Scientists rush to support complex insight into obesity

20 May 2019
Playwright Alana Valentine has been delighted by responses from scientists to her work Made to Measure, now playing at the Seymour Centre.
photo of actor Megan Wilding, a larger woman, being measured for a wedding dress

Actor Megan Wilding on stage in Made to Measure. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

Playwright Alana Valentine is urging scientists and clinicians to attend her new play, Made to Measure, at the Seymour Centre because it puts complex research in the public domain and it brings to life the human behaviour around obesity issues.

“When I was writer-in-residence at the Charles Perkins Centre I was shocked at how frustrated scientists are by the lack of a complex approach to the science around obesity,” Valentine said. “I heard the most harrowing stories of their research being misrepresented and tabloid shock tactics. So it’s been a huge relief to me that the scientists who have seen Made to Measure have endorsed and enjoyed it so much.”

“The public domain is so fraught and so contested around body image, but what theatre can do is actually show all the contradictions and conflicts as they relate to vulnerable, complex human beings and the decisions they make about nutrition.”

Photo of playwright Alana Valentine

Playwright Alana Valentine

Valentine wrote Made to Measure with support from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, committed to easing the global burden of the ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and related conditions using a collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach. Her interactions with researchers at the Centre informed the work, and ensured the latest scientific evidence could be incorporated into the storytelling.

The play is the story of a young woman, Ashleigh, who is living in a large body and seeking to have a wedding dress made for her. Ashleigh lives with a negative “inner voice” constantly nagging her about negative health outcomes if she doesn’t lose weight. The story is both comical and emotionally-affecting as Ashleigh navigates her experiences with her friends, fiancé, her GP and her dress maker.

Ashleigh is played by Indigenous actor Megan Wilding, who was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for her work in the Sydney Theatre Company’s critically-acclaimed Blackie Blackie Brown.

“When we had a public reading of the play, the scientists who attended said it ‘humanised’ the issues for them,” Valentine said. “The problem of obesity is literally three dimensional. When you come to the theatre and see the bodies on stage it is going to give scientists some surprising insights into their assumptions and scientific conclusions.”

Weight bias is a pervasive and destructive form of discrimination, said Valentine. “Shaming and bullying people who are living in large bodies is common, callous and counter-productive to their life and health. But equally problematic is an attitude which advocates that people living in large bodies should just be left to their own devices, that when they ask for support and advice they should be ignored.”

Obesity and audiences

Professor Stephen Simpson, academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre, said theatre was a great way for the general public to see and hear the lived experiences of someone living in a larger body.

“It is inspiring to see art and science working together in this character who is trying to understand all the research behind ‘lifestyle’ diseases,” Professor Simpson said. “In the play, audiences can not only hear the science, they can also experience the emotions and the perceptions and fears around weight issues. Seeing a piece of theatre with strong messages is a rich and impactful experience.”

In 2017, Valentine was appointed co-Writer-in-Residence of the Centre, and is currently completing a second play about the public evisceration of scientists who present unpopular scientific findings. The Charles Perkins Writer-in-Residence program was made possible through the generous support of University of Sydney alumna and patron Judy Harris.

Valentine urges scientists and clinicians to book tickets to see the play, which is running until June 1.

“Scientists told me repeatedly that they wished that their work was respected and presented in the public domain in ways that could create real change, so I’m confident that they will support this work as a community of interest,” said Valentine.