Why You Should Give Sara Benincasa Money To “Focus Group” Her Own Body

It’s no shock that women’s bodies are deemed newsworthy. With just a quick scroll through today’s headlines, you’ll find “Candice Bergen Proudly Declares She’s Fat” and “Iggy Azalea Reveals She Got a Boob Job.” Women are taking back the narrative about our own bodies. But what if women gave in and asked to be judged?

That’s the central concept behind comedian Sara Benincasa’s “The Focus Group,” a short film in which a woman convenes a focus group to analyze her body. Adam Wirtz will direct and Benincasa has selected a cast of comedian colleagues to co-star. The idea is so revelatory that after just one week, the film has raised two-thirds (as of publication)of its $9,000 dollar budget on Kickstarter. I spoke with the comedian recently to discuss her plans for “The Focus Group” and why the world is ready to laugh at body image issues.

“The Focus Group” stars a woman who is “34-years-old, five-foot-three, and 175 pounds” who wants to be “prettier, better, more attractive and more palatable” to appeal to men. What better way to do that than bring a bunch of them in and let them workshop her naked body? Benincasa herself is 34, 5’3” and 175 pounds, but she’ll be playing a fictional version of herself – one brave (or determined) enough to hear insults from a room full of people being paid to judge her body. (The concept is reminiscent of a sketch of the same name from “Inside Amy Schumer” Season 2. In the meta sketch, a focus group of men were asked about Schumer’s new TV show but could only manage to comment on Schumer’s attractiveness.)

Benincasa told me she came up with the idea many months ago. She explained her thought process:

“What would happen if I hired a focus group to evaluate my body? That’d be horrifying … I want to make something that’s dark, and funny, and messed up, but something that talks about beauty and about our notions of beauty and how women feel in their bodies and how people feel women should act and look, because I’m interested in all those things. …  It is often very confusing for people when someone who does not look like a Barbie doll decides that she wants to show her body. That’s considered a transgressive, rebellious act. It’s one that I want to commit in front of the camera.”

There’s a certain level of confidence that leads a woman to write a film about herself being naked on camera (Benincasa also plans to release a censored version of “The Focus Group” more suitable for YouTube.) But bravery is nothing new for this comedian: her first book Agorafabulous: Dispatches From My Bedroom, is a memoir of her own struggle with agoraphobia. Her second book, Great, is a contemporary YA retelling of The Great Gatsby that works around LGBTQ themes for teens. Benincasa told me she doesn’t identify as a “political comedian,” per se, but uses “comedy as a way of understanding my world.” So why tackle body image in “The Focus Group?” She states plainly: “I have plenty of issues with my body.”

Benincasa worked to get comfortable in her body:

“The concept of the focus group arose when I had gained weight and didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin anymore. Historically, for me as a comedian, my work has been to address the things that scare me and find the humor. What’s scarier than getting naked when you feel fat? I decided to do that. I take medication that causes weight gain and so my choices have been to deal with my health properly and take this medication and also exercise and eat well and deal with the fact that I have a bigger body, or to not take the medication and feel shitty. So I chose to take the medication. But with that Faustian bargain comes the bigger body. What I think is very interesting is that women are very cruel to ourselves. We’re crueler to ourselves about body stuff than we are to other women sometimes. Like our friends could wear a certain size dress and we say she looks amazing. But if we wear that same size dress we look terrible. We’re so hard on ourselves.”

Her self-confidence and boldness combined with vulnerability is the reason why “The Focus Group” has touched so many people, so quickly. The short starts filming in May — if they reach their Kickstarter goal, that is. You can back the project here.

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