‘Fat’ isn’t a bad word. We’ve been conditioned to view it as an insult, but really, it’s just an adjective like ‘tall’ or ‘pink’. We only think that calling someone fat is a bad thing because western media has spent the last hundred years or so idolising thin bodies.
The term ‘fat’ is starting to be reappropriated by Body Positive activists, a movement that strives to gain respect for all bodies, regardless of size, race or ability. But how successful will they be, when there’s still a lot of media that only shows fatness as the ‘before’ in a makeover montage or uses fatness as a source for jokes? This type of media reinforces the idea that fat people need to change their bodies to gain social acceptance, an idea that became apparent when Netflix dropped the trailer for its new series, Insatiable, about teenage Patty who loses a large amount of weight after her jaw is wired shut for three months.
Sidestepping the problematic idea that wiring Patty’s jaw was all it took to make her thin – implying that self-control and simply eating less is a logical and easy antidote to fatness – the series is apparently intended as an indictment of how people are judged for their bodies, and particularly how women are valued for their aesthetic and sexual appeal. But critics have widely panned the show’s treatment of these issues, claiming that the slew of stereotypes and fat jokes undermine the fact that even when she’s thin, Patty isn’t as happy as she expected.
NPR’s Linda Holmes cut to the core of the central problem with the premise:
Insatiable’s creator Lauren Gussis and lead actress Debby Ryan have both suffered from disordered eating and related mental health issues, so there were good intentions behind the show. But that’s not enough when the jokes you’re making dehumanise people who have been made the butt of the joke too often.
Even in hit comedies like Friends and New Girl there are characters like Monica and Schmidt whose attractiveness is emphasised by flashbacks where they were once fat, sloppy and tremendously uncool. In Brooklyn 99 Terry Crews, who is incredibly fit and toned, plays a character who was once overweight and had severe self-esteem issues as a result. While it is important to tell stories that deal with the emotional reality of being fat in a culture that constantly belittles you – especially for men, whose struggles with eating disorders and body dysmorphia are often overlooked – those emotional nuances are partially undermined in ‘The Oolong Slayer’ when Terry is introduced to a new snack, and immediately binge-eats himself back into obesity. While a message about stress eating and accepting help from your friends is at the core of this storyline, it’s another example of self-control ultimately being shown as the only thing standing between a fat person and thinness.
We don’t need more transformation stories, especially not about weight loss. Contemporary media is already bombarding all of us, male and female, with messages about how we should look and behave; but by only depicting fat characters as something comedically grotesque or as the ‘before’ in a dramatic makeover, they’re further dehumanising people who already struggle to receive basic respect.
So rather than putting thin actors in fat suits, whether for comedy or not, we need to start seeing fat characters, played by fat people, who aren’t defined by their weight. Characters who exist in the world, while being overweight, but while also having fulfilling relationships and experiencing conflict that doesn’t revolve around their appearance. In My Mad Fat Diary, there’s no attempt to deny that the protagonist Rae is fat, but she never needs to lose weight in order to make friends, have sex or be in a loving relationship.
Maybe Netflix wouldn’t have made Insatiable if it wasn’t a transformation story, but hopefully we’re moving towards a culture where fat isn’t a bad word, and we will see stories where characters can be both fat and happy (without the lame jokes). Because no one should be defined by how they look, and we all deserve to see ourselves positively depicted in the media we consume.
Image by Charles Balsan, used with permission.