As a child of 6, Ricki Lake was taken to see the musical Annie and decided that she wanted to perform onstage. Around the same time, she was a victim of sexual abuse, which she believes contributed to her later obesity. Her subconscious reasoned that if she were unattractively fat, this would protect her from similar attacks. Other factors were at work, too. Lake’s mother had only gained 11 pounds during her pregnancy, and given birth to a 5-pound baby. The recommended weight gain for an expectant mother is 20-25 pounds, and the mother’s being underweight can affect a child as much as her being overweight.
When Ricki Lake was 9 or 10, the pounds started to pile on, and when she was in seventh grade, there was another abuse incident. Still, as late as ninth grade, she was enthusiastically participating in school sports, though there were insults about her weight. In 11th grade, she enrolled in a school for kids who aspired to the entertainment profession, but despite this fulfillment of a dream, her weight increased to 200 pounds.
When Lake was 19, and well over that weight, she was the beneficiary of an amazing instance of being in the right place at the right time. A movie director needed an overweight female, but as producer Robert Maier explained, “Even the top agents on both coasts came up empty-handed, because there simply were no young, fat dancers with the nerve or charisma to do the role.”
By pure chance, a New York talent agency assistant found Ricki Lake when they were both in the same theater audience, and she ended up playing the lead in the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray.
In the story, Tracy Turnblad wants to be on a local dance show, but she’s pushed out the door by the fat-shaming laughter of the people in charge. When she gets in trouble and is assigned to detention, she befriends some kids who help her become a talented performer with pro moves. Tracy becomes a popular local sensation. Other girls imitate her hairdo, and a plus-size dress shop invites her to be its public representative. Despite her social success, the earlier rejection by the establishment brings out Tracy’s rebellious spirit, which she channels into a greater cause, racial integration. Hairspray’s message is generally interpreted as promoting tolerance and equality for all.
After Hairspray, there were a few roles in other films, but the next couple of years added another 50 pounds to Lake’s diminutive frame, and apparently her weight topped out at around 270 pounds. She told a reporter that her urge to shop for clothes was expressed by buying a lot of hats, because they were the only thing that would fit.
By the time Lake was 24, the acting work had dried up. With considerable insight, she discusses how she kidded herself, in a manner typical of many of us who find ways to rationalize our self-destructive behavior. Since she had been a successful film star when heavy, putting on more weight must be the way to go. And the trauma resulting from the abuse had not yet been identified or dealt with. In the parlance of 12-step programs, she hit bottom. In her words:
One day something just snapped. I said, ‘I’m sick of it.’ Nothing was going on in my career. My relationship wasn’t working. I thought that the only thing I could control was what I put into my mouth.
That last sentence should be a giant red flag, a warning of a serious disorder like anorexia or bulimia. One hopes that Lake’s severe reducing diet was undertaken with medical supervision. The reporter says:
She dropped her first 50 lbs. by drastically cutting back on sugar and fat and by “making the obvious healthy choices.” Only after slimming down to 200 did she begin a daily two-hour workout, combining step aerobics with sessions on the Stairmaster and treadmill. In time, she added bicycling and swimming to her regimen.
(to be continued…)
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Source: “Ricki Lake: From Size 24 to Skinny,” ABCNews.go.com, 01/05/11
Source: “The Return of Ricki Lake: A Long Road Back,” RobertMaier.us, 11/03/12
Source: “Cutting Herself Down to Size,” People.com, 11/16/92
Image by The Mirror