Rebel Wilson is a successful Hollywood actress, starring in the smash hits Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, the latter of which has a sequel in the works. Her deadpan delivery of sarcastic, often vulgar quips is very entertaining. Her blonde hair is shiny and she has a fantastic smile.
She’s also fat.
And we’re not allowed to miss that. Her 2012 appearance on the stage of the VMA’s in an oversized T-shirt, with a caricatured thin body on it, was a stark contrast to the stunning outfits of Rihanna and Emma Watson. No one else was eating out of a chip bag, either. And the audience roared with laughter as she debated over which member of boy band The Wanted she liked best. The whole shtick seemed really unfair to her. Rebel Wilson the Joke overshadowed Rebel Wilson’s jokes. Rebel Wilson’s size overshadowed Rebel Wilson’s talent.
And maybe MTV didn’t do this with malicious intentions. Maybe it wasn’t entirely their idea. Perhaps Wilson has decided that the best way to deal with ridicule about her appearance is to bring it on herself, taking power or smugness away from would-be bullies. We get this impression from one of the lines in Pitch Perfect. It involves Wilson introducing herself to two other girls as “Fat Amy.” “You call yourself Fat Amy?” one of the girls says. “Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” she answers matter-of-factly.
Yes, embracing who you are is a wonderful thing. Being able to poke fun at yourself is great too. But well-intentioned or not, self-defending or not, to me this highlights a problem. Women whose bellies are not flat, whose chests are not so perky or “proportionate,” who have love handles, short torsos, that annoying bit of fat on their upper arms or any combinations of these still have to make excuses, to put up a shield. To apologize for their “imperfections.” To feel driven by constant pressure to fix them, or if they can’t, to feel properly bad about themselves so they can swap insecurities with their girlfriends. Or make jokes about it on TV.
This hyper-self-awareness is magnified when a woman is in the public eye. Skinny is the “healthy,” skinny is the “normal.” Any deviation is abnormal and therefore must be paid attention to. If a woman in the spotlight is not thin, more often than not her figure becomes the center of her character, the basis for her humor, the crucial deciding factor in how she’s treated by others and by herself. She’s a size 2? Carry on then. She’s a size 14? Here’s a joke about her dates with two men tonight, Ben AND Jerry, hahahaha. As if any woman who doesn’t fit into the often unrealistic mold could only be obsessed with her figure, as if that must be the top priority.
The MTV bit was supposed to be funny because we should all know a fat girl can’t date fit, attractive guys. She can have opinions and talent and charisma and likability for days (which Rebel Wilson does), but all that tends to be secondary to her size. And that’s just plain not fair.
Not Skinny people, according to movies and TV shows, love taking every opportunity to show off their hilarious physical disadvantages with short running fits, clumsiness, and heavy wheezing. They also delight in firing off jealousy-filled quips to their thin friends from behind a Chinese takeout box. The Not Skinny girl isn’t the lead actress with a stellar career and maybe some problems with her hot boyfriend. She’s the one ironically eating a salad or blatantly eating a donut, offering emotional support and funny one-liners to her friend/relative/co-worker—the lead—and harboring a secret crush on a guy that (we’re led to believe time and again) won’t work out because she’s fumbling, awkward, and fat. For our amusement.
And God forbid she tries to be sexual. You know, that natural drive almost everyone has, controlled by our hormones. In mainstream Hollywood, sexuality is only legitimate between ‘beautiful’ people. A lot of times this is true with men too, but in the end even the “geek” or “loser” guy usually winds up with a beautiful (thin) girl. They’ll show the Not Skinny girl feeling sexual attraction, wanting sexy things, but rarely is she gratified. It’s funny to see the lead actor’s best buddy “take one for the team” and talk to the lead actress’ Not Skinny friend at the bar, on the premise that there’s no way he could possibly be attracted to her. It’s funny to see the Not Skinny girl drool over six-pack abs or a chiseled jaw, a) because she’ll be the most blatant about it and b) because we’ll assume she has no chance with him. That’s why the VMA audience laughed when Rebel Wilson declared, “I choose all of you! Everybody wins!” to the good-looking lads of The Wanted, in a cheap t-shirt that caricaturized a “better” body than hers.
Less-than-toned male actors, such as Knocked Up-era Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell, do take flak for it occasionally, and their characters are often portrayed as awkward around the opposite sex and people in general. The big difference? We are supposed to root for them. Their lack of abdominal or pectoral definition does not define who they are; it’s just one trait among many. As the movie progresses, we often see that despite superficial ‘imperfections’ they’re a well-intentioned guy with deep desires and feelings that deserve to win out in the end. They entertain and they uplift. Not Skinny women characters tend to do far more of the former than the latter. The sympathy she receives is more, “Geez, it must be tough being so not skinny, awkward, and undesirable” and not as much, “Geez, it must be tough not getting into that law school she worked so hard for and wanted so badly.” Even if she does ‘win’ in the end somehow, our reaction to it isn’t expected to be the same as when Average Guy comes out on top. With him we are meant to feel like true justice has been done. With her we are supposed to be shocked and clap and laugh because oh good, she got a happy ending too, how cute, look how neatly this movie wraps up. There are exceptions of course, probably many. One that comes to mind immediately is the recent remake of Hairspray, though there’s also a lot of weight-focus there. But this pattern repeats too often for it not to be noticed, unconsciously and otherwise.
To be clear, I’m not saying that some self-deprecation can’t be a good thing. I’m arguing against the lack of legitimacy as complex, complete human beings that Hollywood grants to Not Skinny women: the neurotic need to put their weight always at the forefront, and the subsequent passing along of this obsessive mindset to everyday women and men.
We’ve all heard about how unrealistic media images (which, we sometimes forget, tend to be extremely manipulated to better embody the acceptable frame and erase any ‘imperfections’) affect people’s self-esteem. But it’s more complicated than “That actress on the magazine cover has toned arms and I don’t, and now I feel bad.” The constant exposure to thin people, not only as frozen images on billboards and advertisements and magazines but also as multifaceted relatable characters on movies and television shows, instills in us the idea that this is what’s normal. That this is what most people, with problems and quirks and relationships just like you, look like.
But if you look at the numbers, it isn’t normal at all. According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control, in 2010 (the most recent data I could find) the average height of American women was just shy of 5’4”. The average weight was 166 pounds. Both these averages are a far cry from what we tend to see, and if someone with these proportions is on screen, they are the “fat” friend. Not the average girl, not the everyday girl. They are Not Skinny Girl, and the focus on her becomes the focus on this label. If you grow up and exist around mainstream media, the mindset of slender=standard gets stuck in your head, and I’m not sure if it can be un-stuck.
Most women aren’t under scrutiny at the same level as celebrities, but pressure still exists. Advertisements for diet pills, workout systems, gym memberships, even athletic wear, insist simultaneously on the superiority and the normality of tight and toned women with nary a jiggly thigh or a single cell of stomach fat in sight. “Look at these women, using our products and looking this good,” the ads say. “Why don’t you look like this? You should! Use our product and you can! Maybe! At least give us money and you can try! You shouldn’t fail, but if you do, it just means you haven’t given us enough money yet! What are you waiting for? Drive your fat ass to a store/gym NOW! You can lift a credit card, can’t you?”
From a capitalistic viewpoint this makes sense. If too many people feel too good about themselves and their bodies, they likely won’t feel the urge to go to the gym or buy fancy running shoes or purchase potentially dangerous supplements. You have to create a need in order to profit from filling that need. Embracing yourself might be a wonderful thing, but it’s not a lucrative thing. I’m just not so sure that a huge chunk of the population potentially not being their best selves, caught up in low self-esteem and unhealthy competition and doubt and fear, is worth the money.
Written by Melanie Stangl