How Fat Characters are Portrayed in the Media Part 2

vintage tv set placed on stone barrier
Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

An Introduction

Welcome to part 2 of our discussion on how fat characters are portrayed in the media. Last week we went over some of the common traits characters in larger bodies are assigned in movies and TV shows. It paints a grim picture of some of my favorite shows, but I remain hopeful that our culture is shifting in a better direction. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, please do so to ensure we are all on the same page for today’s post. 

This week’s post focuses more on the problems that media messaging about fat bodies causes for people in larger bodies in real life. Whether we like it or not, we subconsciously absorb things about certain types of characters in the movies and TV shows we watch regularly. As a result, it’s important to look at what the media is really saying about certain types of people, explicitly or implicitly. 

Let’s get into it, shall we?

Dwight from The Office with caption Let's Do This

How Harsh Media Can Affect Anyone

While writing both posts on this topic, I feel myself trying to preemptively fight off the argument that critics of these portrayals are just being too sensitive. I can totally see that because I often read headlines that make me feel like everyone is just too uptight about everything. This is at least true until I read the post itself and gain a deeper understanding of why certain phrases are destructive, or why some habits that I have may harm others. 

I can see how criticizing TV shows and movies like I have here may make some feel as though I want to take away writers’ freedoms and eliminate people’s ability to express themselves. This is absolutely not true. Writers, podcasts hosts, and everyday people can say what they like, but they must understand that their words can have consequences. 

Those consequences can be a bunch of different things, and they can be positive or negative. A person saying or writing negative things about fat people, or other groups, may not even have any idea that their words will have consequences or affect someone  in a negative way. But words can have these effects and regularly do, whether that was our intention or not. 

Man telling woman that words have consequences

This is why I want everyone to take a step back and think about the consequences that can come out of the way fat characters are portrayed in movies. I seek to point out the harmful cliches and regular tropes that haunt characters in larger bodies, because they can have real consequences on real people, unbeknownst to the writers.

This goes well beyond just fat characters too, by the way. We can all be harmed or affected based on portrayals from the media. In an episode of Armchair Expert with (I believe) Michael Peña, he reflects on the types of parts he used to get cast in his early acting days. He’d call up his mom after landing a part and say, “Mom! I got booked as gangster #2 in this movie!” 

Over and over again, he would have to play characters that depicted the stereotypical gangster latino because no other parts were available to people that looked like him at the time.These portrayals can leave people consciously or subconsciously believing that all latino men are in gangs, because that’s all they have seen depicted in the media. 

John Stewart saying: stereotype alert- fat characters are often victims of stereotypes

Blonde characters are often shown to be utterly stupid, which is likely how the term “dumb blonde” even came into being. I know plenty of incredibly smart blonde people, and tons of non-blondes that aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. But sometime, somewhere, a person in the media decided that blonde characters should be dumb, and now many blonde women aren’t taken as seriously in the professional world as they deserve to be. 

Seeing a character that looks like you, or shares an attribute with you, regularly serve as a punchline to a joke or be depicted in a demeaning way can cause significant emotional harm. And I get that we need to have a thick skin and let that roll off our backs, but that’s much easier said than done. 

One trait of mine that I have seen joked about in TV and real life that really got to me is acne. I grew up with pretty awful acne, and it ruined my confidence. It never seemed like it would go away, and I’m still *blessed* with temperamental skin into adulthood. It bothers me much less than it used to, and I feel relatively secure about myself even when I have a bout of horrible breakouts. 

Patrick from Schitt's Creek admiring David's skin

As a teen and young adult, though, I constantly wanted to hide. I felt hideous, unlovable, and unworthy. Some days it bothered me more than others, but a sure way to get me back into a hole of despair was for someone, either on a show or in real life, to make fun of another person with acne. Even if a friend with what I deemed clear, beautiful skin would complain about their one zit, I’d feel like a pile of garbage when I looked in the mirror. 

Sometimes a classmate would call themselves ugly or gross because of their tiny pimples, and I would assume they thought I was ugly and gross because I had so much more acne than them on a daily basis. Whenever acne was made fun of on TV I would also feel an urge to retreat and hide myself for weeks on end. D

I still remember a specific scene from Drake and Josh (a show I still love to this day), where Josh gets cast to play the Theater Thug for a criminal reenactment show. He shows up the day of the shoot with a pimple, and everyone keeps pointing it out. They are physically unable to look away from it. 

Drake from Drake and Josh, saying "whoa just take it easy man"
From the Theater Thug episode

This is pretty mild, right? I can acknowledge that to this day. But, when I was younger and I saw this scene, it made me feel like everyone could notice and see my own acne at all times. It served as a reminder that having acne, or even the occasional pimple, was deserving of negative attention and snide remarks. 

Now, I highly doubt the writers on Drake and Josh meant to cause a teenager like me to feel less-than because of these few lines. Even still, were they funny enough to justify making it into the show? Could they have nixed this part of the script and still made a great episode? I happen to think so, but then again, I don’t know anything about show business. 

The same can be said about fat jokes in TV shows and movies too. Are fat jokes, or characteristics that often come with fat characters somehow “valuable” enough to the show that they justify being in there? Is potentially making some people want to hide from society because of how you depict a character worth the chance that some people might laugh at it?

Having acne, and hearing how people talk about it in everyday life and on TV, sucks. In the past, it absolutely diminished my sense of self-worth, and I spent so much time and money trying to change that about myself to no permanent avail. I went to tons of doctors and got a bunch of treatments that had horrible side effects and never worked in the long term. 

Sometimes people would offer “helpful” advice and tell me to just wash my face. “Wow, thanks,” I’d think, “I never thought of that.” Others would recommend expensive creams or cheap at-home remedies, and I tried them all. Sounds a bit like trying to lose weight or change your body, doesn’t it?

I know that the shame of having acne as a teen and into adulthood doesn’t compare to the stigma that people in larger bodies experience on a day-to-day basis. But I felt that people were looking at and judging my face at all times, which sounds similar to the way people in larger bodies have described their feelings in public about their bodies to me. 

Man covering face with shirt and walking away.
What I wanted to do as a youth all the time

Often, though, those feelings of receiving judgement are actually accompanied by insults, harsh glances, and legitimate inconveniences. Very rarely did I actually receive a mean comment or glance, despite my perception that everyone noticed my pimples. 

So yes, it’s absolutely terrible to see a part of yourself in a character that you are already self-conscious about get roasted and picked apart on TV. But that’s not the end of the story. Media depictions and portrayals like this can shift the views and opinions the public has of those who look like the characters they see on TV shows and in movies. And those views may have a direct impact on how some groups are treated in our society.

Television with fuzzy screen

How the Public Views Fat People Thanks to Fat Character Portrayals

My whole argument here is that media portrayals of fat people have led many of us to view those in larger bodies in a negative light, whether we want to or not. 

We have already talked quite a bit about how suffering from weight bias may be more harmful to our health than being in a larger body itself. The stress of being perceived as lazy, stupid, unhygienic, lacking in willpower and the like can take its toll on a person in no time at all. I believe that many of these perceptions of those in larger bodies come from the media we consume, and I provided plenty of examples of the stereotypical fat characters in part 1.

People in larger bodies that have messaged me on social media, or friends in larger bodies that I talk to regularly, have both told me that they often notice people looking at them with apparent disgust. This is especially true in crowded places, like planes and buses, where seating may be limited. People will look in their direction, roll their eyes or scowl, and find somewhere else to sit. 

Ted from How I Met Your Mother with a dirty look- how people may view fat characters
One such look

Many have told me about horrible comments they get when they’re just out going for a walk with their dog or kids, and that it often feels like people are judging what they’re eating at every social outing and every grocery store trip. 

Countless women (and men, I’m sure) have had the experience of shutting down an interested (usually creepy) guy, only for him to turn around and call them something really lovely like a “fat slut” or worse. There is no better way to show a woman that they’re missing out on a quality guy like hurling fat-phobic or downright nasty language at her when she rejects you. 

Those of us in smaller bodies likely don’t think much about the stigma those in larger bodies face on a daily basis, and we tend not to care much about things that don’t directly affect us in everyday life. Makes sense, right?

Researchers set out to see if having the experience of suddenly being in a larger body would affect students’ perceptions on fat people. This study from UCLA had an experimental group wear a fat suit for a brief stint across campus, and researchers measured anxiety, depression, hurt feelings, anti-fat attitudes, and more before and after this period of time. 

Students in smaller bodies who had likely never experienced weight bias before suddenly found themselves with significantly higher levels of anxiety, anger, and depressed and hurt feelings. 

Interestingly, participants who wore the fat suit reported on their own feelings of humiliation while in the suit, but didn’t seem to relate it to the experiences of actual people in larger bodies. Those that wore fat suits actually displayed more anti-fat attitudes than they did in the pretest. 

We can speculate on why that might be, but that last fact doesn’t take away from the fact that the experimental group in fat suits felt major shifts in how they were being perceived, and it affected their feelings in the short term. Imagine what being in a larger body for years and years could do to one’s mental health thanks to how the public looks at your or comments on your body. One such affect can be that the stress from being stigmatized can actually lead people to eat more than they otherwise might. 

Gift box saying "You are Worthy"

The researchers in this experiment provided snacks for the group, and they learned that those who had worn fat suits ate significantly more than those who did not. In the discussion section, they wrote that perhaps the fat-suit group ate more because of their increased stress levels. The researchers also speculate that when people feel stigmatized, many resort to activities often associated with that stigma. 

I feel stressed all the time when I’m out in public (thanks social anxiety), but I cannot imagine what those experiences would be like while being in a larger body. I have never had people frown at me or verbally abuse me because of how my body looks, and as a result, I have never endured the day-to-day stress our larger bodied brothers and sisters do all the time. 

Media depictions of fat characters may be partly to blame for instilling the idea that people in larger bodies deserve ridicule, dirty looks, and outright avoidance. 

John Cena saying, "I blame you"

How Health Professionals View Fat People

Doctors and other healthcare professionals are people too, and they deserve plenty of credit for the important, life-saving actions they carry out day-after-day. Plus, working in healthcare is the furthest thing from easy, especially during a global pandemic like COVID-19. They deserve gratitude, no doubt about it. But, because doctors are not robots or perfectly-precise specimens, sometimes their biases get in the way of providing equitable and consistent high-quality care to all patients. 

This is especially true for fat patients. 

According to an article from The New York Times, doctors typically spend less time with patients who are in larger bodies, and they often don’t send these patients in for the diagnostic tests they would run for thin patients. One study that interviewed 122 primary care doctors found that many doctors thought that, “Seeing patients was a greater waste of their time the heavier that they were.” Additionally, doctors viewed heavier patients as more annoying, and they felt less patience the heavier a patient was. Wow.

Kate McKinnon cringing

Other healthcare professionals have admitted to being “repulsed” by those in larger bodies, and Science Daily reports that many have a reluctance to touch fat patients. This shows us how easy it is to view fat people not as people at all, and that’s nauseating.Those in larger bodies likely already know this. But everyone in smaller bodies should be outraged to learn this, especially those who have loved ones in larger bodies. 

Why the reluctance to touch a fat patient as a healthcare worker? Is it because the media depicts characters in larger bodies as unclean, unhygienic, and unkempt? I happen to think so. And, as a patient, how couldn’t you notice when a doctor or other healthcare worker seems disgusted at the idea of touching you? That has to take a toll, and it instills the idea that you quite literally are an untouchable. 

This feels particularly outrageous after reading countless stories of people who had legitimate medical complaints dismissed by doctors, only to be told to lose weight. After getting second, third, or fourth opinions, it turned out that humongous tumors or other life-threatening illnesses were the cause of physical pain, not being in a larger body.

Maybe I can’t say that the negative portrayal of larger characters in the media directly causes these issues. But it’s hard to deny that seeing the patterns that we do on TV and in movies wouldn’t ultimately affect how we might view or treat people who look like characters we are supposed to laugh at or hate.

Arnold from Hey Arnold saying, "You really shouldn't treat people like that. What are you going to do about it?"

How Employers View People in Larger Bodies

Creating fat characters that are lazy, unkempt, and stupid may also play a role in how employers view prospective and current employees. 

Perhaps negative stereotypes from the media are why employees in larger bodies get paid less than employees with a “normal” BMI. In fact, we are talking about $2,000 less per year on average when all other factors are considered. To some, $2,000 might not seem like much, but keep in mind that this is only an average. Many fat employees have wage gaps significantly higher than this average, especially if they are also a woman, in the LGBTQ+ community, or a person of color. 

If that weren’t bad enough, some studies have shown that people in larger bodies are much less likely to get hired than those in thin bodies, regardless of their merits, qualifications, or credentials. 

“Just lose some weight, and all of your personal and professional problems will be resolved,” you may say. Based on what, television shows and movies? Life is not like TV shows and movies, where you go on a simple diet, lose all the weight, keep it off easily, and suddenly gain approval from the world at large. Anyone who has ever tried a diet knows that it’s not as simple as that, even if we tell ourselves that while we are on one. 

Despite the fact that the vast majority of diets fail, many formerly fat people still don’t get taken seriously in terms of employment. One celebrity example is Jonah Hill, who was always typecast as a goofy and fat best friend character in his early acting days. He lost a bunch of weight about a decade ago (apparently by eating mostly sushi?), and he did this so that he would be considered for more serious roles.

Hill has snagged more dramatic roles, but he has said in several interviews that he still struggles with being taken seriously. Recently, a tabloid posted a picture of him surfing in a wetsuit, and one where he is shirtless, with a bizarre headline. He posted it to his Instagram with a heartfelt caption about how he had never taken off his shirt in public until his mid 30s because of the insecurities he felt coupled with the media scrutiny of his body. 

Jonah Hill looking exhausted and fed up

It’s a lovely post, and it shows that losing weight like he did 10 years ago didn’t solve all of his problems like many of us think it would for ourselves or others. Plus, the media still runs stupid stories like this one. Who cares if Jonah Hill is shirtless while he towels himself off? I don’t. I care about how he responded to it, but the post itself just seems to allude to “look at his body” in a malicious way.

Anecdotally, a dear friend of mine was in a larger body in high school and earned an unsavory nickname because of their size. Although they are now in a smaller body, they are still called that nickname by people from high school. 

So the argument that “if you lose some weight, you’ll be taken more seriously at work” doesn’t hold up in my eyes. Maybe if you move cities and start a new job where nobody knows you after losing weight, but neither should be the requirement for respect or being taken seriously at work and at home. 

In the working world, fat people simply tend to have fewer opportunities for employment, and once they are employed, they get paid less for no reason other than how they look.These abhorrent disparities for fat people only compound and make things worse when an employee also identifies as an ethnic minority, a female, part of the LGBTQ+ community, or other similar identities.

Woman saying "C'mon folks, we can do better."

Media That Gives Me Hope

I suppose I have spent enough time bashing how the media treats those in larger bodies for now, but I believe it’s an issue worth talking about all the damn time. Regardless, the tides do appear to be changing in a better direction, so I thought I’d take time to list some TV shows and movies that do not portray fat characters in a negative light. Often, these shows have diverse casts with actors in larger bodies, yet it never feels integral to the story. 

Weight doesn’t need to be mentioned, and fat characters get to be just as dynamic and complex as their thin costars. I welcome this change, and I hope we only see more of it in the future as more people become conscious of how the media can shape our perceptions, and ultimately, our behaviors. 

Orange is the New Black

Based on a book of the same name, Orange is the New Black follows the story of a young woman who enters the prison system for crimes she committed a long time ago. The cast is full of diverse, talented, and brilliant actors and actresses, and the characters in larger bodies get to be themselves without the burden of enduring fat jokes or serving the purpose of an attempted weight loss narrative. 

Each character has a compelling backstory, and the writers have clearly put great care into developing every character on the show. Orange is the New Black is dark and funny, and it made me think a lot about what life must be like in the inside of a women’s prison. The book is dang good too, if you’re interested. 

Characters from Orange is the New Black

Booksmart

Booksmart is a comedic work of art that provides plenty of humor and wit, and it was clearly created in a loving manner. One of the main characters, Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein), is in a larger body, and many movies from the past may not have cast her for the leading role. Feldstein not only absolutely nails her performance, she is not subjected to comments about her body, jokes about her size, or any of the typical characteristics of those in larger bodies in the media. 

I love this movie for many reasons, including the fact that the two main characters are such loving, nerdy best friends, the fact that they are both smart and strong young women, and the positive LGBTQ+ representation. Mostly, though, I love that Molly got to just be her whole, intelligent, hilarious self. She isn’t focused on weight loss, she isn’t forced to talk about it in any way. She just is. And that’s beautiful. 

Booksmart characters dancing

Glow

As a fan of the show Community, I have enjoyed following Allison Brie’s career over the past few years. She has starred in some major movies, and she plays a fantastic role in Glow. This show is about a female wrestling group called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling that existed in the 1980’s. 

The cast is diverse, and the characters in the show are accepting and proud of how they look. Seeing the freedom that characters of all sizes seem to have in this show is like taking a breath of fresh air for the first time. 

Queer Eye

I could write 50 solid blog posts about all the reasons why I love Netflix’s adaptation of Queer Eye, but I will do my best to keep it brief. For those who haven’t yet experienced the delightful television that is Queer Eye, this show is a makeover/transformation show that features five gay men that help people in various cities across the country (and world) get their lives back and gain confidence. 

Each member of the Fab Five specializes in one aspect of everyday life, from fashion to cooking and beyond. The Fab Five teach people of all shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds all about self-love and self-care, and it has helped many previously homo-phobic people understand that gay people are just people too. 

Tan, the fashion expert, is amazing at helping people in all sizes feel great about the clothes they wear. He also talks people through the emotions they feel whenever they make comments about how they believe their body is flawed in some way. He finds clothes that make them feel confident and comfortable in their own skin, thus empowering them to loosen aspirations to change their body.

I have shed many happy tears while watching this show, and I highly recommend everyone checks it out. Chances are high that you will fall in love with the Fab Five and each of the people they help on their journeys. 

Queer Eye heroes saying "we slayin' it"

A Growing Trend

These are just a few of the shows that are available to watch today that are doing the amazing work of representing larger bodies in a neutral or positive way. 

I hope that moving forward, writers will be forced to utilize more creativity when making new shows and movies, and that someday our population will completely lose its taste for boring fat jokes. I believe these tropes are lazy, tired writing, and I sincerely hope we do better moving forward, especially since media portrayals of fat people can cause real problems. It’s not about having thin skin, or “poor me, they make fun of people who look like me”.

It’s also not about having to make every fat character likeable, smart, strong, or whatever else. People are all individuals and complex, and the characters we see in the media should reflect that. However, it is entirely possible for shows and movies to create dynamic characters that also happen to be in a larger body without making that their entire personality or function to the story. 

If a show needs a dumb or lazy person in it, I’d encourage writers and producers to think twice before they assign those traits to a fat character. Or, have a character in a larger body that happens to be stupid or lazy, but also have other fat characters that are sharp-witted, ambitious, and the like to show that size is not what gives characters positive or negative traits. 

In the end, I don’t really know what to do about it all. The tides do seem to be changing, but I have never worked in show biz, and I don’t even know 1/100th of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. I believe they are important, but I can see how these concerns might easily be dismissed in a cutthroat, competitive environment like the entertainment industry. 

At the same time, these mediums cannot be let off the hook so easily. Their damaging portrayals of fat people can create real and lasting issues for people in larger bodies, but I hope that increased awareness about these issues can make a change. 

Leaf holding a sign that says "let's make a change"

How We Can Apply This to Everyday Life

I absolutely love and cherish the friend groups I have had over the years where we all feel comfortable enough to roast each other over our idiosyncrasies and unique views on the world. I enjoy dishing it out, and getting roasted by loved ones makes me truly smile when I can tell it’s delivered with love. 

TV shows and movies often try to capture moments like these, especially among male friend groups. Sometimes they do a great job of showing guy pals that tease each other lovingly, and other times it’s nothing more than a portrayal of garbage friendships.

Now that we have taken lots of time to examine the media we consume, especially in regard to how it treats people in larger bodies, we can take some time to reflect our own attitudes and thoughts about fat people. Plus, we can pause and start to understand where our views come from. 

Moira from Schitt's Creek saying "Pause"

When it comes to teasing our pals, a little is fantastic. Just be careful about how far you go. I still remember things friends, or others, have said to me over the years that I had never noticed about myself, only to still feel self-conscious to this day. 

I once read a rule of thumb that we shouldn’t point out something that a person can’t change about themselves in 30 seconds. If their body looks different than yours, they probably already know this, and it doesn’t need repeating. 

If you notice a person has a skin condition or other physical feature that they cannot change quickly, it’s probably best not to joke about that either. 

On the other hand, if your friend is acting crabby or silly (something they can feasibly change quickly), maybe that presents a good roasting opportunity. Or maybe if they have lettuce in their hair, or spinach in their teeth. You know, something temporary. 

Man asking Homer Simpson, "Why so crabby?"

This is just a rule of thumb, of course, and it doesn’t cover all issues. There are definitely some exceptions to both sides of the rule, and each person will react differently to various comments and jokes. 

I don’t mean to complicate this stuff and take the fun out of jokes, because ultimately that’s up to you. But I do think we can all joke and have fun in a way that isn’t downright mean or nasty. In fact, I think it’s a lot more impressive to make jokes that aren’t at anyone’s expense. 

In Conclusion

When it comes down to it, I’m simply tired of seeing characters in larger bodies mostly share negative traits or be denied interesting storylines that don’t revolve around trying to change their bodies. As a thin person, I can only imagine that I’m about ⅕ as tired of seeing this stuff as people in larger bodies who see these portrayals everywhere they turn. 

The whole point of these posts is to point out the common stereotypes in movies and TV shows about fat people, and to discuss how they can have real-life consequences even if the creators of these shows never meant for them to occur. I also just want to encourage those who make media to make more dynamic and unpredictable characters. 

You are still 100% allowed to enjoy shows and movies that have a bit of fat-phobia sprinkled in, and you’re still allowed to make jokes. But, I challenge you to become more mindful about these media portrayals, and why jokes about people’s bodies feel okay in our culture. 

I have a lot of faith in future generations to get these things right and demand more inclusive, smarter media. But we still have a long way to go in the fight against fat-phobia, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and any other narratives about people who may be different from what our culture considers “normal”. 

In the end, I remain hopeful. 

Woman telling another woman, "Never lose hope"

As Always, a Book Recommendation

Because I talked up Queer Eye so highly earlier in this post, I thought now would be a wonderful chance to recommend Jonathan Van Ness’s book, Over the Top. JVN is the grooming pro on Netflix’s Queer Eye, and he is one of the funniest and sweetest men in all of television. 

His life wasn’t always glamorous; he struggled plenty while he was a young gay man in a small mid-west town. His story is heart-breaking, hopeful, hilarious, and thought-provoking all at once, and it can give everyone a chance to learn more about Jesus-looking man on Queer Eye. 

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If you can’t get enough JVN like I can’t, be sure to check out his Instagram stories where he dances to a variety of songs while he makes his morning coffee. It’s truly a delight, and it always brings a smile to my face to see him show off his moves in his PJs regularly. 

As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!

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