We Are More Than TragedyFat Girls Deserve Better Than “This Is Us”

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.

Living Single

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.

Mandy Moore and Mackenzie Hancsicsak on This Is Us

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?

Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson on This Is Us

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.

Evette Dionne
by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s senior culture editor. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! I love

THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! I love Khadijah too, and I really want more characters where weight is never mentioned, where fat people just live their lives. So sick of this narrow view that if someone is fat, that all they do is think about their weight.

This is us

Disagree with your column… There are thousands of women in their 60s like myself who lived with that look from their mother every time they came out in an outfit that was tight. We knew her parents were disappointed in us and the show is very real to us

She is feeling the same way

She is feeling the same way every woman feels growing up. I was super skinny as a child. To skinny. Accused of not eating to get attention. Then I had children and grew to over 200 pounds. I was then accused of hating men and that was my way of keeping them away. Didn't work. Married again at 40. Now I am over 65 and super skinny again. Now everyone thinks I'm sick. People look at me like I must be dying. We are never perfect. Never will be. Live who you are and don't let others let you feel. About yourself or others. She is dieting because she is pregnant.

I'm not sure I can get behind

I'm not sure I can get behind this. Kate is indeed a fat girl with stereotypical "fat" struggles, but she isn't as one-dimensional as this author is attempting to illustrate. Are there larger women for whom their size and weight is not an issue? Of course! But not this particular one, and that's OK - because she kicks butt in other ways. Kate has spent a lot of her life wallowing in self-pity, but she is making proactive steps to move beyond that, with the help of Toby - whom she absolutely HAS been shown to be romantic with. Sex between them has been discussed multiple times, Toby has complimented her on her body and expressed his attraction to it, and now that she's pregnant, I think it's pretty obvious that they are getting down and doing it.

The reality is that, for a lot of larger people, "fatness" is a part of their daily lives, whether or not it's self-imposed. Even Mo'Nique, who was one of the biggest advocates for fat girls, eventually admitted that she needed to get a handle on her weight to combat health issues she had been denying for a while. Kate's weight loss journey at this point seems more a way for her to exert control and take charge of her life like she's never been able to do before than some desperate need to be skinny because that's what men want - is that such a bad thing?

Kate was shown to be really good at her job(s) in the first season and also pretty confident in that role, although she was mainly supporting her brother. She isn't some meek mouse who gets stepped on all the time, and she was brave enough to stand up to the fat camp owner's son, rather than be flattered that a man showed her attention as I've seen in other romantic situations with fat girls.

I totally understand the author's point, but I think the character should develop a little more before we rush to paint her as another sad fat girl. Kate is much more dynamic, and she should be given credit for that.

Help!

Hi there. I have a 7 year old beautiful, funny, bold daughter who I worry might be starting to get a bit heavy. She could also just be getting ready to go through a growth spurt, but she does seem to get winded when we play, etc.

I identify with the struggles of the mom on "This is Us". I know she is unwittingly causing lasting harm to her daughter, but I don't necessarily know, either, how to navigate this in a positive way. I do want to help my daughter develop healthy habits around food and physical activity without her ever once thinking she needs to hide or change who she is. How do I do that?? I am so scared that I am going to fail her on this. .

I have a mother who is exceedingly judgemental about weight, and I have noticed her not very subtly "noticing" my daughter's weight, and I want to shelter Clara from that nonsense. I also had a skinny nurse practitioner lady spout off all kinds of stuff about not serving seconds and a whole bunch of other assumptions she was making about Clara's eating habits IN FRONT OF HER. I was so mad and tried to stop her, but she was like a freight train of fat shaming garbage. I feel like these things have already set us on the wrong, complex-inducing path. .

Please don't attack me. I have made mistakes in all this already, I know. I am trying to do better and desperately want to know how.

Preach!

I’ve avoided watching This Is Us because I feared it played into the fat girl tropes I’m so used to seeing. It is so powerful to see a visibly fat woman (not an acceptably fat woman or a barely fat woman) on TV and in the public lens. However all that power is gone when all she talks about is losing weight. I want role models for fat women and girls who embrace their bodies and show they are deserving of respect, love, and romance. I don’t see it yet.

Idea Nightlight

Then we shall write the roles. Stream it on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or heck make our own media platform.

Rolls- now I desire a cinnamon roll. I digress. [Often].

I consider it more "Cloud Models"- fluffy. Or we say the hell with labels. Super Model no more calling it plus size. Hell with that. Breakdown the barriers. After all words are just that words. Meanings can change.

I've found being your own BFF make your own self laugh helps too. We are all works of art. If other's disagree then we don't need em in our lives.

We can write better more positive roles. We shall.

This is a beautiful piece -

This is a beautiful piece - thank you for writing! I love that line: "revolution requires more than mere inclusion." Reminds me of the 'master of none' episode about Indian folks on television.

Excellent read! Thank you!

Excellent read! Thank you!

Thank you so much for this.

I completely agree with everything you just said. When I tell people that I don't watch "This Is Us", they are shocked and proclaim that must I watch it. I tell them that I will not watch another TV show where a fat couple main focus is to lose weight. At that point those people get really uncomfortable or tell me that is a good point but I should watch it anyways.

I am a fat woman in a happy, healthy, long-term relationship with a fat person in which our relationship did not start at an Overeater Anonymous meeting. We also barely talk about our weight. It is a non-issue. I wish media would portray that kind of fat relationship and then not make a big deal about it. Do they freak out when two skinny people fall in love? Nope. Our love, relationship and bodies are just as valid as anyone else’s. Again, thank you for this piece, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one out there.

Such a great article!

Considering that we only get really skinny and really fat women in the media, it's a crime that the skinny ones get to play a full range of interesting roles (so far as they exist...) and fat women are the punchlines of their own jokes. I cringe when weight is the only "character trait" a woman gets to demonstrate, and when there's a moral judgement constantly being levied against her. It's not just that the health implications of being skinny enough for Hollywood are seldom talked about (and they are severe: I don't know a single actress who doesn't currently have or had in the past a significant eating disorder). It's the dehumanizing of a person and assigning worth to someone because of an artificial standard of beauty without ANY interest in the person. Maybe in the future we can have a full range of women in TV and movies, and maybe they can all be actual PEOPLE with motivation, aspirations, and personalities instead of bad, tired, sad jokes. Thank you for this article!

Thank you! It is so

Thank you! It is so refreshing to hear a realistic take on plus-size representation, especially from a Black woman.

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