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Hollywood's Depressing History of Putting Thin Women in Fat Suits

From "Fat Monica" in "Friends" to Patty in the new Netflix comedy "Insatiable," it's time for TV to quit using the fat suit.

by Diane Shipley
Aug 8 2018, 1:43pm

Debby Ryan as Patty in Insatiable. Screengrab via Netflix

When Netflix released the trailer for its new comedy Insatiable, which premieres on August 10, many were incensed. A teen comedy about a girl who loses weight and then vows to get revenge on her former bullies, Insatiable appeared to reinforce many common clichés about fat women. Fat women, Insatiable implies, are unattractive, unconfident, and unloved; constantly sighing at their reflections or slumping on sofas with a quart of ice cream.

Fat-positivity activists decried Netflix’s decision to commission the show, and a petition to cancel Insatiable has so far received over 217,000 signatures. “This series... perpetuates not only the toxicity of diet culture, but the objectification of women's bodies,” it reads. (Netflix executive Cindy Holland responded to the outrage with a statement emphasising that viewers would feel differently when the full series aired, and claiming that a message of body-positivity and self-acceptance is embedded in the “DNA of the show.”)

The decision to cast actress Debby Ryan as Patty caused particular consternation. As Ryan is slim, she was dressed in a garment that many people, myself included, had hoped never to see again: a fat suit. As a plus-sized woman, I know when I see a performer wearing one that I’m not about to watch a sensitive or nuanced portrayal of fatness, but yet another recycling of lazy stereotypes that contribute to the continued stigmatization and marginalization of people who share my body type.

Kathleen LeBesco, PhD, a Senior Associate Dean at Marymount Manhattan College whose books include Revolting Bodies?: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, tells Broadly, “Fat suits are generally not used to tell stories involving fat people living fulfilling, rich lives. In this way, their use perpetuates harmful and one-dimensional understandings of fatness.”


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Over approximately the last 30 years, as prosthetic technology has become more sophisticated, Hollywood has embraced the use of fat suits. Occasionally, they’re used by actors such as Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor and Mike Myers in The Spy Who Shagged Me. But they’re most often used to mock and undermine women. Typically, fat suits are worn by thin actresses as part of a before-and-after scenario in which sudden, dramatic weight loss signifies their success.

We saw this with Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her, where her character Helen was a frumpy writer who uses futuristic science to become a glamorous novelist. In America’s Sweethearts, Julia Roberts plays Kiki, a personal assistant whose weight is presented as a major hurdle to her confidence, though she’s average-sized by non-Hollywood standards. On season two of Friends, we’re introduced to the idea that Monica (Courteney Cox) was fat as a teenager, which is presented as both the reason for her neuroticism and a contrast to her professional and attractive adult self, and is mined for so-called jokes in one flashback after another.

Courteney Cox as Monica (left) in Friends. Screengrab via YouTube

Fat activist and You Have the Right to Remain Fat author Virgie Tovar says that fat suits allow audiences to relate to plus-size characters without the horror of having to emphasize with a real-life fat person. “Viewers know that beneath the fat suit there's a thin person we can root for,” she explains, “without violating cultural rules of fat hatred.”

Pop culture often uses fat suits to communicate that weight gain should be a source of shame. In 2004 comedy Mean Girls, Cady (Lindsay Lohan) plies school bitch Regina George (Rachel McAdams) with energy bars that make her gain weight. As a result, George becomes depressed, and her popularity plummets. Insatiable similarly compounds the idea that thinness is a necessary condition for self-respect and the respect of others. In order for Patty to kick-start her plan for vengeance, she needs to become thin, because a fat person is commonly perceived to be complicit in their misery: they are fat through laziness, negligence, or greed.

And yet that doesn’t reflect reality. “Data shows it's pretty much impossible for a fat person to become and stay thin,” Tovar explains, “but fat suits perpetuate the idea that fatness is something people can easily slip in and out of if they want to.”

Debby Ryan as Patty in Insatiable. Photo by Tina Rowden/Netflix

In rare cases, a fat-suited character is allowed to remain fat, if doing so facilitates a thinner character’s emotional growth. In 2001 romantic comedy Shallow Hal, we’re expected to be impressed when Hal (Jack Black) falls for Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) because he likes her personality. When he initially finds out he was hypnotized into believing Rosemary is much thinner than she is, his ability to put aside his revulsion for anyone above a size 10 is treated as an act of moral courage—despite the fact that men fall in love with fat women every day, because fat people can be as lovable as anyone else.

On occasion, actresses who are already fat are asked to add extra padding, as if to emphasize their difference from everyday, average-sized people and thus make them seem more peculiar than they otherwise might. With both Pauline Quirke on 1990s drama The Sculptress and Chrissy Metz on American Horror Story (a murder movie and freak show exhibit, respectively), lingering shots of their fleshiness are used in an attempt to suggest grotesqueness, so that audiences can infer their fatness is the reason they depart from conventional society and ultimately meet tragic ends.

Sometimes, women wear barely-perceptible fat suits to subtly emphasize their loser status, like Emma Thompson’s cheated-on wife Karen in Love, Actually, an unhappy stay-at-home-mom who discovers her husband’s affair with his younger, thinner secretary. Actresses can also be accepted, and and raise their chances of winning an Oscar, for gaining 50 pounds or more for a serious part, like Charlize Theron in Monster, but the expectation is that they will lose weight and return to extreme thinness immediately. Meanwhile, actresses who are and remain fat, like Melissa McCarthy and Gabourey Sidibe, might be nominated, but are more likely to receive concern-trolling and fatphobic abuse than awards.

Sometimes fat suits aren’t used to highlight the inherent superiority of thinness—or at least, they’re not presented that way—but as sociological experiments that attempt to approximate the lived experiences of fat women. Most famously, this happened on a 2005 episode of The Tyra Banks Show, where Banks added 25 stone to her supermodel frame and had “one of the most heart-breaking days of [her] life.” But stunts like this can’t hope to convey the impact of fat stigma, and Tovar doubts they intend to. “Empathy-gathering is the secondary or tertiary purpose of a fat suit,” she argues. “The primary purpose is always titillation.”

Another long-standing tradition is men using fat suits to create female caricatures, like Martin Lawrence in 2000 comedy Big Momma’s House and Tyler Perry in the Medea movies, both of which satirize black, working class, postmenopausal women. But with the exception of Jill Scott in 2007 comedy-drama Why Did I Get Married, women of colour tend not to wear fat suits. Tovar believes this is due to the complex racial and sexual dynamics at work upon the bodies of women of color. “Women of color's bodies are already considered lacking because of our racialization,” she explains, “so the fat suit is just an additional layer to a body that has already been constructed as deficient.”

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Whether consciously or not, our society’s inherent racism means that ideas about what constitutes the perfect woman (on-screen and off-) almost always center around whiteness, and so white women who are (or who pretend to be) fat are seen as particularly transgressive. “White women in our culture are particularly important because they are considered the carriers of the future of whiteness but fatness interrupts their opportunity to be ‘normal,’” Tovar explains, “and is a betrayal against the expectation that they become a part of building a ‘strong’ white nation, so a fat suit on a white woman evokes unique anxieties.”

It’s often easy to mistakenly believe that society is uniformly tolerant and accepting of all body shapes. After all, Melissa McCarthy is one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, the protagonist of Amazon’s Dietland Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) tells us in an episode one voice-over from the future that she will remain fat, and Lindy West’s memoir Shrill is being turned into a sitcom about a plus-size woman who wants to change her life and not her weight. But the Insatiable trailer shows us that pop culture continues to reinforce damaging stereotypes about fat bodies, despite some progress being made.

What has been heartening to perceive is the backlash towards the fat-shaming attitudes evident in the Insatiable trailer. Our society is becoming more cognisant of the ways in which we shame and deride fat women’s bodies. “Viewers have become savvier about the politics of representation as conversations have happened about which kinds of roles belong to which kind of actors,” says LeBesco.

How can we avoid this type of messaging in future? By allowing marginalized groups to tell their own stories. “Mainstream media are not going to be in business for long if they don't step up their game,” says LeBesco. “In an attention-fractured society, we crave better storytelling. Fat suits aren't going to cut it anymore.”

Tagged:
NETFLIX
Fat Shaming
Insatiable
fatphobia
Broadly Culture