When I was a kid, like lots of other young girls, I watched Friends. Everything about them seemed fun – they were pretty and lived in New York and didn’t need money because they had each other (and gorgeous apartments and clothes and no indicators of real financial struggle). The show ran from when I was six until I was sixteen, and although I wasn’t raised on TV, I watched it fairly regularly – it had a strong role in shaping what I believed adult women were supposed to act, live, and look like. Oh, and I was also fat. I was a chubby little kid watching a show about beautiful, thin women, and guys who dated beautiful, thin women.
But then there was Fat Monica. See, beautiful, thin Monica (played by Courtney Cox) was apparently fat in high school and college. There were many jokes made about this in the present, but when we got flashback episodes – oh man. There are just many hilarious ways to point out how gross and undesirable she used to be! Fat Monica had obviously low self esteem, seemed to binge eat, and was desperate for attention that she only got as a joke or from begrudging guys. Even her future husband, Chandler, makes fun of her relentlessly and continually acts disgusted by her body. Somehow, she eventually manages to lose the weight, and turns into the beautiful, socially acceptable Monica we grow to know and love. She and Chandler fall in love and get married and somehow we’re supposed to find that cute.
Friends was problematic in many ways (yes, Lena Dunham, they got called out for having an all-white cast too!) that step outside the scope of this article, and this is only one of many fat-woman-as-a-punchline examples in pop culture, but the one that stuck with me the most. Sitcoms and mainstream media have long ignored plus-size women, only bringing us out to laugh at us, remind us that we’re unsexy and undesirable, then tuck us away so we can again focus on thin women. Friends made me think as a child that I was unworthy of love, was going to be mocked relentlessly by my friends and family for my weight, and should never bother flirting because I would just disgust every man I looked at.
Monica was only one example of how movies and TV shows will often use fatness as a character trait – however to avoid actually having fat characters, they simply take beautiful people and give them a fat backstory. This is seen on Glee and New Girl, in the movie Just Friends, amongst others. Being fat is often portrayed as a way to force the character to build inner beauty (because surely they have no outer beauty, so they gotta find a way to redeem themselves for that!), but they lose the weight and are, of course, better for it.
Even when they stay fat, things aren’t much better. The movie Pitch Perfect features a character actually named Fat Amy (who calls herself that so “twig bitches” won’t call her that behind her back – admittedly not the worst tactic). I went to see it after hearing online that it was funny and Fat Amy was a great character – ehhh. There seems to be a recurring theme of overtly sexual plus-size women (Bridesmaids?) – but they aren’t owning their sexuality, it’s merely presented as a joke. When Fat Amy talks about needing a break from all of her boyfriends, the audience laughs, because it’s supposed to be funny. Many of her funny moments are tied into her weight (rather than partaking in team mandated running, she opts to lie down and calls it “horizontal running”). Although she does get a bit of character development and depth, everything mostly ties back to her weight. While it’s great to see a plus-size woman in a mainstream college movie at all, the message was again that you can expect to be seen as fat first and a person second. (Again, Pitch Perfect had a lot of racial issues, some of which are discussed at Racialicious, as well as homophobia and, of course, sexism to balance it all out.)
These repeated images of fat women as either jokes or objects of disgust have an effect on the way society views us, and how we view ourselves. They don’t represent us as people, just as vehicles for cheap laughs. Frequently including weight issues as a former struggle that the character overcomes is erasing – being overweight isn’t something that only exists in the past tense; it’s simply a physical trait like hair colour or height. It’s time to start humanizing plus-size women – as much as the media may hate it, we have sex (some people even find us attractive!), friends, lovers, emotions beyond self-hate and self-derogation, even full lives. As a plus size woman who was affected by poor representation of people like me, I want to see some of the strong, badass, happy plus size women I know in real life portrayed on the big screen.
Do you know of any positive representations of plus-size women in mainstream media? Did you like Monica’s fat storyline, or Fat Amy? Let us know in the comments!