Weight loss is promoted everywhere: on the front pages of tabloids lining grocery store checkout shelves, on sitcoms renowned for slice-of-life storylines, in blockbuster movies and bestselling books, and even Instagram-approved, influencer-driven ads. These pop culture products not only want to imbibe these narratives but absorb them, covet them, and crave them. The “I Was Fat” origin story exists in before-and-after photos that depict weight loss and in character arcs depicted onscreen and on the page. There’s a moral imperative associated with “slimming down” that comes from a toxic, fatphobic idea that having a larger body is synonymous with being evil, immoral, unintelligent, lazy, and rude. In fact, this mythos is so pervasive that even children’s media promotes and upholds it—notice how many villains in Harry Potter are described as being grotesquely fat or recall the characterization of Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s 1988 book Matilda.
As you might imagine, fat writers and activists who seek to dismantle this harmful origin story must navigate a minefield of criticism. That’s true even now, as fat acceptance is once again gaining ground in the overall “body positivity” movement, which is a far more watered down approach to body justice. There’s been progress, but it’s moving slowly, and that can be as frustrating as it is empowering. Content creator and video producer Jude Valentin, who was named one of Seventeen’s 2019 Voices of the Year, is among some of the rising voices in the growing fat-acceptance movement. In addition to launching the viral #NotYourBefore hashtag in response to Netflix’s 2018 series Insatiable, a series that presents weight loss as a solution to bullying, Valentin has worked on several fat-focused projects, including Fatventure Mag (a publication I cocreated and where I serve as editor in chief).
During my research, we hopped on the phone, and I asked them a simple question: What is the first before-and-after weight-loss story you remember encountering? “I think it was The Little Mermaid, when Ursula steals Ariel’s voice and becomes Vanessa, who is like this really thin, white woman,” Valentin says. They were 5 or 6 at the time. The answer isn’t as clear cut for musician and YouTuber Meghan Tonjes, who sells t-shirts and sweatshirts with “I’m not a before” embroidered across the front: “It’s really a barrage of characters where maybe it wasn’t as explicit as, ‘I lost weight and now here I am!’ but when you go back and you look at it … there are still all these elements and storylines about losing weight and getting thinner and the reactions from other characters. It became pretty clear to me that this follows every fat person, every fat character. This is a storyline that continues throughout.”
Poet Rachel Wiley (2014’s Fat Girl Finishing School and 2018’s Nothing Is Okay), whose work centers on her experiences as a mixed-race fat woman, has had a similar experience. “This is almost akin to asking me if I remember the first time I heard Whitney Houston sing,” she tells Bitch. “I can’t remember the specific moment but I have always known her voice. The after photo of success has haunted me as long as Houston’s voice has been blessing me.” Wiley does, however, recall the first time she saw her body reflected in pop culture without the associated before-and-after narrative: watching the 1988 adaptation of Hairspray, which features a fat protagonist, when she was 8. Editor Angie Manfredi and several contributors to the anthology The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce note a similar moment of recognition. In her introduction, Manfredi writes, “There’s another moment more and more fat people are getting to experience: the first moment they realize there’s nothing wrong with being fat.” (Full disclosure: Bitch’s editor-in-chief contributed to this anthology.
Though these realizations are still few and far between in mainstream media, fat creators are seeking to change that. Bestselling author Julie Murphy has written two young-adult books and one middle-grade novel that feature fat characters who thrive; Netflix adapted Murphy’s 2017 novel, and, in July, Murphy’s prose novel Faith: Taking Flight will introduce readers to one of the only truly fat-positive characters in comics. Hulu’s Shrill, a series loosely based on Lindy West’s 2017 memoir, centers on Annie, a fat protagonist portrayed by Aidy Bryant, and features multiple fat characters living their truths, even as they navigate daily microaggressions about their weight. There are jokes about fatness, but they’re seen from the perspective of the fat characters themselves, who are given space to react to and process those jokes. Annie has multiple romantic interests, sticks it to her fatphobic boss, and explains to her mom that fad diets are bad. Thin characters have always been given this freedom of expression and growth, while fat characters have frequently been relegated to “funny” sidekick roles or villains.
Shrill’s approach to depicting fatness is revelatory in its mundanity, showing audiences that being fat shouldn’t disqualify people from living a full life. Fat people worked both onscreen and behind the scenes (Bryant and West are the show’s coproducers, while author Samantha Irby is one of the show’s writers) to bring Shrill to life, allowing for a more authentic narrative that felt true to some nearly universal fat experiences. Though Shrill succeeded in some respects, Hollywood’s focus on specific kinds of fat people in its productions has generated some rightful criticism. “There has definitely been a shift [in how fatness is portrayed onscreen], but it’s still pretty firmly rooted in white patriarchal beauty standards,” Wiley says. “There’s a centering of white, small fats with curves in the ‘right’ places. There’s still [the expectation that] fat characters [will] be happy or funny or self deprecating, to be either over sexualized as a punchline or not sexualized at all. There’s more representation than there used to be, but no nuance.”
Wiley’s criticism is evidenced in characters like Kate Pearson-Damon (Chrissy Metz) on NBC’s hit drama This Is Us. Though Metz is not a “small fat,” her character arc is primarily focused on her body image, following restrictive diets, and pursuing a life that’s at least partially dependent on her losing weight—she associates thinness with looking better. While Kate’s struggles are relatable, the show reinforces the perceived tragedy and toxicity of her fatness, rather than giving her space to grow as a full human being. In order to continue creating more authentic stories about fat people, more fat creators must be hired in writer’s rooms, granted book deals, and tapped by Hollywood to adapt their stories—without being forced to adhere to a narrow set of standards imposed by diet culture.
In order to continue creating more authentic stories about fat people, more fat creators must be hired in writer’s rooms, granted book deals, and tapped by Hollywood to adapt their stories—without being forced to adhere to a narrow set of standards imposed by diet culture.
There’s a very important element to humanizing fat people in the stories we tell: Stories that aren’t centered around fat people losing weight (or wanting to lose weight) will hopefully create more pushback against the systems that hawk products and services intent on wasting people away under the guise of “health and wellness.” Diets don’t work: Between 95 and 98 percent of people fail to lose weight when they try, and at least two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost. Still, concern trolls come into fat people’s mentions and berate them for simply being fat because of deeply held cultural beliefs about the correlation between fatness and human worth. As Wiley puts it, “[Stories about fat people not centered on weight loss] validate the fact that we exist, that we have always existed, that we will always exist, that we are some of your faves, that while we are more than just our bodies, our bodies are also the very vessels that make us possible.”
Fat creators being at the helm of fat-centered pop culture might also allow us to permanently retire fat suits and narratives that turn fatness into a punch line—such as the fat Thor storyline in Avengers: Endgame or Insatiable; though these storylines are quicker to draw ire than not-your-before stories of yore, thin actors are still put into fat suits on a regular basis. “I have such a clear memory of being really young and going to theaters to see Shallow Hal, and that messed with me for years,” Tonjes says. “I think we all have that experience of sitting next to my friends who didn’t get it and were laughing, and being in that moment of, ‘Do I laugh along? Am I allowed to feel uncomfortable?’ And pushing that down because you don’t have anyone to talk to about it.”
Of course, people still watch—despite criticism, Insatiable was renewed for a second season, after all—but there are more conversations around the content and intent of these stories than there used to be, largely aided by social media. Though it seems unlikely that filmmakers could get away with something like Shallow Hal in 2019 because of social media pushback, weight-loss narratives remain present in the very same digital spaces where conversations about dismantling them are taking place. Wiley and Valentin are quick to point out the prominence of influencers promoting “flat tummy tea” and waist trainers. “I see it all the time on Instagram,” Valentin tells Bitch. “Because I am in body-positive spaces, I see people post their before-and-afters and whatever. Sometimes, people get called out for it, but a lot of times, they don’t. A lot of people are like, ‘Wow! Good job! You’re taking care of your health!’ And [they’re] not actually looking at what intentional weight loss does in the scope of harming people.”
Valentin, Wiley, and Tonjes are just three among many fat creators and activists who actively strive toward eliminating fatphobia through their work. “There are brilliant folks like Caleb Luna and Sonya Renee Taylor and Shoog McDaniel creating work that spotlights not just fatphobia but fatphobia as it relates to the wide ranging reach of white supremacy and misogyny,” Wiley says. Increasingly, more voices are pushing for more and better fat representation in pop culture. As a new decade dawns, the time to follow their lead and take up this cause and to remind the world that fat bodies are not a “before” is right now.