Culture/TV

Dietland is changing the way we view fat bodies in film

July 11, 2018

3 body positivity activists sound off on how the breakout TV series is setting a new bar for representations of fat experiences in film.

I can vividly remember the moment when I came across an Entertainment Weekly article announcing  the TV adaptation of Sarai Walker’s 2015 novel, Dietland. It was around this time last year and having read the book (and appreciated its accurate portrayal into the divisive experiences fat folks encounter such as dieting, dating, beauty and societal pressures), the series felt like it could be a win for me. But I was cautiously optimistic.

Fat bodies, for as long as I can remember in film and television have always been the punchline. We’ve been stereotyped as lazy like Homer Simpson in The Simpsons or self-loathing like George Costanza on Seinfeld. Fat people are always viewed as unattractive or depressed—hello, remember the entire plot of Shallow Hal?  And when viewers aren’t feeling sorry for us in some way, we’re trying to make them laugh with us as the “funny” ones (come on, we all know Fat Amy was the best character in Pitch Perfect). But the worst of the worst is the “sympathetic fat women “story arc, when they’ve dedicated a whole plot line to a character’s weight loss—cough cough, we’re looking at you Chrissy Metz (who plays Kate in the small screen superstar This is Us).

Allison Tunis, a fat activist based out of Edmonton, agrees with me. She notes that in media she was used to seeing fat folks typecast in particular roles. “This has made me feel bad about myself in the past, as it is difficult not to internalize these messages and feel that as a fat woman, I am not worthy of love, success, or attention.”

So when AMC’s Dietland premiered in June with actress Joy Nash cast in the main character role as Plum Kettle, it offered a wholly different perspective of how fat bodies should be seen and heard on television. It showed us the very real and incredibly complex side of how some fat woman, in this instance Plum Kettle, experience living in their own body.  The series follows Plum through her job as a ghostwriter to the editor of a chic fashion magazine in New York. In the very first episode, we’re hit with the fact that Plum is saving up to get weight loss surgery and is attending a fad dieting meeting group, similar to Weight Watchers.

For so long, fat folks have wanted to be portrayed in film and television as not just surviving, but thriving.

Cut into hour-long episodes, the conversation around the show, both online and offline, heightened from week to week. Most notably, folks have taken notice to how realistic the depictions of fat experiences were, such as the daily microaggressions and the challenges (internal and external) that fat women must face. Even though a recent Variety Fair review called it “an intriguing mess” of a show, that categorization misses the bigger point: how and why has it taken this long to have positive and real representation of fat bodies in media?  

For so long, fat folks have wanted to be portrayed in film and television as  not just surviving, but thriving. We’ve wanted our stories told but also illustrated to showcase the emotional rage and inner turmoil that fat folks face while dealing day-in and day-out with the internalized fatphobia that society throws our way. From our own peers and loved ones constantly adding to our own body image issues, to the diet industry’s exploitation of our health fears, many have taken notice of how Dietland revamps the narrative of similarly-positioned films and television scripts of the past.

For example, Drop Dead Diva features the character  Jane Bingum, a fiercely smart plus-size laywer. As the show unfolds, we’re quickly shown that Jane is shot and has her soul is taken over by a  former model (named Deb Dobkins) who died in a car crash at the exact same time Jane was injured. While Jane obviously lives on with Deb’s soul, we’re faced with some seriously questionable storylines in the first season: Deb’s soul seems disappointed in her new body (aka Jane’s body). While the show is light and fun to watch, some scenes are really hard to watch as a fat person. But it does it better, which I guess is nice?

Or has anyone seen Amy Schumer’s film I Feel Pretty that dropped in February? While Schumer did an entire media blitz going on the record stating this was just about “finding confidence,” many who watched the film didn’t feel the same. Samantha Puc of SheKnows said felt like fat bodies were the “the butt of the jokes,” and columnist Lora Grady from FLARE said it was hard to “ignore the ugliness in the film.”

This is why Dietland is important. It tells OUR story and although it was messy and sometimes complicated, it was an accurate one.

Kayla Calder, a writer from Toronto, explains that watching the show hit so close to her own personal experiences that it has made her cry because for once, people can finally understand and see the emotional terrorism she’s been faced with in day to day life.  “I am watching this show while still working through my own body acceptance journey and the treatment Plum receives from people around her is so spot on to what I, and many other fat women I know, have experienced,” noting that at times fatphobia can be rooted in violence and hate.

For so long in the media, we have been told as fat people that to exist we must fall under the “good fatty” stereotype. As a “good fatty” we must make an effort to dress well, try to lose weight, get physically fit, or eat a healthier diet, and of course blame the reason why we can’t lose weight on factors such as our genetic makeup. But this narrative is harmful, reductive, and frankly, unhelpful. What we see in Dietland, is the transformation (almost like a butterfly) of Plum Kettle’s character into what many fat activists would call a “rad fatty”—a fat person who embraces their fatness unapologetically.  For many who have been on their own personal body acceptance journeys, this is huge.

The fat experience is often depicted as one, usually difficult, but uncomplicated thing when in reality, fat people experience fatness differently.

Gaïa Willis

The fact that Hollywood (and the media) is finally allowing a show to portray this type of narrative and furthermore, this fat positive and feminist acceptance of one’s body is crucial step in the right direction. This acknowledges that, gasp—not everyone wants to lose weight, and that is okay.  For so long, we’ve been told that extra weight was there to serve some kind of purpose with audiences. But just accepting who we are, showing the good, the bad and the ugly of the microaggressions and how our fatness can affects us daily is monumental.

Gaïa Willis, a power lifter from Edmonton notes: “The fat experience is often depicted as one, usually difficult, but uncomplicated thing when in reality, fat people experience fatness differently. I mean, it would be great to see a fat character whose fatness isn’t an essential quality of their character. It would be great to see a fat person who just is ok with themselves and isn’t a “hero” for it—especially a fat femme. But I guess we aren’t quite there yet.”

Despite 40 percent of North Americans being overweight, plus-size people are underrepresented on screen. This is why when a show like AMC’s Dietland comes along, we need to support it. There are so few other fat characters in media and perhaps this is because writers and directors haven’t known how to write about the fat experience. Tunis shares, “They don’t see the hate, the constant discussion of your body by others, the prodding comments and questions, the stares or unsolicited diet advice. They also seem to miss out on the unique experience of being a woman and fat, as it is very different than the experience of fat men or someone who is non-binary.” But with such a positive reaction, and people clamouring for this type of content in film and television, Dietland may begin the domino effect of smarter portrayals of fat characters in media. I mean, we can only hope. 

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