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A taste of character: fat representation

Jul. 7, 2017
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I have been fat my entire life. And for a majority of my life, I didn’t think fatness was okay.

Like many fat-kids-turned-adults, I was raised on a strict diet of mainstream media. Because of this, I came to view fatness primarily as villainous or pitiful in nature. Brutish bullies like Miss Trunchbull (Matilda) and Mama Fratelli (The Goonies) tormented children for their own gain. Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid) was a massive manipulator. Meanwhile, Rosemary (Shallow Hal) only secured a boyfriend because he was brainwashed to see her as thin. Bonnie Grape (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) gorged herself until she was one with her house. 

Then there was Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregard (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), whose mutual hunger damned them to vacuum tube distress and near explosion. I watched Willy Wonka countless times growing up, enraptured by its eerie tone and colorful, candied scenery. It was not until later, when I had distanced myself from the film, that I realized I had internalized the Oompa Loompa’s judgment: “Where are you at getting terribly fat? What do you think will come of that? I don’t like the look of it.” 

It turns out that when “I don’t like the look of it” sums up your self-perception, you become desperate for support. I found that support through indie films in general, and Little Miss Sunshine in particular. Although I was seventeen at the time, I strongly identified with Olive—a chubby, bespectacled girl whose love of ice cream seemed at odds with loving herself. Olive’s arc was cathartic. I cried when she sucked in her tummy and stared forlornly at her dessert; I cheered when she let go of her self-consciousness and embraced her inner “super freak.” Olive became my unofficial litmus test for fat representation. I knew I wanted to see more fat characters who gave zero fucks. 

Enter Divine. 

It was 2011. I was a college senior living with three rad roomies, discovering body positive circles online, and actively improving my body image. All of these factors pointed me towards Pink Flamingos. I was immediately enamored. Whereas Olive felt familiar, Divine felt revelatory. Instead of sucking in her belly, she accentuated it with skintight dresses. Instead of worrying about the implications of eating ice cream, she ate dog shit with abandon.  Norms of attractiveness, decency, and femininity did not apply to her. She was the self-proclaimed “Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” She was fat liberation in its purest form.

In the five years since my initial Pink Flamingos viewing, I’ve yearned to uphold that purity. I’ve devoured all of Divine’s roles, studied them, written about them. I’ve worn fatkinis and dismissed haters. Despite all of this, Divine’s liberated portrayals have proved insufficient. They may speak to my ideal life, but they ignore my everyday one. 

I navigate a middle ground, somewhere between Olive’s insecurity and Divine’s indestructibility. The more time passes, the more I value depictions of that middle ground over depictions of the poles that define it. 

Thankfully, Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig seem to value the same thing. In each of their four actor/director collaborations—Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters—they have presented a capability-over-physicality model of fat representation. Within this model, McCarthy occasionally indulges in moments of vulnerability and self-consciousness, but those moments do not define her characterization. Rather, badassery does: Megan (Bridesmaids) eases the pain of previous harassment by achieving the “highest possible security clearance” with the U.S. Government; Mullins (The Heat) makes amends with her dysfunctional family through ensuring their safety and dismantling a criminal web; Cooper (Spy) goes from being a sheepish behind-the-scenes operative to a fearless field agent; Abby (Ghostbusters) “gets dumped on pretty much all the time” for her paranormal preoccupations, but her dedication saves New York City and deepens her friendships. Regardless of their setbacks, all four of these women live up to the precedent Megan sets - they “pull themselves up” and persevere. 

As a fat viewer who is now closer to her thirties than her teens, I hold the McCarthy/Feig brand of characters in increasingly high regard. They remind me that it is possible to thrive within normative society. They fill in nutritional gaps left by the villainous and the pitiful, the uncertain and the invincible. Nourished by the strength and realism of these recent portrayals, I am able to conquer the lingering voices of Oompa Loompas past. I can finally attest that, when it comes to my fatness and its evolving representation, I do like the look of it. 

Cover Image via TheScruffyNerdHerder