Why This OITNB Actress Is DONE Being “The 2%”
By: Kelsey Miller
Danielle Brooks is having an okay year. Between the hit Broadway show, the Tony nomination, the fashion campaign, and of course, Orange Is The New Black, she’s easily one of the busiest performers out there. And this week, she’s gotten just a little bit busier, joining forces with us for The 67% Project. She’s done her own work championing the cause of body positivity and visibility with her personal hashtag campaign, #voiceofthecurves, and now she wants to amplify the message even further.
I got the chance to chat with Brooks during lunch (as expected, this woman is a master of multitasking) yesterday, to hear more about her work on screen, on stage, and in the world of body activism. But, given how much she’s already been asked about this stuff, I had to ask — was she sick of talking about her body? The answer: a big smile, and a resounding, “No, I am not.”
You’re in the middle of a Broadway run and simultaneously shooting Orange Is The New Black. You must be psyched to be sitting here doing an interview on your day off.
“This is the fun stuff to me, talking about this! It doesn’t feel like work. This is cool. I’m excited.”
This is a huge week for us launching The 67% Project, and we’re so pumped to have you involved. “Pumped” doesn’t quite cover it.
“It’s beautiful. Seeing the website — it really is incredible how the mind works when you see yourself that much. You’re like, I’m ok. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with me. There’s so many women in the world that look like me. But when you don’t see that you’re like, Damn, I need to get in the gym today. You just start to go through this spiral of negativity about your body.”
You’re totally right. It took me a really long time to realize this, but that feeling about your body translates to everything else in your life. You don’t even ask the questions like, ‘Hey, why aren’t there clothes available for me? Why aren’t I seeing myself represented out there?’ You just think, Oh, I must not be a real person.
“And for a lot of us, that’s been the case all our lives. I’ve been this way since high school. I didn’t start out really skinny. I’ve always been a chubby little girl running around, so I’ve always had that experience of going to a store and thinking: There has to be something wrong with me for them to not have clothes that would fit me.”
Because what else are you supposed to think?
You’ve had such an incredible few years and it seems to be getting better and better. But I wonder what your experience has been like in an industry with such a specific, rigid view of what a body should be.
“I think it started before I got the work. Right when I graduated college, that was the struggle. For me it was like, ‘Should my hair be curly, should it be straight? I definitely can’t change my skin color so that’s gonna have to stay the same (laughter). With my body, do I get smaller or do I get bigger? Do I really play into that funny girl who’s overweight?’ So that was my struggle: figuring out which box am I gonna put… which box am I gonna allow other people to put me in.
“Then I booked Orange Is The New Black, which I was also terrified of. I was like ‘Oh, gosh,’ because at the time I didn’t get the full script. So I was like, ‘Am I about to play a stereotype?’ All I had was one page of sides. I didn’t know who else was in this script. I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna be that girl, right? The funny Black girl, the funny big Black girl.’ Then I come to set and I see all these women that are different shapes and sizes, some of which are very similar to mine. I see that I’m not the only Black girl in the room, I’m not the only person of color, I’m not the only plus-size woman. That was eye-opening to me. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, I can be myself in this business. There’s a place for me.’
Obviously, things aren’t perfect right now, but we finally do have things like the body positivity movement. Has that had an impact on you and your relationship to your body?
“Definitely. That’s why I started the #voiceofthecurves hash tag, because I want to be the voice for myself first and then also be a voice for women that feel like they aren’t being heard. I want them to see themselves in me, you know? And I want to see myself in them on media platforms, you know what I mean? So I think the phrase ‘body positivity’ is definitely not only for plus-size women, but for all women.”
Sort of on the flip side of that is the element of intersectionality — which I think a lot of people still aren’t fully aware of. Certainly, this is something that affects all women, and that affects plus-size women in a particular way. And plus-size women of color are often even more acutely affected. They’re even less visible in the mainstream, statistically, and they take even more heat. What do you think?
“It’s interesting because I think, in our community, it’s more accepted to be bigger. People don’t really look at it as a size thing. It’s more about curves — do you got a big butt, do you got nice hips, big hips? People are trying to have that Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian type of look.”
Curves in “the right places.”
“Right, in the right places. Growing up, you wanted to look like the video girls because they had the small waist and the big butts. I grew up in South Carolina where most of us was eating cornbread and chicken, and we all was thick [laughter]. So it was ok, but to a certain extent. It was ok in the family, but when it came to like dating, or say, looking for a prom dress, it wasn’t okay. But I think it’s more of a pressure for African American women to have a certain type of body shape. I think it’s deemed ok to be plus-size if it’s in the right places.”
“And I think that’s not cool.”
Agreed. So, aside from your experience now being on one of the most diverse shows on television, when you look around the media landscape, do you see more diversity in terms of body size and shape?
“That’s interesting. For example, there’s this new show, This Is Us where we’re seeing a plus-size actress. And we have Melissa McCarthy. But specifically with television, I don’t see it as visible as it totally should be. 67% of women in this world are size 14 plus, and I damn sure don’t see that on TV.”
Not 67%, that’s for sure.
“So, if what we do is art, it’s supposed to reflect the world that we live in. And we’re totally not doing that. I do think we, as plus-size women, have a long way to go when it comes to TV. But then you do have my girl Gabby — Gabourey Sidibe — who’s doing her thing, but she’s been out here for a while. And there’s Amber Riley; there’s a few of us sprinkled out there, but that again leaves me feeling like we’re the two percent. And I don’t want to feel that way in this industry, nah. That’s just not the school I come from. Some people are comfortable being that one or two percent because they’re like, ‘This is my lane.’ But I want to see us all shine. I want to see us all to be out here getting this money and getting these awesome roles. That’s what I want to see. When I win, you win. When I see Ashley Graham killing it, that’s a plus for me. That’s our stars rising together. That’s how I feel about it. So I damn sure want to see more of us.”
It’s true. It’s a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation, and so few people see it that way. I think that just goes to show what an uphill battle this is.
“That’s why sisterhood is very important to me. Because me, myself, Gabby, and Amber, we’re real tight. We support each other when someone’s out there winning.”
Has your relationship to your body evolved since you’ve been in the spotlight?
“Mmhm. In surprising ways actually. For instance, the Ebony magazine cover. I was so excited about getting to be on the cover with three other women that were curvy. Then I ran into the editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine at an event and she showed me the cover, and I was like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me? They put my size on there; it says I’m a size 16! No! No one is gonna know how big I am!’ (Laughter) I was terrified, I was really nervous, saying, ‘This is not the best angle!’ I was freaking out because I was still dealing with my own issues.
“[Now] I can step into a room and feel comfortable. It’s really important to me. What I’ve learned in school, in college, and from my mom, is to be fearless. To challenge yourself. A part of that is challenging myself to love myself, putting myself out there.
“I really do feel healed by seeing that magazine, and it was very moving for myself to relax and say, ‘No Dani. You are beautiful. So fucking what you’re a size 16' — sorry for my cussing. ‘So freakin’ what you’re a size 16. That’s ok and that’s beautiful too.’ Then, to realize you’re not the only size 16 either girl, that there are so many women out there who are so happy that you’re representing them. So that’s my challenge sometimes.”
I do think there is something important about that. Even if you just force yourself to look at photos of yourself or look at yourself in the mirror. There’s something about getting comfortable with your reflection, or at least becoming aware of that discomfort. Because no matter what our size, we’re all conditioned to look away.
“Mhm, yeah I agree. I am learning how to be more comfortable. I think that’s why those images we see are important. Getting to see Gabifresh in a magazine in a bathing suit, in a two-piece, looking incredible, inspired me immediately to find one on some website and go pick it up and rock my curves when I go on vacation. Which I probably would not have done if I didn’t see that.
“I think visions are very important for us as women. To be ok with ourselves, so that when we do see ourselves in the mirror we aren’t picking at ourselves and dimming our bodies down, but instead saying, ‘Oh, let me see what outfit I can wear to enhance my stomach today, because I want to wear it out.’ I think that is important.”