and Gain in Stunts

A couple of years back, I was asked to drop a few pounds for a movie. I cut out all starchy carbs and ate a diet primarily composed of salads, chicken and fish. And I was able to drop 5 pounds in the first 5 days. I was impressed with my success and happily submitted new photos to show how much I had slimmed. The production turned around and ask me to drop a few more pounds. Somewhat deflated, I kept it up, managing to lose 10 pounds in 10 days. I realize now that this rapid rate of loss was unhealthy for my 5’4″ smaller Asian body frame.

After I lost the weight, one of my Jiu-jitsu students, a medical doctor, came to the dojo not having seen me since my transformation. He immediately asked me if I had been sick because I looked so small and gaunt. I told him I felt fine, and it wasn’t a lie. I hadn’t noticed any signficant changes to the way I moved and I didn’t feel lacking in energy. It was only later that I started to see what he saw. I went to teach at a Jiu-jitsu camp and more than a few people commented about how I looked with concern. One of the instructors said I looked like I was wasting away. I felt a little resentful, considering how challenging it had been for me to make that happen. It was only when I saw the photos from the camp that I saw what everyone else saw. My Jiu-jitsu uniform hung on my shoulders like it was hanging on a coat rack. My cheeks were sunken. I was an emaciated version of my former muscular self.

As I was dropping weight, I only paid attention to what the scale read, and my waistline measurement (the place where I tend to carry any excess fat). I had lost 2 inches around my waist, a little extra fat I could afford to lose. I also lost 1 inch off my chest, which comprised of a little fat, but it was more muscle that I had lost there. I can’t tell you how much muscle mass I actually lost, but it was considerable enough to notice in photos. Fortunately, I didn’t do anything overly strenuous for the show, just a few sequences of sword choreography, with no big falls or hits. I was able to do my day of stunt work capably despite the weight loss, and I got through it unscathed. Afterwards, I was able to go back to more normal eating patterns. I also hit the gym with renewed vigor to regain the some of the muscle I had lost.

Female Athlete TriadI later learned that I dodged a potential bullet. It wasn’t just my musculature that was at stake. If I had maintained that eating strategy over a prolonged period, I could have lost bone mass too. There is a condition called Female Athelete Triad that occurs when women don’t eat enough calories for the activity levels they are maintaining, causing women to lose their period. When this happens, estrogen levels drop, which causes the body’s metabolism to act differently. Instead of eating the fat, it starts to cannibalize the bones leading to osteoporosis. As the bones weaken, they become susceptible to fractures and other damage. Once this happens, even if the woman starts eating appropriately again, their bodies may never fully recover. The process of bone building can return, but some of the bone loss may be irreversible.

Michelle’s Cautionary Tale

A female stunt friend of mine, named Michelle came face to face with this disorder. She had been specifically asked to lose weight for a role. A woman with a larger body frame, she lost nearly 20lbs over a period of two months, an amount that her body really needed (something that later became evident). She did end up booking more work due to her new slimmer body, but the role she lost weight for never materialized. She eventually lost her period and was told by a doctor she urgently needed to rebuild her body. Eventually, much later, the show she originally lost the weight for got back to her about it… when she weighed her heaviest. As it turned out, she got the role, even with her new weight. Michelle’s blog post telling what she went through and how she came out of it, and her perspective on the whole thing is quite thought-provoking. Be sure to check it out.

Moving Forward

Since my own experience, and after hearing about Michelle’s, I made a decision to do my best to eat healthy and keep a lean physique that is natural for my body type, but strong enough to do the things I want to do. I may lean up a few pounds for a role, but not if it means a diet that will emaciate my body unhealthily. I will listen to my body and its needs, and do my best within those parameters. I got into the stunt industry because I wanted to be able to put my cool skills to use, to help tell stories with them, and to have even more motivation to keep on developing my skills beyond their own intrinsic value. But I have to consider the big picture. I want to be able to keep doing things like the martial arts, parkour, rock climbing, scuba diving, etc., long into the future, no matter what my stunt career is doing. It is in my best interests to take care of my body.

It would be nice if we were to start seeing a trend toward stronger, more physically capable women booking acting roles in the film industry. I certainly would welcome a trend like this with open arms. One of my reasons for taking up the martial arts in the first place was because I saw strong, confident female heroines in movies who could kick butt and take names, women like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 and Ripley in Aliens. These women were hardly stick figures. With more actors like these taking on powerful roles, we could make strong the new ideal for our next generation of young women.

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “The Skinny On Stunt Work: The Conundrum of the Female Performer

  1. This post reminds me of the approval my friend gave to the entrance of Gina Carano into action movies. He said, she looks like she could actually knock a guy out. Hey, have you tried to get an acting role in an action movie. You could tell them that you would do your own stunts. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Lori O'Connell Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jiu-jitsu Sensei
Martial Arts Blog