“As a writer and a comedian, I have always been really fascinated by the way that we talk about appearance,” Sara Benincasa tells Yahoo Health. “I’m not necessarily the prettiest girl in the world, and I am fascinated by people who appear to be perfect by social norms but still don’t like their own bodies. I grew up thinking that if you’re pretty, everything must be so great.”
Which is what led Benincasa to come up with “the most frightening and exhilarating idea I can imagine doing with my own body” in the form of her Kickstarter-funded short film, The Focus Group.
“I weigh more than a Hollywood actress, or many comedians, even, would – so I thought, How can I explore this in a way that is funny and scary? So I thought, what if a woman submitted her body to a focus group.”
In other words, as Benincasa puts it, “What if you took all the voices in your head telling you that you are too fat or too light or too dark and made them into characters, into people. And, would people pay for this service? What would happen?”
And there you have the premise of The Focus Group in a nutshell.
Not that Benincasa, who wrote the film and also stars in it as the woman who, indeed, submits her body to a focus group for review, came easily to the whole subjecting-your-naked-body-to-strangers-for-discussion thing.
“I’ve never been a naked person,” she says. “I’ve never been a nudist. I’ve never done nudity on camera. I’ve never done burlesque. I’ve never stripped. I’ve never been naked in public for any reason before. So it was cool in theory to write this short film where the woman is pressured to and agrees to show her faults to a focus group to become a cooler, sexier person. It could be a comedy or it could be a horror film! But when it came time to shoot it…“
Well that was another story. And most surprising, she said, was finding how she was much more uncomfortable with letting people see her stomach than see her breasts.
“I was having all these thoughts: Are people grossed out? Is this bothering them?”
This kind of insecurity that plagues women comes from a larger cultural influence, Benincasa says.
“I don’t think we like it when women take up space. We tend to as a culture resent when women who take up too much space, physically or emotionally.”
But there’s more than the “disturbing” problem of demonizing in women the same traits we celebrate in men – “being forthright, being aggressive, going after what you want” – that leads to so much of the body shaming that dominates pop culture.
“There is a conversation to be had that, for some people, for many people, no matter how hard you work out or how hard you diet, some people are not going to look like a Photoshop model. Most people aren’t going to like that. And it’s okay. Love yourself as you are – no matter how much you wish you could change.”
“There’s this confusion when we talk about body image acceptance and taking care of our health,” Benincasa adds, “For me, the first step in taking care of my health is loving who I am right now. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things I would like to change. I would like to be stronger. Physically stronger. But this is a conversation I would love for us to be having. ‘Oh, she’s fat – she’s unhealthy.’ But is she? And is it right for us to scorn someone who is taking care of herself the best way she can? And it doesn’t mean we shame people for being skinny, either. To me, a gorgeous person is a gorgeous person – and everyone has their own definition of what that is.”