In 2011, the writer Lindy West penned a letter for the Stranger’s alt-weekly blog called “Hello, I Am Fat.” Its candid description of how the world treats her body, and her anger as a result, made it a pyrotechnic display of fuck-you fervor that was as deft and true as it was deeply satisfying. Essays about fatness had existed long before the post and have continued to evolve during and after West published this letter. But there was something about “Hello, I Am Fat” that resonated across the many incarnations of internet culture that have come since.
West later published a memoir, Shrill, which has now been adapted into a show on Hulu. Shrill, starring Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, is yet another paradigm shift, heralding a media moment alongside this past fall’s Netflix movies Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and Dumplin’, AMC’s Dietland, and February romcom Isn’t It Romantic, in which fat characters are front and center in TV and film in a way that feels unprecedented.
Most Americans, at this point, are fat. Statistically speaking, fatness is more common than thinness, and the reasons for this are deeply complicated — including but not limited to food insecurity, poverty, lack of education around nutrition and medical bias, and genetic predisposition — and more than just “people got lazy” or “people are more stupid,” and so the stories about fat people are not stories about a specific niche of humanity but about an ever-expanding pool of personhood with their own heft and gravity.
But historically, fat people on TV and film have been relegated to punchlines, often cruel ones.
There has been such a dearth of positive representation of fat characters in TV and film that I never had the privilege of asking “Is this good?” or “Is this art?” but only, “Is this actively hurtful?” or “Is this actively hurtful, and is it too hurtful for me to enjoy the other things about it that are good?” We are entering uncharted and lovely territory, then, that whether or not something is art is a facet of fat acceptance media that I can consider. Fat women are banging down the door. We’re here to break your chairs and yell in your faces and not care if you like it. Finally.
Where to even begin? How to explain the wide swath of fat-hating media, or fat-centered media that just doesn’t go far enough? You watch something, anything, knowing the odds of a barbed fat joke will hit you at some point.
Friends is notorious for this kind of treatment (how many times does Courtney Cox don a fat suit to play sad, fat teenage Monica?): Chandler (who marries Monica) at one point says his car had a bumper sticker that said “I don’t brake for chunkies.” The fat-woman-as-a-clown trope has been so common that it’d be easier to name the shows and movies that don’t use it — a fat body is laughable, disdainful, lightly inhuman, easy to overlook and to laugh at. What’s funnier than a fat woman dancing?
While there have been a few positive portrayals of fat characters in movies (see John Waters’ gloriously transgressive 1988 film Hairspray), most films have missed the mark. Shallow Hal (2001) exists, a notoriously awful film where Jack Black is enchanted to see people’s Inner Beauty (sparkle, sparkle) and Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit breaks, like, every chair she sits in.
Even when there are actual fat characters on TV, they are often fixated on their weight in a way that gives them no character development. Just last year, Insatiable, a Netflix show about a woman who loses weight because her…mouth was sewn shut…due to a horrific accident…and proceeds to get revenge on everyone who’s ever wronged her, was renewed for another season. Conversely, Dietland, starring Joy Nash, an AMC show about a fat woman who’s hired by a fashion magazine and becomes the center of a mystery, was canceled without fanfare despite favorable reviews and a community effort to save it.
This Is Us has a storyline about a fat woman that is entirely about her weight, her pain, and her eventual weight loss surgery (the producers notoriously included a weight loss requirement in actor Chrissy Metz’s contract). Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, starring Shannon Purser as Sierra (who absolutely deserves better than this and maybe-dead cult member Ethel on Riverdale), revolves around a fat high school girl catfishing Jamey (Noah Centineo) and technically sexually assaulting him by kissing him when he believes he’s kissing someone else. It ends with Shannon’s character Sierra being told she’s not anyone’s type, and if resident hunky hottie Jamey had known what she’d looked like from the beginning, he never would’ve loved her. So, you know, all of her horrifying bullshit behavior is understandable. She’s disgusting and no one would ever love her if she didn’t trick them! Are you listening, teens? Ask any fat person to name a show that represented them in a way that didn’t feel actively harmful, and they’ll probably gush about that one (1) show they love. Odds are good that it’s Chanel Four’s incredible My Mad Fat Diary, a show so beautiful and affecting in its intimate and vulnerable portrayal of a fat teenager’s emotional growth after attempting suicide that I had to talk about it in therapy.
In recent years there have been a number of TV shows and movies that center race, class, sexuality, and disability in thoughtful ways. This is not to say that racism, classism, anti-trans sentiment and sexuality bias, and ableist media are things of the past. You could turn on any network right now and clearly point out how this is definitely not the case. But I have been able to see the queer part of my identity more fairly and kindly represented than my fat one.
There has been such a dearth of positive representation of fat characters in TV and film that I never had the privilege of asking “Is this good?” or “Is this art?”
Even recent, popular shows that tackle intersectional issues exceedingly well get fatness wrong and fall into old, cruel traps. Consider how fantastic Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Rosa coming out as bi, #MeToo, and police profiling episodes were, or Queer Eye as an entire concept. But they still fail at issues of size and weight; Terry’s former fatness is still played for laughs as a shameful time when he was out of control. Scully’s and Hitchcock’s size is supposed to be part of what makes them funny. On Queer Eye, Tan and Antoni are always talking about what’s flattering and healthy, respectively, with their heavier clients. In Episode 4 of Queer Eye Season 3, a father laments that his daughter is gaining weight. “And who’s feeding her?” Antoni demands. He could be trying to make the (valid) point that it’s not fair to get on your kid’s case about their weight if you’re the one preparing their meals, but couldn’t we go further with this? Why is her weight something to focus on at all? What if he starts making her healthier meals and she’s still fat?
Hollywood has pushed the narrative that fat people hate themselves because fat people are disgusting and their self-loathing is inherently earned as a byproduct of their fatness. But this is changing, thank Fat Jesus. Consider Dumplin’ in contrast, which came out in December and is about a fat teenager who enters a beauty pageant following the passing of her beloved obese aunt. It offers a more nuanced take on fatness, body image, and friendship. I started crying not two minutes into Dumplin’. Watching Danielle Macdonald belt Dolly Parton, joy lighting her face, was almost too much for me. Joy is so rare for fat people in media. Joy is denied to us far more often than we’re allowed to see ourselves experience it.
Or consider that Isn’t It Romantic, starring Rebel Wilson as an architect who doesn’t believe a “girl like her” could ever be loved, does a lot more than many critics gave it credit for. (Even with Wilson’s white-boy-blinking-dot-GIF opinion that she’s the first plus-size woman to star in a romantic comedy — she is not; she stands on the shoulders of the many talented women of color who’ve come before her, including but not limited to Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique.) I love rom-coms, but I was ambivalent about this one going into it; I watched it anyway because I am starved for any kind of mindless happy romance about fat people. All I wanted was a different story. All I wanted was something beyond “you earned your self-loathing through the fact of your body.”
Isn’t It Romantic finishes with an earnest, upbeat musical number set to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” featuring an unfairly hot and charming Liam Hemsworth and Adam DeVine white-boy dancing with unfairly hot and charming Wilson, whose visible belly outline (or VBO) is real and glorious in a skintight red dress. Dumplin’s crescendo of romance is an incredible babe smooching on Macdonald after she’s blown the lid off of a beauty pageant with her friends. They deliver on mindless happy romance that doesn’t leave a bad, anxious taste in my mouth. Ultimately, Isn’t It Romantic and Dumplin’ aren’t about whether or not love is real: They’re about the kind of person for whom love is real, and the learned behavior fat people absorb from the world around them telling them no, no, not you. That’s so refreshing. That feels so much better, and so much more true, and so much more hopeful.
Shrill, though imperfect as most things are, is perhaps the most daring and revolutionary of this bunch. Shrill is fundamentally about not apologizing for being fat, and about insisting other people treat you well, goddamn it. And the way Shrill films fat bodies is revolutionary: tender, gentle, lingering on cellulite and moving bellies and rolls of flesh in a way that is reverent and unheard of.
The thing is, Shrill didn’t have to be good. It’s wonderful that it is; I am so glad that it is, and not least because I have a personal stake in the success of Lindy West, whose “Hello, I Am Fat” was the first thing that made me think that maybe I didn’t have to hate myself. All Shrill had to do (all any of these shows and movies have to do, really) in order to be revolutionary was merely exist.
Glory be to a story about a fat woman who is flawed and selfish and still sympathetic as she figures out her shit, as fat women are almost never allowed to be.
Aidy Bryant’s understated and nuanced performance as Annie was something I felt deeply; her loving and supportive friendship with her roommate and fellow fat woman Fran (played by Lolly Adefope) is beautiful. Annie is, as West was at the beginning of her memoir, not brash or shrill or opinionated at all at the beginning of the show. Fat women are asked to shrink themselves; we see Annie literally doing that, eating disgusting diet food and staying quiet and evasive and demurring. Until she’s not. Glory be to a story about a fat woman that doesn’t make light of how hard it is not to hate yourself, and that doesn’t push a narrative that hating yourself is eternal and inevitable. Glory be to a story about a fat woman who is flawed and selfish and still sympathetic as she figures out her shit, as fat women are almost never allowed to be.
I would be remiss not to say what is very obvious to anyone watching these shows: Like many cultural shifts that are recognized, finally, by Those at the Top, there is an element of...caucasity here. The fat acceptance movement was started in the ’60s as a grassroots organization, and not just by white people. The stories about fatness that are being lauded and written about and produced right now are about white women, or at least star white women, as if fatness and joy intersecting is purely a story of white people. I hope that Adefope gets her own damn show. I am glad that Samantha Irby is in the damn room. Episode 4 of Shrill, where Annie goes to a fat-positive pool party, has quickly become an iconic moment in television — and Samantha Irby gave us that. It is a priceless gift. I hope that people with money understand the value of these stories and throw money at those telling them. We can do more. We can always do more. But this feels like a hopeful start.
This is the new narrative, here in Dumplin’ and Isn’t It Romantic and especially in Shrill: We live in a world where fatness is punished, bludgeoned to subservience, but you don’t have to be. Stories about fatness have (almost) only been about sadness and self-loathing, but they don’t have to be. Self-loathing is inherent only insofar as it’s learned behavior from those around you: your not-boyfriends that kick you out the back door and are horrified at the idea that their friends might know about you, your thin friends who blithely suggest that you go shopping together or that they never think of you as fat because, to them, fat means ugly and stupid and lazy and gross and you’re none of those things, your mother and her pained flinching or blunt reprisal of your body because that’s what she learned from TV and movies and music and magazines and from her mother. But you don’t need to believe it.
You can have a fat ass and big titties and tell men what to do. You can wear a bathing suit in front of a crowd. You can watch a story that doesn’t pound into your heart that you’re not good enough and that doesn’t ignore, with a saccharine toothy smile, that your body is treated differently by the world and you are constantly reminded of that. You can dance with your best friend to Dolly Parton. You can open yourself up to love.
We fat women have been telling our stories for decades, and Hollywood is finally listening. It’s about damn time. ●
Kaye Toal is a writer of essays, novels, and mediocre tweets. She's based in Brooklyn.
My Mad Fat Diary originally aired on Channel Four. An earlier version of this story misstated that fact.