Sonya Renee Taylor has complicated feelings about the NBC series, “This Is Us.”
She was thrilled to see that one of the show’s main plotlines centered on Kate, a woman whose complex relationships with family, food, and love are exquisitely portrayed by Chrissy Metz. Nothing like that had been produced – would even have been possible – in the 1980s, when Ms. Taylor was growing up. “There were not bodies that looked like mine on television,” she says.
But the fact that Kate’s story revolves largely around her misery over her weight doesn’t sit well with Taylor, a performance poet who runs a company called The Body Is Not An Apology and advocates for what she calls radical self-love.
“Hooray, there’s this fat woman in a lead role,” Taylor says, “but when do we get over the idea that fatness is the worst thing that can happen to you?”
Taylor’s conflicted reaction to Kate’s character speaks to a broader, but equally discordant, discourse around body and beauty norms, and the portrayal of weight in Hollywood. There’s no doubt that film and TV have begun to respond to audiences’ desire for characters, especially female characters, larger than a size zero – or six or 12. That’s clear in the bankability of Melissa McCarthy; the development of shows and films with plus-size leads, like “Patti Cake$”, “Dietland”, and “Dumplin’”; and Ms. Metz’s nomination at this Sunday's Emmy Awards for her role in “This Is Us.”
It’s just as clear that Hollywood maintains petite as standard size. Leading roles – indeed, most roles – still go to actors who are far thinner than average. (The National Center for Health Statistics estimates the average American woman is just under 5 foot 4 and weighs 168.5 pounds.) The weight-loss-as-victory narrative is still a primary plotline for both plus-size characters and actual celebrities. And the likes of actor Jennifer Lawrence and model Cara Delevigne still say they’re told they’re too fat.
The tension reflects a peculiar cultural moment. While the body positivity movement is coming into its own both on- and offline, messaging around the “right” shape and size continue to dominate popular media. It’s a moment that academics and advocates alike say calls for a kind of societal self-reflection – an occasion to ask ourselves what we value most in our culture and how we’d like those values represented in the media we consume.
“Hollywood can be a way of humanizing and creating empathy. It can be very powerful,” says Abigail Saguy, a cultural sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the 2013 book, “What’s Wrong with Fat?” The question is whether the industry and its audiences are willing or ready to change the conversation around fat and body image.
“I’m not sure how strong that desire is yet,” Professor Saguy says.
In one of her first scenes on “This Is Us,” Kate stands in front of a scale in her underwear. She pulls off her earrings, takes a deep breath, and steps onto the edge. And then she tips backwards and falls. It’s Kate’s rock bottom: sitting on her bathroom floor, ankle aflame, miserable in her own body.
“She has this kind of epiphany,” Metz explains in an interview on YouTube. “‘My life is passing me by, and how do I fix it? If my self-worth is attached to my weight, let me focus on this in order to change my life and the trajectory of where it’s going.’”
To some, the scene is resonant. “Most people affected with obesity are pictured in a very stigmatizing, biased way … and play into those stereotypes of fat means stupid or lazy,” says James Zervios, a founding member of the Obesity Action Coalition, a nonprofit that works to empower people with obesity and provide access to care and resources.
While weight loss drives Kate’s decisions through the show’s first season, she is also more than her size; she’s funny and charming and smart, and her on-again, off-again relationship with Chris Sullivan’s Toby is almost too adorable. It’s a powerful departure from caricatures like “Fat Monica” from “Friends,” who is treated as a joke until she becomes thin, or the bumbling Klumps in “The Nutty Professor” series, Mr. Zervios says.
But to others, Kate personifies a principal and problematic narrative for the fat person in Hollywood: In order for a character of size to be worthy – of attention, of love, of dignity – he or she needs to want, or be trying, to lose weight. His or her other attributes become nothing but add-ons to that singular defining goal.
“When the only stories you see outside of the sassy fat friend are people who are dieting and miserable with their bodies, it makes you feel that’s the way all fat people are,” says Sarah Hollowell, a self-professed “fat writer lady” of essays, poetry, and young adult fiction. “You start to feel that the only part of your story that matters is when are you going to be skinny.”
For most of human history, fat was considered a sign of wealth and strength. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, as the food supply increased, that elites in the West began to cultivate an aesthetic that hinged on thinness and, particularly for women, delicacy. “It became low-class and immoral to be fat,” says Emily Fox-Kales, author of “Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders.”
Then 20th-century medical professionals linked negative health effects to excess weight. By the time former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared obesity a public health crisis in 1996, Western culture had done a complete about-face about fat: The goal became to shed it at all costs, and bodies that continued to carry it merited derision.
Popular media reflected and perpetuated those attitudes. While there were exceptions, such as the 1980s hit, “Roseanne,” fat characters usually were the butt of the joke or reviled villains – think Jabba the Hutt or Danny DeVito’s Penguin in “Batman Returns.” In other cases, fat was portrayed as punishment. The trailer for “Fattitude: A Body Positive Documentary” features a clip from “Scooby-Doo” in which Daphne – the svelte, red-haired sleuth – is transformed into a chubby version of herself. “Now you have brought the curse down upon yourself!” a voice booms, as Daphne screams.
“Her curse is she has to be a fat lady. Her curse is she has to look like me,” feminist critic and author Lindy West says in the documentary. “And I’m supposed to show that to my kids and have them internalize that narrative?”
This isn’t to say that weight has no bearing on health, notes Saguy at UCLA. But a person’s value shouldn’t rest on how fit they are. Plus, the double whammy of hostility from the medical community and pop culture creates a feedback loop that is neither helpful nor accurate, she and others say.
“There is no study that says someone who has been fat shamed is healthier than someone who isn’t,” says Kjerstin Gruys, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her recovery from an eating disorder inspired her to shun mirrors for a year – and write a book about it. “Any time the solution is ‘these people need to know that they’re fat and it’s a problem,’ you’re creating inequality and shame and neither of those things predict good health outcomes.”
As polarizing as Kate’s character in “This Is Us” has been for body positivity advocates, the role is nonetheless a marker for gradually changing views around size and weight. Among those preceding her are Ms. McCarthy’s Sookie St. James in “Gilmore Girls,” Nikki Blonsky’s Will Rader in ABC’s “Huge,” Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy in the film series “Pitch Perfect,” and Gabourey Sidibe’s Becky in the Fox hit “Empire.”
None of these characters are perfect. Rather they are at times tortured, ambitious, and vengeful, as well was funny, silly, and in love. And that’s precisely the point, says Lindsey Averill, co-creator of “Fattitude.”
“The representations we need are not representations that are specifically saying only positive things about fat bodies,” she says. “The representations we need are those that actually represent the lives of fat people.”
For now, at least, there’s yearning for more. August saw the release of “Patti Cake$,” which follows Jersey native Patricia Dombrowski in her quest for rap glory. Newcomer Danielle Macdonald, who plays Patti, will also star in the 2018 film “Dumplin’,” based on the novel by Julie Murphy about a self-proclaimed fat teenager who enters a beauty pageant in her Texas hometown.
Ms. Murphy, who grew up almost avoiding books and movies with fat people in them because “I knew what I was going to get,” recalls the first time she saw the 2015 film “Spy.” The movie featured McCarthy sporting a dark trench and a sleek dark hairstyle.
“It was like a moment when you catch your breath and you see someone who looks like you, and you don’t realize how much you’ve wanted that and needed that until it happens,” Murphy says. “I hope Dumplin’ can be that moment for somebody.”
Next year will also see the release of the AMC adaptation of Sarai Walker’s novel “Dietland,” which examines society’s disdain for fat women through the eyes of Plum Kettle, the 300-pound assistant to a teen magazine editor. “I had been really reluctant to sell the TV and film rights to 'Dietland’,” Ms. Walker says. “I was like, ‘No way is this going to be Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit.’”
She says she was surprised – and pleased – when executive producer Marti Noxon handed her a screenplay that stayed true to the story she’d written. “When I read the pilot, I had tears in my eyes,” Walker says.
Taylor, the poet, says these are reasons to celebrate, even though a broad acceptance of size is “far slower moving than some of our other awakenings around bodies.”
Still, she says, “The more we’re willing to tell stories that are filled with rich, diverse people, diverse bodies, who have rich, diverse experiences that are both awesome and awful, hard and triumphant, the more we begin to see that reflected in our world.”