When it comes to representation, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. In fact, it makes those who are marginalized in every aspect of their lives—from school and the legal system to housing and food equity—cling to any sliver of representation that is presented to them through books, TV shows, and movies. An absence of representation is a pang for marginalized people, so we tend to gobble up whatever is offered to us by production companies and studios that are committed to exploiting our experiences to sell products.
I vividly remember the first time I saw a plus-size Black girl like me and felt that familiar longing for more. I was 9, probably coming out of another hospital stint for asthma, and my stomach was just beginning to spill over my jeans. I can remember my face lighting up as I watched a rerun of Living Single, and noticed Khadijah James (Queen Latifah) for the first time. The Brooklyn-dwelling magazine owner never discussed the size of her body, instead choosing to navigate the world with an air of someone who knows she is worthy of all things good. In her, I saw a sliver of who I wanted to be. Khadijah had multiple partners to choose from, including Grant Hill, Terrence “Scooter” Williams (Cress Williams), and even the men whose eyes she caught while out dancing with her friends and brownstone roommates.
Although Khadijah was larger than her friends, and often the largest person in the Flavor magazine office, it wasn’t something she wrung her hands about over and over and over again. Her size was a facet of her character, not the character itself. She had no qualms about it or any question about the amount of esteem she should have. In Khadijah, I saw who I thought I wanted to be. I wanted to navigate the world with confidence, precision, and ambition—in this body, unapologetically. I clung to Khadijah because she was so much different than what fat girls are typically fed in media.
Unfortunately, This Is Us, one of those classic shows that stays with you long after the season’s ended, didn’t learn from Living Single. Instead, it’s given us a plus-size character with all of the familiar trappings. Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) has no idea who she is. Since childhood, she’s felt inadequate when compared to her genius adopted brother Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and her famous actor brother Kevin (Justin Hartley). It’s a classic fat girl story: Kate’s mother Rebecca (Mandy Moore) tried to protect her from fatphobia by forcing her to hide her body, shrink her being, and make her conscious of the amount of space she takes up in the world.
She encouraged Kate to wear a t-shirt over her swimming suit, fed her cantaloupe with sour cream for breakfast, and pushed her to practice for the school’s talent show so hard that she eventually dropped out. Through her incessant need to protect Kate from the fatphobia that teaches plus-size people that we’re unworthy of happiness, she accidentally traumatized her. Rebecca didn’t know how to love her fat daughter, which transitioned into Kate being obsessive about her weight. She’s in a spiral of yo-yo dieting that only affords her a temporary happiness that’s predicated on the number on the scale. She’s resentful of her mother’s “perfect looks” and perfect life.
Did fat women really need a new iteration of this same old story? It’s a continuation of the imagery fat girls are accustomed to seeing and, in the absence of alternatives, clinging to in the media.
We’ve had Beulah (Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers), the “queen of the kitchen,” who neglected her needs to nurture her white employers and solve their problems. We’ve had Huge, an ABC family drama about seven teens who are sent to Camp Victory—an outdoors weight-loss facility—to slim their bodies down and lose some of their emotional and mental baggage as well. We’ve had Jane Bingum (Brooke Elliott), Drop Dead Diva’s protagonist, who is one of the best examples of a fat character living a full life—although she’s really a model trapped in a fat woman’s body. We’ve had Kirstie Alley playing a version of herself on Showtime’s Fat Actress, as she struggled to lose weight and gain control over her career. We’ve had Nell Harper (Nell Carter), a caretaker on Gimme a Break!, who never had a life outside of raising the Kanisky children. More recently, we’ve had Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) on Empire; Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) on Insecure; and Molly Flynn (Melissa McCarthy) on Mike & Molly—all of whom fit similar molds.
They’re obsessed with losing weight. They’re lonely because they lack romantic love. They feel slighted or stunted in their careers. They’re nurturing of everybody in their orbit, but nobody nurtures them. Kate exemplifies all of the worst aspects of the “tragic fat girl” character, a repeat of the script we’ve seen repeated time and time again. Given that fat women have few representations, the mere existence of Kate—who doesn’t have an hourglass figure or a size-12 frame—is considered “revolutionary.” While revolution requires more than mere inclusion, there are aspects of Kate’s character that are familiar.
Yes, fat women are often told that we’re unworthy of being desired, pleasured, or loved, so when someone is romantically interested in us, there’s some skepticism. Yes, we often have fraught relationships with our families who’ve tried to peddle “healthier” lifestyles to us by restricting our food intake, making untoward comments about our bodies, and helping us internalize that our bodies must be changed to be loved. Yes, we’re often pigeonholed into the role of nurturer within our families, our friend groups, and our relationships. But how can we ever envision ourselves differently if we’re only seeing one reflection in our personal lives, in media, and in our institutions?
Often, characters like Kate are shaped through the lenses of people who don’t navigate the world in larger bodies. It’s a projection of how showrunners imagine fat people live rather than the actuality of our lives. If that isn’t the case, why does Kate’s entire character arc revolve around her dissatisfaction with her body, her aimlessness, and her struggle to form a healthy relationship with her boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan)? Throughout the first season, Kate made inroads into creating a better relationship with her physical body, but that’s also predicated upon losing weight.
She meets Toby in a fictional version of Overeaters Anonymous, a group she joins to gain better control over her nutrition while she contemplates bariatric surgery. In nearly every scene, Toby and Kate are agonizing over their diet and their scale number. Should they order dessert? Will losing weight create a chasm between them? There’s no consideration of how romantic relationships form in the honeymoon phase. Where’s the sex, the romance, and the passion? Are fat people not entitled to a happiness borne from a functional, healthy relationship?
There’s a real value in having Kate Pearson on television. Somewhere, there’s a young girl—much as I was at 9—feeling seen for the very first time. They cry when she cries. They hurt when she hurts. They feel joy when she feels joy. At no point should we advocate for having less fat characters on television. What I’m asking for is more Khadijahs to balance out the Kates. We need more characters whose value isn’t predetermined by their size, whose lives don’t revolve around their weight, and who are able to both give and receive love without qualms. We deserve better scripts that more reflect the fullness of our lives instead of the tragedy in which we’re assumed to be living.