I will prepare all day for this evening’s performance of Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. In addition to the internal prep (running lines, envisioning each character, etc) I have external work to do. I need to iron all the costumes and scarves. I then need to work on a physical transformation–plucking eyebrows, shaving off all my hair from my face to my waist (a substantial job for this Italian-American), stretching out so that I am limber enough to do some of dance-like moves I need to do for a few of the characters, warming up my voice, and finally applying my make-up.
Playing multiple genders requires that I need to reshape my face as well as my body. Through make-up, I soften my eyes, make my eyebrows longer, and hollow out my cheeks. The goal is to create a gender mix in my look. As my main character states several times, Not male, not female, something in the middle or all together different.
One theme that runs through Transfigurations regards body type and the conflicts many of us experience over our bodies. We don’t always look on the outside how we perceive ourselves on the inside. The play serves in part as a meditation on the body and finding peace with it.
At one point my main character, speaking of the Last Supper and Jesus’ announcement that he is going away for a long time, quotes from the Gospel of Thomas.
We asked him, “When shall we see you and when will you appear before us?” Jesus said, “When you take off your clothes without being ashamed.”
For the character the line is like a spear in the heart and I make the character physically crumple a bit in the chest area.
But I have always been ashamed. I just thought that’s normal.
The world around us so often teaches us shame about our bodies–not thin enough, not enough muscle tone, too light, too dark, too tall, too short, just not right. But the images we so often see in the magazines have been worked over for hours through digital enhancement and outright removal of blemishes and “imperfections.”
Growing up a scrawny kid with asthma and then as the chubby kid living in a restaurant, I never felt at peace with my body. It seemed like it was always against me. When I entered college after a summer of thoughtful dieting and daily exercise, finally feeling like I weighed the right amount, I suddenly felt like a little Italian dwarf next to the giant WASPs towering over me.
Back in 2006 when my mom was sick and dying and continued to lose weight week after week, it seemed that for every pound she lost, I gained one. It was like I didn’t want her to fade away. Even after her death, I carried that extra 40+ pounds for a whole year, perhaps as a way to not yet let her go.
I recently saw a film that featured me and was shot during that time period. I saw my bulging stomach and my bloated face, and for once in my life I didn’t feel disgusted by an image of me looking overweight. It brought me back to my mother, to my love of her and her love for her children and how we as a family held her for as long as we could. The fat Peterson on the screen “transfigured” into my mother’s son and brought me in touch with the love I have for my mom. And looking up on that giant screen with my jiggling belly in my face, tapping into grief and love, I suddenly felt no shame.