In this op-ed, Teen Vogue writer Gianluca Russo spoke with KayCee Stroh to explain why body diversity is so important in the new Disney+ High School Musical series.
Like many Gen Z’ers, High School Musical played a formative role in my childhood. It was my first introduction into the world of theater and dance, and my first taste of what would become my passion for the following decade. There are hundreds of reasons I fell in love with High School Musical and the two sequels that followed — too many reasons to list, in fact. But one tops them all; for the first time ever, I saw a plus-size character who so accurately represented who I was: Martha Cox. And now, the new Disney+ spinoff, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is following suit with an ensemble cast full of body diversity.
Martha Cox was a true plus-size trailblazer for many reasons, as is KayCee Stroh, who portrayed the character throughout the three iconic Disney Channel films. For starters, Martha was one of the best dancers at East High, and no one blinked an eye at the fact that she wasn’t stick thin. Her size played no role in her ability to “pop, lock, jam, and break,” and it didn't prevent her from becoming a cheerleader either. Through it all, her weight was never a deterrent to her success, nor did it comprise her entire identity. She was never ridiculed or mocked for her body, never was the brunt of any fatphobic jokes, and never was denied access to any opportunities because of her size.
Martha’s weight was irrelevant, and that’s precisely why her character was so impactful. She showed young plus-size dancers like myself that weight is never indicative of your talent, and that you should never let your size stop you from pursuing your passions and goals. And the body-positive legacy that Martha and KayCee left behind is what paved the way for the new crop of plus-size characters on HSMTMTS today.
“I am so proud of Disney and their diverse casting in the new series,” KayCee told Teen Vogue. “Everywhere I look, there is beauty in so many colors, shapes, and sizes. To say I’m elated about it is an understatement.”
The new series does not just have one “token” plus-size character, which is what we often see happening in television and film. Instead, there are multiple plus actors on the show, all of whom do not have storylines that center around their size or weight. Two leading characters fall outside the mainstream body type we often seen in Hollywood: Dara Reneé as Kourtney and Julia Lester as Ashlyn. What's more, the show includes many plus-size actors as extras and background characters, normalizing body diversity across the board. With this, HSMTMTS is breaking boundaries for plus-size dancers, singers, thespians, and teenagers with every episode — just as the original films did.
“We all know that the majority of Disney’s demographic is young, impressionable people and that their content will probably reach the masses,” KayCee said. “I celebrate Disney for always knowing that this is a big responsibility and for trying even harder to help this new generation feel included. I know how important it is to feel represented in the media because growing up, I didn’t have that. [Lack of representation] wreaked havoc on many young self esteems, including my own.”
The lack of body diversity in pop culture greatly impacted my self esteem as well. As a young fat boy in musical theater, I always had to work harder to stand out in a positive light. For months leading up to auditions for my school’s yearly spring musical, I would practice my dance steps each night, watching Legally Blonde: The Musical on repeat while trying to replicate the choreography. While I didn’t have access to dance classes at the time, I did have access to YouTube, and that was all I needed.
Junior year, I bought my first pair of tap shoes and spent each lunch session in the auditorium with my friends, begging them to teach me how to tap. Friends of mine will remember me literally tap dancing through the halls, something that eventually became my calling card. From freshman to senior year, my dancing had advanced so much that I was finally cast as the head dancer in my school’s musical. From that point on, I was the go-to dancer in community theater in my area, being called in to replace people two weeks before a show or whenever an extra dancer was needed. I began to realize that my weight did not dictate my talent, and without Martha Cox, my courage to get there might have been completely nonexistent.
And that is precisely why the body diversity on HSMTMTS is so important. “The overall message of High School Musical was always: Although we are all so different, we can still love and appreciate each other,” KayCee explained. “‘We’re all in this together!’ I believe that message is timeless. I am happy to pass the baton on to these new characters, and I have complete trust that they will continue to teach a new generation how wonderful and important that message truly is.”
It may have been more than a decade since Martha Cox first jumped on the East High lunch table to declare her love of hip-hop, but her presence and legacy is certainly still felt within the new HSM series. By giving plus-size characters agency and meaning beyond their weight, just like Martha, the Disney+ spinoff is reminding young performers that they can achieve anything they dream, no matter what they look like.
“I like to think that even in the smallest way, maybe Martha had something to do with normalizing different body types in the industry,” KayCee added. “‘Talent doesn’t have a waist size’ is what I’ve always said, and now it’s nice to have so many other examples standing by my side and proving it.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue