It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Nikki Blonsky's first memory of being called fat is from when a neighborhood kid taunted her on the school bus.
"I got off the bus crying and my grandma said, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'Well, he called me fat.' And she looked at me and she said, 'I'm sorry. And I'm sorry for him.' She said, 'Nikki you have to feel sorry for him because there must be something so bad, he must be so sad. Something going on in his life to make him act out this way. So you need to feel for people like that and do not take what they have to say to heart,'" Blonsky recalls. "And when she put it to me that way, it made me just totally let go."
For the actress who had her big break when she was cast as Tracy Turnblad in the movie Hairspray, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in July, it wouldn't be the last time that she dealt with body-shaming. In fact, just as she got the role as a 17-year-old she was quickly exposed to the harsh reality of how she'd be received by the public.
"We hadn't even started production yet, I was still home in New York with my family, and I remember I was so excited to have an IMDB. I was like, 'Mom, I'm a real actress, I have an IMDB,'" she tells Yahoo Life, explaining that the website allowed for comments, which her mom went on to read as she stared at the page in awe. "I went in the other room and she came in crying. I said, 'Mom, why are you crying?' And I looked at the comments section and it says, 'Why does the fat chick get to make out with Zac Efron?' And that was the first time I had been called fat on a public platform."
Blonsky and Efron were co-stars in the film — their characters Tracy and Link Larkin even end up together in the end. But throughout their friendship, Blonsky says she oftentimes experienced "cattiness" from jealous onlookers.
"When I was traveling with the guys, fans or other girls didn't understand why I got to hang out with them and they didn't. And I was like, you know what? Because I have a few extra pounds on me, I'm less of a person to you?" she remembers thinking. "That says nothing about me. And that says everything about you."
Despite having a good understanding of that, Blonsky says that such comments "still sting." While body image is a more mainstream conversation today, she also wonders how different her career and experience in the spotlight might have been as a plus-size actress in 2022.
"I can't tell you how many times that thought has crossed my mind," she says. "I had a show called Huge on ABC Family about kids at a weight loss camp. And I thought the writing was just so brilliant, and it was witty and fun. But instead, the network didn't give us a second season. They went with another show that I won't name, but it was with a lot of much thinner people. And I always say to myself, I feel like if Huge came out a few years later it would have really reached. It felt like, unfortunately, the world wasn't ready yet."
Even as the character of Tracy was embraced and loved for all that she was, Blonsky says, "I wasn't necessarily celebrated for being plus-size." She even felt that people expected her to lose weight after the role in order to be cast in other projects. "I, on the other hand, didn't understand why there couldn't be more movies with plus-sized leads," she says. "Why can't a plus girl play the girl next door or the pretty attractive sex symbol? You know, why not?"
Blonsky credits her "strong-willed" personality for not giving in to requests to lose weight. She also explains that, despite what many believed at the time, what her body looks like isn't entirely in her control. Specifically, as she's gotten older and dealt with endometriosis and issues with her thyroid.
"My body changed and I gained some weight as I was going through those things and I felt like people kind of judged me like I must not be taking care of my body, I must not be eating properly or exercising," she explains. "That wasn't the case at all. There's so much more that goes into your body's makeup and why it is the way it is."
And while she says she's more "tuned in" to her body today and has learned how to best take care of herself as she evolves, she's most proud of not giving up on herself throughout the process.
"As a kid, I didn't have a ton of plus-size younger role models to look up to and I'm just honored that Hairspray gave me the opportunity to hopefully inspire other kids to dream and dream big," she says. "I'm so proud of myself that I kept going. And I'm still going and I'm never gonna stop because it's in my blood. It's who I am. I love performing. I love playing characters that means something, not just to me, but to other people."
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