Pop culture sizes up the weight issue

Overweight people, once the target of jokes and sitcoms, are more willing to go public with their bodies - and be judged by criteria other than looks.

Actress Ashlie Atkinson is surprised by the response she's gotten from people to her latest project, "Fat Pig." Rather than privately mulling over the Off-Broadway play about a love affair between a plus-sized girl and a guy who can't stand up to his bullying friends, audience members want to talk about it. They approach Ms. Atkinson, who plays the love interest, with photos showing how they looked before surgeries that made them thin, or they're interested in hashing out the meaning of the play.

Discussions about body size are on the upswing, as pop culture - apparently trying to keep pace with news reports about obesity among Americans - is generating entertainment that deals with being fat.

From Broadway to books, reality TV to the movies, the lives of the overweight are being mined for laughs and drama - giving a voice to those who typically don't get heard, and testing the theory that society is becoming more tolerant of bigger bodies.

As of late, conversations about weight are taking on a bolder tone. On TV, for example, one of the contestants on the upcoming VH1 reality show, "Celebrity Fit Club," reportedly tells a pushy trainer that his ideas about body image are out of whack and that a person doesn't have to be thin to be sexy. And in March, Kirstie Alley will debut her new comedy, "Fat Actress," on cable channel Showtime, poking fun at the nation's - and Hollywood's - obsession with thinness.

"[It's] really just a celebration of life no matter how fat you are," says cocreator Brenda Hampton, who calls the show funny, blue, and "ridiculous." "[Kirstie Alley] is not a spokesperson for overweight people. She does not take a serious approach to this at all."

Jennifer Weiner, who started shopping her best-selling novels about sassy, plus-sized women around Hollywood several years ago, says she's seen a greater receptivity to larger body sizes on the big screen since 2001. Back then studios told her that nobody wanted to see big women when they came to the movies, they wanted to see Julia Roberts playing the girl next door. But the hit movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the acceptance of a plump Bridget Jones, and the leads in the Tony-winning musical "Hairspray" helped change that, Ms. Weiner suggests.

In April, the movie version of her novel "In Her Shoes," telling the story of two sisters who envy each other, is scheduled to open. It stars Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette ("The Sixth Sense," "Muriel's Wedding") who was required to gain weight for her role as the chubby sibling.

"I think that there's a hunger, no pun intended, for characters who feel more realistic," Weiner says. "I do think that women want to see stories where you get your happy ending without necessarily going through the kind of transformation that they're selling on [reality TV shows] 'The Swan' or 'The Biggest Loser.'"

That hunger may be what's fueling the interest in "Fat Pig," written by Neil LaBute, which Ms. Atkinson says is offering her the type of role she rarely sees. "To have the bigger girl not be the best friend dispensing love advice, to have her there falling in love and being real, and getting her heart broken, is something that I'd never anticipated getting to do," she says after a recent performance.

Audiences are responding to the strength of her character, Helen, who tells her boyfriend she is comfortable with who she is.

"It was interesting to see her stance as being one of power, and his [the boyfriend's] being the wavering one," says Erin Graham, who saw the show on Tuesday while it was in previews. She liked that the person with the so-called flaw - being fat - was very self-assured.

Some of the ugly words used to describe Helen in the play, however, are a reminder that not all of the pop culture offerings about weight are flattering.

"The Biggest Loser" and other reality TV shows tout the benefits of weight loss, but also select tasks for contestants - like building a tower of tempting foods using only their mouths - that give a "minstrel show aspect" to it, as Weiner puts it. ("The Biggest Loser" debuted this fall and features contestants competing to see who can lose the most weight.)

Chris Crandall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, points out that if we really were becoming more tolerant, there'd be fewer unflattering photos in tabloids and more plus-sized actresses. But if change is indeed afoot, he says, the intensifying tug of war between tolerance and prejudice could be a sign of it.

"The fight between the two sides may be evidence that something's brewing," says Professor Crandall, who tracks attitudes toward the overweight. "It could get worse for fat people," he adds, "but there's a lot more room for it to get better."

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