Pacific troupe addresses body image, weight

Rachel Ruffin and McKenzie Brock take part in a group rehearsal last week. The camaraderie has helped improve their personal body images.Rachel Ruffin, a senior at Pacific University, spent the year before last studying in Spain. There, the only people who obsessed about their weight, she said, were Americans. That included her.

Back in the United States, she found it was business as usual, where size-four models are considered too fat.

Though trim with magazine-cover good looks, Ruffin said she’s struggled with body image since she was a child, growing up in nearby Cornelius.

“Kids picked on me for being overweight,” Ruffin said.

A dance instructor even told Ruffin she needed to lose weight. Recently, Ruffin looked back at a photo taken when she was in dance. “I was thin,” she said.

Though she’d participated in numerous theatrical productions at Glencoe High School and Portland Community College, the 22-year-old decided to take a break from theater when she started at Pacific. Through her involvement in the school’s Center for Gender Equity, she is back on the stage with the production of Debbie Lamedman’s “Phat Girls.”

“I took the script home to read, I was halfway through the script and I started to cry,” Ruffin said. “It made me realize I wasn’t the only person who felt this way.”

A joint project between the Center for Gender Equity and the theater and dance departments, the show runs May 1 to 3. And the director is none other than the playwright herself.

While working on an advanced degree in acting at Brandeis University in the mid-1990s, Lamedman’s mentor suggested she write her own play. The result was “Phat Girls,” which transports the audience from childhood to adulthood, intimately following the development and many facets of an eating disorder. In addition, the work shows how these women learn to survive in a body-conscious society and eventually reach self-acceptance. Lamedman

Lamedman — who moved to Portland four years ago and now teaches for Visions and Voices playwriting program at Portland Center Stage while continuing to act, coach and author books and plays — performed the play she wrote and produced for 10 years before rewriting it for a group of women.

“There’s this constant pressure even for middle-aged women,” Lamedman said. “We are bombarded with skinny models even when the average woman is a size 14.”

Though Ruffin felt some relief discovering other people also feel shame about their bodies, she still struggles. “On the good days, I think I don’t look so bad,” Ruffin said. “A lot of days, though, I feel ashamed of myself.”

The one place she felt more accepted was at PCC. “I had a lot of friends there,” Ruffin said. “At Pacific, I didn’t have any friends until the end of my first year here.”

Even with good friends, however, she’s only shared her conflict about food with one of them. “I haven’t even talked about it to my family,” she added.

It also made her rethink her major. Ruffin has drifted away from acting and instead plans to teach one day.

“I don’t have a place in Hollywood. You rarely see overweight actresses and when you do, they play funny characters,” she pointed out.

McKenzie Brock, who grew up in St. Helens, has shared her struggles with her family — and they can relate. “My dad and I were just talking about going to the beach and we talked about getting elephant’s ears and cotton candy,” Brock said. “That’s what we think about when we think of the beach: food!”

Like Ruffin, however, Brock has a background in theater and serves on the board of Theatre in the Grove. At 25, she’s a sophomore majoring in social work with a minor in applied theater. And like Ruffin, she has found it takes time and effort to find a place at Pacific. “I’m a non-traditional student and I live off campus. You have to push yourself out of the box,” Brock said. “There aren’t as many opportunities to connect as there are at Portland State University.”

Performing in “Phat Girls” has helped, Brock said. “We’ve definitely shared our fears. It’s very therapeutic.”

Brock said she’s struggled with her body image all of her life, but feels she’s coming to terms with who she is. “I’m trying to accept myself, but it’s a constant battle. It’s a compulsion to fill up a void, whatever that may be.”

She also realizes what we as a society are up against. “I’ve become aware of how much goes into marketing food, especially in the U.S. It consumes so much of my mind,” Brock said. “But going to college has really helped. We have to keep talking about it. Just to get it out in the open is healing in itself.”

And she’s glad to be in Portland. “There’s a big movement here for greener, healthier food.”

Men are not immune, Lamedman added. “I’ve known men who have gone to Overeaters Anonymous meetings,” she said. “My roommate in college exercised obsessively.”

Ruffin“No matter how it plays out, most of us have some kind of addiction, some kind of compulsive behavior,” said Brock. She’ll take the insights she’s gained from “Phat Girls” into her social work studies. In the meantime, she and her father may just share an elephant’s ear when they go to the beach.

See it yourself

“Phat Girls” is playing May 1 to 3 at 7 p.m. in Pacific University’s Tom Miles Theatre. Tickets are $7 at the door and free for Pacific students.

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