What Do I Want From a Fat Protagonist?

In DepthIn Depth

I’ll wager I’m among the few—perhaps the only—person who counts a cheaply published piece of erotica titled Full Bodied Charmer as a cherished book.

It follows a plus-size woman who buys a date with a handsome man at a charity auction, despite the fact that his typical taste in women runs to the slender, and her ugly romantic history with blonde men. They fall into a relationship, thanks to their unexpected chemistry, but her insecurity nearly breaks them apart. The sex scenes are clunky; at one point, someone’s dick is referred to as a “big hot sausage.”

The laminate is peeling off the cover, which looked hokey when it was published in 2003, but has slowly acquired a sort of vaporwave coolness. (It was actually among the better covers produced by indie publisher Ellora’s Cave, which were notoriously bad.)

I haven’t read it in years, but I hang onto it in memory of a time when I was young and vulnerable and clung to any assurance that it was possible for someone to find my body attractive, when I eagerly consumed any piece of media with a positive representation of a fat or even moderately thick woman: Mo’Nique’s Phat Girlz, Queen Latifah rom-coms, and In Her Shoes. Most treasured of all: any romance novel with a “curvy” heroine who appeared to be larger than a size 18 that I could get my hands on.

despite the ascendancy of “body positivity” and a rash of movies and books marketed on the concept, I’ve found myself persistently dissatisfied with almost everything I encounter

I’m still hungry for stories about fat women. I should be awash in options, especially since the cultural discourse around fatness has changed significantly over the last decade and a half. But despite the ascendancy of “body positivity” and a rash of movies and books marketed on the concept, I’ve found myself persistently dissatisfied with almost everything I encounter. One protagonist is too miserable; another is sailing through the world weirdly untouched by the fact of being fat in a culture that quite obviously fears and hates fat people. I’ve begun to wonder at my own endless pickiness, and to ask myself what—if anything—would please me. What movie, what book, could possibly have the capacity to carry 30-plus years worth of my baggage?

Here are some pieces of popular culture that I should have consumed in order to write this essay, but didn’t—and delayed filing a draft until my editor was driven nearly to murder—because the thought filled me with absolute dread, to the point of totally overriding my usual compulsion to over-research.

This Is Us

I’m thrilled that Chrissy Metz has a starring role on one of the biggest shows on television, and I take a sort of pleasure in every time I’ve seen Milo Ventimiglia look solicitous and inclusive of her during interviews and red carpet appearances. But there’s almost nothing the show could do to overcome the fact that my introduction to her character in the first trailer was her standing in front of a refrigerator, looking dolefully at a cake with a note: “Do not dare eat this cake before your party, Kate. Love, Kate.”

It promised misery porn for those who think that fat people just need to work through some emotional shit and suddenly they’ll be motivated to get serious about their health. Sitting down to write this piece, I did a little YouTube investigation to see whether perhaps I had judged too quickly and found this video, which has the explanatory caption, “Kate commits to an immersive weight loss experience, where she discovers that the hard work is finding out what’s deep inside.”


I’m not watching anything that prominently features a fat suit, sorry.

Good Luck With That

In this women’s fiction title from a popular romance author, two friends reassess their lives when a third with whom they once attended fat camp dies of complications from obesity. (It doesn’t get specific about the nature of those complications.) Positioned as a body-positive journey of self-acceptance for these two, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that one of the fat women has to die tragically for her friends to learn to love themselves.

This is a theme that has always stalked my reading of books with fat protagonists: How fat are they? Are they as fat as me? Or would they actually seem comparatively thin, standing next to me in a group photo? Am I acceptably fat, or unacceptably fat? Do I deserve the narrative arc where I come to love myself, or do I die in the opening pages, consigned to the role of symbol and plot device?

Sierra Burgess Is a Loser

Similarly, while I was probably about the size of Barb from Stranger Things in high school and that gave me enough baggage to last a lifetime, it’s difficult to watch something that revolves around the supposed unattractiveness of someone smaller and frankly pretty self-evidently cute.

I Feel Pretty

Maybe Amy Schumer does feel fat, but she isn’t. There it is again, that notion—that really, the solution is to love yourself. Really, the problems are all in your head, except instead of your rampaging emotional issues making you fat, it’s your lack of confidence in yourself holding you back.

The second half of Dietland

I really don’t think this show was executed as well as it could have been, but here’s what really made me stop watching, if I’m absolutely honest: the fact that the detective who was maybe putting the moves on her was actually married and, presumably, cozying up to her in the service of some ulterior agenda. That, and her speech at the end of the third episode: “I don’t hate myself. The world hates me for being like this. Every day I walk around in this skin, people look at me like I have the plague. They act like I’m a stain. They stare and laugh and yell and worst of all, they tell me I have such a pretty face. And then they lecture me on how I can fix my body, because how I am is wrong.”

She concludes: “If this is it—if this is my life, if this is my body, I’d rather be dead.”

It’s the opposite of so many stories that fall short: It was true enough to lead me to a dark place, and even the promise of a harsh satire about the Fat Bitch Liberation Army wasn’t enough to keep me watching.

The story I tell about myself is that all my body issues are in my past; I no longer live somewhere quite so obsessed with tying a woman’s worth to her appearance. My problems are purely practical: The frustrations of cramming myself into a tiny seat because airlines only care about squeezing every dollar out of every passenger and fat people are so marginalized that nobody cares about our discomfort. The anxiety of finding a new doctor who won’t blame my weight for every ache and complaint, a recipe for missing some vital diagnosis before it’s too late. The simple indignity of the fact that if I need something to wear on short notice, it’s a logistical crisis.

It’s not entirely true, though. A broken bone heals, but it still aches in the rain. Things catch me off-guard; decade-old internet comments by somebody you’d figured was all right, for instance, can send me into a two-week period of feeling not even revolting, but weirdly detached from myself, numb from seeming confirmation that what you thought all straight guys you encountered in your early 20s must have been thinking. I was once almost reduced to tears sitting at a Torrid fashion show that was, frankly, pretty unappealing, but the clothing was so totally what 20-year-old me would have wanted to wear that I couldn’t help but feel like I’d turned a corner and encountered a younger, more vulnerable version of myself. Sometimes I wonder who I’d be without the sense of limited horizons that was so deeply ingrained so early on.

One of the things that practically invites a flare-up is, unsurprisingly, encountering some shitty piece of pop culture about fat people. “Bad representation” is an awfully bloodless term for what it feels like to stumble upon a funhouse mirror version of yourself. Before Gwyneth Paltrow was the queen of pseudoscientific wellness content, she was Rosemary, the love interest in Shallow Hal opposite Jack Black, a man cursed to see the “true beauty” of various conventionally unattractive women. Basically two solid hours of fat jokes, it features a set piece where Rosemary’s seemingly immense weight flattens a steel diner chair. There’s another scene that depicts her doing a cannonball so monstrous that she hurtles a child into a nearby tree; beforehand, the movie offers the audience a rare glimpse of her real body. It looks like my own. There’s no unseeing the evidence that your body is held in such complete contempt.

Just thinking about the movie Shallow Hal makes me feel like I’m a balloon drifting away from my own body.

There’s a popular line of argument online, that what we really need is stories about fat women simply living their lives, in which they are simply fat. There is a part of me with which this resonates—the same part of me can imagine nothing more appealing than a lushly costumed historical cozy mystery series in which the heroine’s fatness is incidental. Or a charming, peppy rom-com in which the heroine is fat but it’s never once discussed.

I find myself longing for that hit of misery. I need that acknowledgment; I need that witness

And yet, I find myself longing for that hit of misery. I need that acknowledgment; I need that witness. Without it, I feel slightly cheated. It’s like the experience of being a fat woman in this world is a stubborn knot in my back that requires some occasional, painful pressure to recede. But not the wrong kind of pressure—anything too miserable, too pathetic, feels like it’s written for outsiders to the experience hunting a melodramatic rush that plays to their own preconceptions of fatness. I’m looking for precisely calibrated misery. And then—crucially—I want the plot to move on to something happier. I want a romantic plot. I want to enact my own private ritual.

I don’t hold out much hope for Rebel Wilson’s upcoming project, Isn’t It Romantic, about a rom-com hater who knocks herself unconscious and wakes up in a rom-com where Liam Hemsworth is obsessed with her. It sounds like a variation on I Feel Pretty. Wilson touted the movie as the first rom-com anchored by a plus-size woman, though she was wrong. It’s too bad that Wilson and others haven’t watched Mo’Nique’s Phat Girlz. Made in 2006, its body politics are underdeveloped—“I hate skinny bitches” was Mo’Nique’s line at the time—among other problems.

But what made it compelling was the way it walked the line between wish fulfillment and being completely full of rage. At one point, Mo’Nique hops over a desk to rip the toupee off a white bank employee who won’t give her a loan to start her plus-size fashion business, because the house she wants to use as collateral is in a black neighborhood. The movie climaxes with Mo’Nique absolutely losing her shit and destroying her bedroom, throwing her TV out the window. And in the end, she gets her successful business and her handsome Nigerian doctor. Big Hollywood studios don’t really do jagged edges like the ones of Phat Girlz, even as jagged edges are valuable.

If all these years of disappointing portrayals have left me encased in a protective layer of preemptive skepticism, then there’s a real delight in finding that something promising actually delivers. Of all the recent fat protagonists to appear on screen, the movie that’s done the best job—without question—is Dumplin. Based on a YA novel by Julie Murphy—an author who is not afraid to call herself fat—it gives its protagonist room to be angry. It follows a teenager, Willowdean, who’s recently lost her beloved, Dolly Parton-loving fat aunt and enters her mother’s beloved beauty pageant in order to make a mockery of the spectacle. Instead, she finds herself transformed by the experience. It’s not that she simply needed to find her confidence; it’s that she comes into her own and finds a way to live on her own terms, without fighting every step of the way.

It’s a fairytale about anger burning out productively, passing away in favor of something more soothing. It’s so, so satisfying—because it fulfills one of drama’s oldest promises: Catharsis. It’s true for Dumplin, it’s true for Phat Girlz, and it’s even true for Full Bodied Charmer. And in a life where the world is apparently always going to be at odds with your body, that feeling is a pearl beyond price. It’s what I want from a fat protagonist.

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