When I was sixteen, I went on a starvation diet — eating only one meal a day. Over the next few months, I lost thirty pounds. As I lost the weight, people complimented me, which fed into my need to starve myself. One day, I went to WebMD and asked the community what would happen if I stuck to my diet. A nurse responded, she gently told me to stop and that eventually, my body would eat away at itself. When I read that, it stopped me dead in my tracks. Sometimes I wonder what caused me to do that. Perhaps I stopped because I watched characters from my favorite teen dramas deal with eating disorders, whatever the case — I’m glad I did it.
As a child, I loved reading, but I don’t remember reading about a character that looked like me. However, when I watched TV, things were a little better because at least we were there. Since I felt represented on TV, I started to prefer it over books. It still wasn’t perfect: fat characters were almost always the comic relief or sidekick and never the main character. Things were worse when you added race to the mix. Black fat characters were always (and often still) the “sassy Black friend.”
Characters like Theresa “Terri” MacGregor from Degrassi and Mercedes Jones from Glee set the bar for representation when I was growing up. While these two differ in many ways, they share a common thread: both girls struggled to love their bodies. That can be hard as a teenager, especially a teenage girl, but it led to their stories playing out in different ways. Terri thought that she could never get a boyfriend. Once she did, he turned out to be abusive, trying to control what she ate, and being jealous of her friendship with another male character. There is a pattern to how this plays out that suggests that fat girls can’t fully be loved or appreciated -- at least not if they like their bodies as they already exist.
On the other hand, Mercedes received somewhat better treatment. She had the same fear as Terri, and it caused her to look for love in all the wrong places. But eventually, that fear subsided. When her weight did become a central issue, it fed into the common trope highlighting eating disordered behavior as a “fix” for fitting in. And of course, it ended up causing her harm. She joined the cheerleading squad, and coach Sue Sylvester told her to lose ten pounds. To do that, she immediate goes on an extreme diet and it causes her to faint in the school cafeteria. This is a story we’ve seen far too often, and it rarely goes much deeper.
When creators use traumatic tropes like these, it hinders the opportunities for multifaceted, three-dimensional fat characters. And this is what I’m looking for.
I connected to characters like Terri and Mercedes, but their portrayals left me wanting more. There are so few fat characters who are happy with themselves. When I tried to think of one, all I could think of is Raven from That’s So Raven. I don’t ever remember her feeling bad about her weight as a story arc. Even when external forces tried to undermine her, like that time a magazine photoshopped a model’s body over Raven’s, she still came out on top. A rare reprieve, but let’s be honest--it’s not enough.
The narrative surrounding fat characters almost always relates to their weight, and it would be monumental to see a shift to more complex representations. Being properly represented would make us feel seen and heard. Books, film, and television can teach empathy, and I think we need that now more than ever. I remember how much my life mirrored those common narratives. I hated my body. I believed that no one would ever love me because of my size. I thought if I lost weight things would be better. In hindsight, I think that lack of representation added to that. When you constantly receive negative messages in media, you can’t help but absorb it and think of yourself that way.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I started to love who I am. Tumblr introduced me to the body positivity movement. Although I now see the problems with the movement, in my early twenties, I needed to see plus-size models like Ashley Graham and Tess Holiday alter the narrative about fat bodies and how we talk about them.
However, fat people can’t do all the work. It’s up to creators, studio executives, and the people with the power to catch up. I believe there’s value in weight-loss stories because they reflect legitimate experiences. Even so, we can combat fatphobia and show others there’s more to us than stories of self-loathing. We are so much more than our suffering or weight. I want to see a three-dimensional fat character who gets to go on their own journey. Moreover, I want them to be something else other than the comic relief or sidekick – I want complex, varied representations. We deserve. And we will get it.
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