CW: Discussions of anti-fatness and fatphobic portrayal of characters.
My hatred of Valentine’s Day was cemented in place by the time I was in the eighth grade. I craved the days of making Valentine’s card boxes and exchanging candy with friends. When the romance of the holiday still enchanted me. But those days were gone. Now, I sit alone on the school bus, counting like mad. I do this for the entire 20-minute ride back into town.
No matter how many times I recount and double-check, the facts are right in front of me as the breaks of the bus shake underneath my seat. One, I am the only fat girl on the bus. Two, I’m the only person who didn’t receive a Valentine’s Day rose at school. Three, the tears in my eyes give way and slide down my cheek. I make sure to wipe them away before anyone notices.
My heart breaks for 13-year-old me, who couldn’t understand the complexities behind the rush of emotions. Looking back, this wasn’t the first time the once-sweet celebration began to turn sour. I would’ve gone on loving Valentine’s Day, but from an extremely young age, I was constantly being told my body was different, repulsive, and wrong. The media we consume has a way of altering how we view ourselves, and as a teenage fat girl, I was a prime target. Everything that played on the TV reinforced what I already thought at the time, my body was not acceptable.
Going Against the Tide
10 years later, I realize just how much anti-fatness in our society affects the lives of real fat people. Between books, movies, and beloved sitcoms, fatphobia is still a pertinent part of the media we partake in. Fatphobia is often swept under the rug. Outcry only lasts for so long, until the conversation switches directions. But if we truly want to protect and uplift fat people, we need to speak out against these awful depictions. To understand just how entrenched our media is in fatphobic rhetoric, we highlight the history and prime examples of just how anti-fat our society can be.
Anti-fatness has always been present
The beliefs of fatphobia have stretched to nearly every institution of our society. From the inaccurate readings of using the BMI scale to public transportation seats not being accessible, anti-fatness has a deep footing in our modern world. The same can be said for how fatness is represented in the content we consume. Especially in stories from around the world, there is a distinct trail of anti-fat beliefs.
Take for example one of storytelling’s oldest supernatural villains, trolls and ogres. Folklore from France to Scandinavia describes these creatures as fat, large, stupid, carnivorous, indulgent, and ugly. Doesn’t that sound familiar? These trends continued in stories for centuries. The evil creatures would often threaten to eat their enemies, instilling the idea that bigger people only care about eating. As these tales began to gain traction, you’d see more instances of an ogre terrorizing a family, until a thin savior comes in, killing the monster in an epic battle. In this case, fatness is associated with evilness which soon becomes something that has to be defeated.
As time went on, our stereotypes and beliefs of fat people shifted into more covert marginalizations. With anti-fatness being directly linked to racism and misogyny, the expansion of negative depictions grew and altered as society changed. In the 21st century, we now have acronyms like DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) and horrendous tropes to continue the societal “norm” that fat people are the outlier, and the only way they can be included in our culture is if it’s for thin people’s entertainment.
Just like with other marginalized groups, fat people have fought off negative stereotypes for decades. However, that hasn’t stopped the literary world or Hollywood from using those tropes for their own benefit. There are several fatphobic tropes out there, such as a fat person suffering a brain injury, and suddenly realizing they’re attractive. Not all fat characters in media distinctly fall into one specific category. Many characters overlap in certain tropes or even create their own. But most fat fictional characters normally fall into one of three categories.
1. The Villain or Bully
Found in older sources of media, one of the main tropes that fat characters are assigned to is the villain role. Whether it’s in the form of a parent, monster, or school bully, this type of depiction tells audiences that fatness is meant to be hated and being fat is inherently bad. Think back to some of your favorite villains from childhood. Kingpin, The Penguin, Jabba the Hut. What do they all have in common? This trope has been used time and time again in just about every form of media you can think of.
2. Gluttonous Side Character
Sitcoms have a wonderful way of slipping in this particular trope whenever they get a chance. From Friends to Seinfeld, there’s always that one fat character that can’t seem to think of anything else but food. Out of all the fat stereotypes, this one is just cheap and lazy, and yet, the media can’t help themselves but use it. This only perpetuates the idea that fat people are genetically inferior and is just a sick joke. Fat people are complex human beings, saying anything else is just disingenuous.
3. The Fat, Funny Friend
The most inconspicuous fatphobic trope that runs rampant in our media today, is the awkward, fat friend characterization. While this doesn’t seem like a dangerous depiction at first, over time, the overuse of this trope can cause real harm. In just about every piece of media you can find, there’s always a socially fat, funny friend helping the protagonist throughout their journey. Even though they provide support, these characters are often the brunt of jokes, immensely self-conscious, and their character is never expanded past being the fat sidekick. They don’t fall in love, have any victories, or get credit for what they have achieved. In this case, this trope might be one of the most hurtful to fat people.
Anti-Fat Characters in Media
Now that you have an understanding of the fundamental tropes that promote the idea of anti-fatness, let’s take a look at some of the most notable characters that bring these stereotypes into reality.
1. Schmidt, New Girl
The characterization of Schmidt is exactly what NOT to do when representing a fat character. New Girl utilizes the use of flashbacks to tell the story of young Schmidt and Nick in college, but all they do is reiterate the point that “thin” Schmidt is the true him. This is just a brief period where he is deemed ugly and unimportant. In this case, his character would easily fall into the fat, funny friend trope.
Not only is Schmidt’s fatness played off as a joke for the sake of the audience, but a fat suit was used for flashback scenes. Just look at Schmidt’s wrist in the picture, and you’ll see how bad the suit was. Did they not realize fat people have wrists? If the show was going to use this storyline, the least they could’ve done was hire a fat actor for the role. But as you’ll see in future examples, Hollywood has a problem with fat inclusion.
2. Ursula, The Little Mermaid
Ursula is a character that swims past the typical fatphobic tropes. Even though she is a bigger character, that doesn’t stop her from being confident in her body. She’s sassy, independent, and determined. For these reasons, Ursula is one of Disney’s most popular villains, and for good reason. But that brings us back to an essential point. Ursula is still a villain. At the end of the day, children will remember Ursula for being the character that wanted to hurt Ariel, a thin, conventionally attractive woman. Even though her beautiful body is on display for much of the movie, Ursula is still villainized, leading young audiences to believe they shouldn’t route for fat characters.
3. Vernon and Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter
Throughout all my times of rereading the Harry Potter series in my childhood, I never discovered the underlying hate that hides in Rowling’s characters. Vernon and Dudley Dursley are prime examples of continuing the bully trope. Each of them is extremely abusive to Harry and in many scenes, are shown to be gluttonous when food comes around.
However, these aren’t the only fat villains in Rowling’s work. There’s also Umbridge, Crabbe, and Goyle. Each of their personalities revolves around the desire to hurt thin characters. This marginalization is so blatant, it’s surprising we didn’t see this type of characterization before. Ms. Rowling seems to already have a growing tally of critiques from her books. It’s about time we add fatphobic to that list.
4. Piggy, Lord of the Flies
Even amongst the classics, anti-fatness still persists. The name of this character is enough to elicit a bad reaction. Since we never find out his actual name, he’s stuck being associated with a hateful and frankly, overused stereotype. Piggy is shown to be cunning, decisive, and cautious around dangerous situations. But from the other boys’ view, he is simply a fat, asthmatic kid who won’t follow their direction.
Piggy is subjected to constant ridicule and hate from the boys, that he occupies space in the unimportant fat character and fat friend trope. He’s loathed so much from the others, that he is violently and intentionally murdered by Roger later in the book. His death once again speaks to the notion that fatness needs to be defeated, by whatever means necessary.
5. Charlie, The Whale
Don’t get me wrong, I love Brendan Fraser as much as the next person, but his character in, The Whale might be one of the most egregious depictions of fatness in cinematic history. If you thought anti-fatness was gone, think again. In 2022, we’re still perpetuating the idea that if you’re fat, your life is meaningless and sad. Charlie’s character is not human, but a caricature of what thin people think fatness looks like. While the movie earned a fair amount of backlash, director Darren Aronofsky stood his ground, saying that there are no fat actors who could play the role, so Hollywood once again resorted to prosthetics.
“Outside of not being able to find an actor who could pull off the emotions of the role, it just becomes a crazy chase. Like, if you can’t find a 600-pound actor, is a 300-pound actor or 400-pound actor enough? From a health perspective, it’s prohibitive…It’s an impossible role to fill with a real person.”Darren Aronofsky, Variety
He continued to say that a fat actor might not be able to handle the strain of being on set all day, which is simply a blatant fatphobic statement. But should we be surprised? This is the same person who stated that The Whale is meant to bring fat and thin audiences together, and show that fat people shouldn’t be made fun of. But all we see is the dehumanization of a fat character for two hours too long. Charlie never gets a moment of happiness. His life has been reduced to food, self-loathing, and admonishment from his family. This isn’t a movie that celebrates fatness, it’s one that ostracizes it.
Our honorable mentions include: Patty Bladell in Insatiable, “Fat” Monica in Friends, Rosemary Shanahan in Shallow Hal, and Renee Barrett in I Feel Pretty.
My Fat Hero
Amongst all the hatred thrown towards fat bodies, there are pieces of media that skate past the overused tropes. In the midst of coming into my own body at 11 years old, there was one fictional character that made all the jokes, insults, and exclusion disappear from my mind.
Tracy Turnblad from the acclaimed musical, Hairspray, was my savior. She was everything I wanted to be. Kind, thoughtful, and above all else, unapologetically fat. She danced without care, spoke her mind, and got the guy in the end! It was something that I had never seen before as a kid. Even though this was all new to me, I understood that this was how fat people should be represented. Not with disgust, but with humanity. Tracy turned everything I thought on its head, and I couldn’t thank her enough for it.
There’s no question that anti-fatness still holds a strong grasp over our society, but there are ways to fight back. Make sure to engage with more fat-friendly media of all types. In the world of literature, things are getting much better for fat representation. Authors are speaking up and creating a space where fat fans can feel just as welcomed as straight-sized fans. There are more YA and fiction books that center around fat people, and fatness in the romance genre has skyrocketed. For the most part, it seems like things are looking up for the fat-bookish community.
However, Hollywood hasn’t quite gotten the memo. With movies like The Whale and the constant use of fat suits, they continue to support the idea that overweight people in media are rarely portrayed to be heroes, love interests, or even interesting characters, so it’s not entirely surprising that many within the fat community don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day because we’ve been told the same narrative; fatness is not something to love. But against everything they hurl at us, we will continue to challenge that notion.
Every time I walk into a store during February, I will still sigh and try to part my way through the sea of red and pink tissue paper. My eyes will glance at the advertisements of a lovely thin couple, staring fondly into each other’s eyes. I browse through the endless selection of romcom movies, hoping. I do all of this and still cannot find myself represented in this supposed heartwarming holiday. And yet, against everything I know, I will still crave for the moment when Valentine’s Day truly makes me and my body feel loved.
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