As a self-proclaimed young fat girl, I learned to develop my sense of humor to deflect attention away from what I perceived to be my flawed physique. I mastered the art of self-depreciation. If I called myself fat before anyone else could, I stole their thunder, and removed the potential slap of a hurtful word aimed in my direction.
I grew up in the '80s, in the era of Roseanne, where funny and fat went together like cheeseburgers and fries. As I grew older, that trend didn’t change. Women like Kathy Najimy, Rosie O’Donnell, Ricki Lake, Kirstie Alley, Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson (pictured above) graced the screens, all talented and known for their ample size and comedic timing.
For a long time, I saw nothing wrong with the majority of plus-size women being portrayed as a punch line. In fact, I’ll admit to a certain amount of admiration for them, that they could find success in predominately-thin Hollywood. Yet, as I grew older, I started to resent the fact that these highly talented women were marginalized into a singular role: one that allowed them to be guffawed at for the viewer’s pleasure.
I’m bigger than many of my peers, but I still feel reasonably sexy, attractive and deserving of equal treatment. That's why it makes me sad that there are limited sincere representations of that same beauty and ability in modern media.
Sure, I would be remiss to leave out works like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Precious, which clearly feature plus-size women in roles that aren’t solely reliant on the characters’ size.
Renée Zellweger’s performance as Bridget was celebrated in part because of the drastic amount of weight she gained for the role. What viewers may not have understood, however, was that Zellweger only gained a modest 28 lbs, meaning she was still leaner than the average American woman.
Precious, featuring Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’nique, offers another interesting perspective. While their powerful, disturbing performances were hardly weight-oriented, the movie still managed to make their obesity something to be reviled. Remember when Precious stole the bucket of chicken? The act of a fat-girl stealing fast food is exactly the kind of treatment that perpetuates the stereotype of gluttonous and slovenly plus-size women licking their fingers.
Ha-ha. So funny.
It’s got to stop.
These representations drive home a hard-hitting assumption that women who have more weight on their frame have less to offer, and that’s simply not true.
Modern media has come close to representing full-figured women in normative, healthy ways. Take Sara Ramirez from Gray’s Anatomy. When she first joined the cast, her body-type wasn’t the focus of her character. She was beautiful and sexy, and capable of work, dating and friendships, without relying on a joke about her dietary habits.
Musician and actress Queen Latifah has regularly starred in roles where her size is irrelevant. In Last Holiday, she played a plus-size, middle-class African American woman, who was able to temporarily live a life of luxury and also fall in love, regardless of her weight.
Now we have Grammy award-winning songstress Adele, whose sultry voice and sensual lyrics of love, loss and heartbreak are not clouded by her waistline or pant size.
These women are ground-breakers because they refuse to be a stereotype. As our society continues to embrace women of various shapes and sizes, we become normalized to the differences that are often perceived as strange or, sadly, grotesque.
Is that healthy? In one word: yes. While I don’t advocate for an unhealthy weight to be celebrated, I do believe there is no such thing as a standard body type. Yes, we have BMI, and healthy weight-ranges, and studies that predict who will be healthier and live longer, based on height-to-weight ratios.
However, there are many of us that will never achieve their recommended physique. I won’t and, frankly, I’m not even trying. At 5’3, my healthy weight range is 105-125 pounds. On my body frame that number seems repressive and dangerously thin. I feel my best at 150 pounds, which puts me in the obese category, but I have to tell you, I think I looked pretty sexy at 150, and am working towards that weight once more.
What we need to see, on television and in film, are women of various shapes and sizes, encouraged to explore all avenues of their identity and potential. Yes we fat girls can be funny, but we have so much more to offer, too.