It’s a confusing time to be a plus-sized woman.
On the one hand, clothing brands are catering to a wider variety of sizes — and thinking beyond caftans and muumuus! — and models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday are starting to bring couture to our curves. On the other hand, magazine covers are rarely graced by women bigger than a size 2, and the term “bikini body” still exists, though as a popular meme suggests, you should be able to achieve that look simply by putting a bikini on your body.
There is a disconnect between the acceptance of all our curves being touted by fashion designers and media outlets and the daily lived experience of being a plus-sized woman. Being fat still means rejection by potential love interests or even potential employers. It means harassment online if you are someone who dares to be in the public eye. It means having to work just a little bit harder to be seen, to be valued, to be desired. It means that even though I generally love my body and clothe it in things that make me feel beautiful, I still struggle with identifying as “plus-sized,” and “fat” is an insult.
I’m pretty much equal parts hopeful and discouraged when I look at how larger women are portrayed in media. One of my first really positive experiences with seeing a woman of my size in a major television role was actor Melissa McCarthy as Sookie St. James in the original Gilmore Girls series, which ran from 2000 to 2007. The character so easily could have been the stereotypical “fat best friend” (see high school-aged Monica from the 1990s sitcom Friends), but Sookie is a talented, zany woman who arguably had more romantic success in the show than the svelte main character. She encountered complicated problems that had nothing to do with the fact that she was plus-sized. In seven seasons, her weight was never presented as an issue she needed to overcome. It was wonderful.
But after the show, McCarthy branched out into movies, and her characters in many of those are less encouraging. In Bridesmaids, McCarthy plays the outspoken and happy Megan, whose confidence is played as a joke she isn’t in on. At a dinner table, mouth full of food, she says, “Physically, I don’t bloat.” Her waifish companions lower their eyes and murmur about her good fortune. In Tammy, which she co-wrote with her husband, she plays a self-hating fast-food worker who rubs her hair on raw chicken when she gets fired. McCarthy brings heart and humour to both roles, and it’s liberating to see female comedians showing they can be just as gross as the guys, but it’s hard not to wish she was allowed to play someone with a little grace. Things have improved since then, with starring roles in films like Spy, where she transforms from a drab desk-bound analyst into a bold and stylish CIA field agent. But despite all her success, how likely is it that McCarthy will next play a femme fatale or an heiress fighting off hordes of would-be suitors?
What I long to see represented is a woman who is both fat and graceful. It’s possible, but too often even appealing characters play their weight for laughs. When we first meet Rebel Wilson’s character in the Pitch Perfect film trilogy, she introduces herself as “Fat Amy.” Why does she call herself that? So no one else does it behind her back, she explains. The movies feature Amy practising “horizontal running” (lying on her back cycling her legs in the air while the other women run up and down gym bleachers), getting hit in the chest with a burrito (her battle cry of retaliation: “I’m gonna finish him like a cheesecake!”) and splitting her pants open while performing on aerial silks in front of the Obamas. In other words, a fat behind is literally the butt of the joke.
While Rebel Wilson is an actor I love but struggle with, my favourite blond bombshell is Lindy West. West is a writer and performer whose work focuses on pop culture, social justice and body issues. She’s also unapologetically fat, which makes people angry. Her latest book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, addresses the issue head on, exploring the experience of growing up “big.” She writes, “So, what do you do when you’re too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you can’t with your body. . . . You try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh.” This is the kind of truth-telling I wish I had read when I was 12 and trying to hide my own flesh under as many big sweaters as I could. West’s take on the shame surrounding physical activity is also achingly accurate: “I stayed home as my friends went hiking, biking, sailing, climbing, diving, exploring — I was sure I couldn’t keep up, and what if we got into a scrape? They couldn’t boost me up a cliff or lower me down an embankment or squeeze me through a tight fissure or hoist me from the hot jaws of a bear. I never revealed a single crush, convinced that the idea of my disgusting body as a sexual being would send people — even people who loved me — into fits of projectile vomiting (or worse, pity).”
Is that why I hate going to a new fitness class without a friend? Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the great paradoxes of a larger body. If I can’t exist in ballet boot-camp classes because I’m too afraid people will believe I don’t belong, how can my body ever be healthy? If I can’t wear leggings as pants on a coffee run (like the thin girls do) because I’m afraid the sight of cellulite on my thighs will ruin people’s entire day, how can I ever really be comfortable? And how much brain space could I free up if I was able to just drop all this nonsense?
That West exists in the world as a successful writer and comedian, whose words can be found by a preteen who’s already learning to loathe her own body, gives me hope. That someone commented on a video of West taste-testing a seasonal cookie, “It’s like watching a reallllllly slow suicide,” reminds me we still have a long way to go.
This story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “Plus-sized potential.”