I started acting professionally at age fifteen. Five months after my first audition, I was offered a starring role on a Warner Brothers show called The Mountain. I played the role of Shelley Carver, a professional snowboarder and the youngest daughter in a family that owned a ski resort. My poor parents must have been freaking out, but I gleefully packed my things and moved to Vancouver, where I lived for six months while we shot thirteen episodes of the series.
I was sixteen, 5'9", and skinny — at that point, I was a size 0 long in Abercrombie jeans (the ones with the two-inch rise that gave my mom heart palpitations, of course). I loved food, healthy and otherwise. I enjoyed dance classes, but I had never worked out in my life. But, it didn't matter — my body was what it was, and I suppose I looked fit enough to photograph well, so that was that: I was an accidental TV star.
I had the time of my life on set. Everyone there was so kind to me, and protective of me as the youngest person on set. After we shot the last episode of the season, I came home, and while I was there, I got the call that the show had been canceled. I was sad, but I busied myself with finishing the rest of my junior year at a new high school in Manhattan. I continued auditioning, and after graduation, I went to college at Boston University...and that was when my healthy body image began to change.
The freshman fifteen, I learned, was not a myth. BU has wonderful, fresh, delicious food in their dining halls, but I'm sure I was taking in more calories than I had at home. At the age of 18, my body and metabolism was changing (hello, pear shape?), and I became aware of the fact that if I didn't pay attention to what I was eating and how often I was working out, I would gain weight. So, my friends kindly showed me how to use an elliptical at the gym, but regardless, the weight continued to creep up bit by bit as the years went by. The weight gain was a subtle, almost natural, evolution, but it was noticeable, I'm sure — especially on camera. I still booked commercials in the summers, but when I graduated and was available for auditions full-time, I wasn't booking anything. I had a feeling that my lack of success had something to do with my weight, but I tried not to dwell on it as I continued with my acting classes, got engaged, and began planning my wedding.
Once I got married and moved into the city, I really hit my wall. The auditions essentially stopped, and I knew I had to take a meeting with my managers to address why I wasn't getting called anymore. I braced myself for the conversation that was to come as I sat down with my two female managers. When I asked them what I could be doing to bring in auditions, they told me to stand up — and then they started to critique my body in a way that one might size up a confusing piece of art in a cold, soulless gallery. They essentially said that I needed to lose a bit of weight and tone up; "maybe see a trainer." They weren't mean per se, but the talk about my "soft" body and the fullness of my face seemed to go on forever. I kept my composure as I left, but once I got close to the subway, I started to cry. "So this," I thought to myself, "Is what being ashamed of your body feels like."
I had known, of course, that my weight was a problem, if not the problem, getting in between me and my work. I had gained weight, rather than lost it, over the course of my engagement. Well, you can guess what happened after that conversation with my managers happened. I booked ten sessions with a trainer that I couldn't afford, who tried to convince me that a cup of clear broth counted as food, and that vegetables such as peas and corn should be cut out because they were "too starchy."
When I looked at other women — in person or in magazines — all I thought was: "She's skinny. Her arms are so skinny. I wonder how she gets her arms to look like that? I wonder what she does to get that skinny." I was angry at myself for denying the inevitable truth for so long. "Why is it, Tara, that you couldn't just lose five pounds a year ago?" I asked myself. "It's five pounds. Being fit and skinny is your job. What's the matter with you? Why can't you just get it together?"
Photo: Courtesy of Tara Rasmus
Thankfully, this damaging, relentless inner script didn't translate into disordered eating. Despite all of the negative thoughts that kept me up in a cold sweat at night, I couldn't really bring myself to deprive myself of food. I did end up losing some weight naturally, a result of moving from the suburbs into the city, being somewhat mindful of what I ate, and working hostess jobs that kept me on my feet.
Despite differences of opinion between me and my trainer in terms of what constitutes acceptable food choices (try to tell me about your "no-carb diet," and I will simply cease to listen), I did appreciate trying new fitness moves and learning how to push myself. It was fun to feel strong and badass, but my heart wasn't really into this whole "putting in time at the gym" thing. To me, it mostly felt like a punishment, and a waste of time — because how did I know whether this effort was actually going to translate into auditions and work? It was still a crapshoot.
To fill the time in between auditions, hostess jobs, and feeling pissed off at the gym, I started working in the beauty industry as an intern, and I was surprised by how much I loved writing for a living. By the time I was offered a full-time position here at R29, I knew it was my time to say goodbye to acting — and I'm glad I did.
It's still tough to keep a healthy body image in a city like New York, where it seems that being skinny and being successful are so often directly correlated with one another. Also, my job still requires me to appear on camera, so, yes, I'm pretty aware of the girth of my upper arms and the roundness of my face. But, let me tell you — pulling my leg hairs out with an epilator for your entertainment is much less painful than the feeling of getting "elevator eyes" from a casting director in a studio in Midtown. Much less painful.
My body is just not the same as it was when I was sixteen and a bikini-sporting WB star, and that's okay. I have a little booty, I grew me some hips (and even, recently, grew some extra boobs — score!). Even when I have those self-loathing days, I try to keep these words from the cookbook/memoir of Sophie Dahl in my head: "Sexy is inherent in a healthy appreciation for food, in having the energy to romp with your beloved, pick up your baby, cook dinner for your friends, go for a run, or simply take a gentle walk to the market. Sexy is in feeling sated, having options, and feeling alive."
Maybe I did fail at Hollywood — I surrender to the Blake Livelys and Amber Heards of the world, who do the whole skinny-buxom-blonde thing much better than I ever did. I had ten good years in "the biz," and they were great — but I feel sexier, healthier, and much, much more alive where I'm at now, and I'm excited to see what's next. I'm sure it'll be quite the adventure.
Photographed by Lia Schryver