Fat is bad. That’s been taught to me since I was a child. Characters like Ursula and the Queen of Hearts showed me the blueprint for an evil person. The first step was to be overweight. The second step was to hate pretty girls, a group they would never be a part of. Ariel and Alice were thin and pretty, and good things happened to them. They were heroes. They saved the day, they lived happily ever after, and they always beat the bad guys. The only fat representation I had were villains, and if they weren’t villains, they were mothers taking care of thin heroes. At some point, that’s all I could see fat people as. If they weren’t in the self-sacrificial role of motherhood, they were in a greedy, abusive role as a villain. That is the way the world works, and those messages seeped into my brain from a young age.
Even as I grew older, I watched shows like Pretty Little Liars, New Girl, and Friends employ the use of the infamous fat suit, immediately transforming smart, capable characters into plotlines for cheap laughs. I saw comedians like Amy Schumer make a career out of calling herself fat. And we believed her. We believed that this size-10 woman was the definition of overweight. I saw Rebel Wilson, a hilarious, beautiful woman, play a character who called herself “Fat Amy,” which could have been a revolutionary show of body positivity and a way to reclaim the word as a descriptor instead of a harasser, but instead reduced her to a joke.
As a teenager, I loved those stories. I thought seeing pretty women degrade themselves on TV and movie screens was the peak of feminist comedy. That was how it was branded, after all. But they were inherently misogynistic and fatphobic. They utilized humor that sold to privileged audiences. They were crass enough to seem edgy and make men mad, but they were still selling self-deprecation. These women were making themselves seem down-to-earth through their own degradation. And while Wilson and Schumer aren’t perfect, it wasn’t entirely their fault. They were products of the market, and once the entertainment industry pigeon-holed them into their little boxes of “fat crass comics” they couldn’t really leave. The messages of fatphobia from their work crawled their way into my brain, and still lie there today, even though I know better. Now, I try to find different stories. Stories that have characters that look like me. Stories that can help me unlearn all the toxic messages I received as a teen.
Aidy Bryant’s Shrill is a show that I watch for the representation more than anything. Her struggles with men and dating are the only thing I’ve seen that has embodied the struggles I feel every day. From men keeping me a secret, to finding inner confidence, to the vitriol her character faces online, nothing else compares. But it is still a show where Aidy’s body is the main topic of discussion, and that can be exhausting. I don’t want to be a dinner table conversation. I want to be me, but society won’t let me exist without labels, without being seen as fat.
That being said, Shrill is a good series, but I wonder if Aidy Bryant would have been given a show if it wasn’t about her body. I wonder if she is looked at as a commodity because of her fatness rather than her talent and humor. I hope that’s not the case. Usually, when I find myself watching Shrill, I don’t laugh. Not that her show isn’t funny, because it is, but because the struggles she goes through are so real. They hurt me to my core because I’ve been spoken to exactly how Aidy’s character is spoken to. It’s like watching a car crash of my own life. I can’t look away. I want to support positive fat content, but it’s hard because to show the positive you have to show the negative. It’s a brave show, but one day I hope we are past that, that I can watch fiction with actresses like Aidy where their weight isn’t mentioned. I don’t want my body to be a plot point, but I have a feeling it will be a long time before that happens.
Then there is reality TV; a subcategory of television that lies near and dear to my heart, but is inherently fatphobic. I get it, shows like The Bachelor and Love Island are trying to sell a fantasy, and fat bodies aren’t the hot, sexy ideals these shows project. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Shows like this specifically ask for height and weight in their casting process, as if women size 6 and up aren’t hot, or men without abs are ugly. Neither is true. Even shows that are based on the premise of “can you fall in love without the distraction of someone’s appearance” didn’t portray any fat people (looking at you, Love is Blind). Is it just that fat people aren’t deserving of love or happiness outside of their own bodies? When you consider the reality shows fat people do get, it seems that way. Shows like My 600-Lb. Life profit off the exploitation of morbidly obese people. Same with The Biggest Loser or Revenge Body with Khloé Kardashian; they use fat bodies as a shameful thing. As something that needs to be fixed. There is always a celebration of their new bodies at the end of these shows or a monetary prize as if their only inherent value is in their pant size. Yet, I consume this media with a voyeuristic hunger. They are selling the fantasy to me, and I’m eating it up. Their stories are canned inspiration and cautionary tales. I may be fat, but at least I’m not “get cast on TV” fat.
And I am fat. It’s not something that I say to be self-deprecating, it’s something I say to be honest. My BMI places me in the “obese” category, and while BMI isn’t and shouldn’t be an accurate test for body mass, it still places me in a “high-risk” category at every doctor’s office I go to. It is a label of shame and insecurity that I’ve toted around for 5 years.
I wasn’t always fat. In fact, for most of my life, I was considered skinny. I wouldn’t say I loved my body, because I’m a woman growing up surrounded by media that tells me I shouldn’t be happy, but I was content. I had an understated hourglass body, something I didn’t realize until I got sick. Until I gained weight. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I still have curves, I still have an hourglass shape, but now it’s just a little squishier, a little rounder, a little more ugly.
I’m not calling myself ugly, in fact, some days I think I’m quite pretty. But society doesn’t agree. Through media and the portrayal of fat bodies, we’ve made it part of our ingrained beliefs that fat people are lazy, ugly, and worthless. We look down on those who aren’t thin, who don’t have what tabloids across the world consider the perfect “beach body.” I’m not going to lie, I’ve done it too. I hold a strong bias against people who look like me, and I even catch myself turning that same judgment inwards toward myself. I’ve grown in a society that attributes thinness with goodness, and now every time I see myself in a mirror I have to convince myself I’m not the villain in my own life.
How fucked up is that? Some days I wake up and see my reflection and really think that I am worthless, that I am morally not a good person, because of the way I look. I see a body that some people would find attractive, but just as many would find repulsing. I try not to show this outwardly to friends or family, but when insecurity is a part of your DNA, some inevitably seeps into your being and personality. It doesn’t help that most of my friends are conventionally Hot and Thin. I am in a constant cycle of comparison. I’m a glutton for punishment. So much so that I can imagine the many ways men online would abuse me in the DMs for using the word glutton to describe myself.
Within the past year, I’ve truly been working on gaining confidence. I have tried not to shy away from form-fitting outfits or from posting photos that show off my body. I’m trying to reverse the ways I think about myself, but it’s hard. Especially when the internet is so public and the abuse I get online so private. The bullies always hide. Sometimes it’s a DM, a quiet critique from a friend, or an off-hand comment in the bedroom. I’ve had men match with me on Tinder just to tell me they “aren’t into fat girls.” I’ve had doctors tell me to “talk to thin people to see how they do it.” I’ve had friends compare me to fat celebrities, refer to me as their “plus-size friend,” or even rank my appearance out of 10. I’ve had partners tell me that if we ever broke up and I “lost the weight” that I would owe them one last fuck in a thin body. As a fat woman, my body is a topic of discussion, and it never really belongs to me, but to anyone who sees it. Just living in this body gives permission for unwanted comments and harassment. Permission I never gave but others feel entitled to. This creates a cycle of insecurity. I attribute so much of my self-worth to how I look, so how can I consider myself valuable in my relationships and friendships if I’m fat?
I know that the solution is to stop putting so much worth into my appearance, but that’s easier said than done. I hope that one day I can reach the confidence of Aidy Bryant in Shrill. I want to be able to say “fuck it” and live my life authentically and happy in my own skin. It’s a long road. I know that I’ll constantly be swimming against the current, hyper-aware of how the world views me, and how I view myself. I’ll constantly feel the struggle of wanting to accept myself for the beautiful person I am, but also want to work on losing weight. I know I will toe the line of not “fat enough” to be a part of the fat positivity movement and not “thin” enough to be considered mid-size. No matter what, my relationship with my body is going to be a struggle. I don’t really know what the right step to take is, but maybe, one day, I can look in the mirror and not see a villain staring back at me, no matter what size I am.