Self-Loathing, Weight-Loss Obsessed Kate On “This is Us” Is Not the Fat-Positive Role Model I Want Her To Be, But Maybe That’s Okay
A few weeks ago, I wrote a hot take on the pilot episode of NBC’s big fall family drama, This is Us. There’s a lot to say about this series, but I wanted to focus on Kate’s storyline, because Kate is fat. Not like size-16 fat, but fat-fat. Fat like me. This is a big deal! Literally as well as figuratively. Because I don’t see women who are fat like me on television very often. So I had an investment here, a personal one; every time a fat-like-me woman appears on television, I feel a degree of… entitlement? Definitely anxiety. Certainly a sense that she is standing out to possible millions of viewers as a symbol of what my life, both internal and external, is like. This is the problem with a general lack of diversity in media, by the way — when you only get a few characters every few years who look like you, those characters are subject to an extraordinary amount of precise criticism from everyone who feels misrepresented.
So I was critical. What did I say? Take us back, Lesley-from-a-month-ago!
We already know what it looks like when a fat woman hates her body and battles to lose weight; we have seen that story a thousand times, in film and television and books, scripted and “reality,” over and over again. We’re ready for something different. Aren’t we? We can handle something new. We don’t need Kate and Toby to bond over their shared knowledge of how many calories are in everything. Let them bond over rugby or showtunes or their secret fondness for hate-reading parenting blogs. Anything other than calories. It’s not funny; it’s just boring. It’s just predictable. It’s just a big sign reminding us: they’re fat! They’re different! They’re not like you. But real fat people — when they’re not confronting very real and damaging prejudice from the outside world and many of the people in it — are actually into all the same stuff not-fat people are. I swear. It’s not all armfuls of “junk food” and moralizing fridge Post-Its and Weight Watchers math all day long.
I stand by this. But having watched the next two episodes, my perspective has evolved a bit. I still think Kate the character is a big stack of negative stereotypes about fat people. I know I’ve really gone over the top talking about great Chrissy Metz is in the role — that’s intentional. She is completely great and we should all be saying this all the time. She makes Kate human and relatable, and she gives Kate a combination of bravado and vulnerability that puts depth into a role that could have otherwise been heartbreakingly fragile and shallow.
But there’s something else here as well.
In the second episode, in one of the series’ many flashbacks, 1980s mom Rebecca tucks child Kate into bed one night. Kate is markedly bigger than both her brothers, and we’ve already seen her being given a breakfast of half a cantaloupe with a scoop of cottage cheese while her siblings get fun kid cereal. As Rebecca says goodnight, Kate volunteers that she ate only fruit today. And I felt something clench hard in my chest. Tiny kid Kate, looking for parental validation that she is doing it right, she is eating things right, she is going to be the smaller kid her mom wants her to be. Rebecca hesitates, and then replies, not defensively, but in an effort at reassurance: “You know I just want you to be healthy and happy, right?”
And I audibly, involuntarily burst out “OH FUCK,” a convulsion of memory, not an oh-fuck of outrage but of recognition, of feeling the deep old pain of my well-meaning parents’ efforts to make me not be fat, which is what I was, or what I thought I was, or what the kids at school said I was, or what the pediatrician who fixated on the four pounds “overweight” I was at eight years old thought I was, when he put me on my first diet. My well-meaning parents, who no doubt are reading this even now, I know you only meant to help, I know you only meant to give me the most perfect life you could, I know it all came from a place of genuine love and caring, and yet it all went so wrong, so wrong, so wrong, and it broke my relationship with food, with my body, and I had to learn how to eat like a normal, “healthy” person only as an adult, and I had to learn how to live as a fat person later anyway, because none of it worked. I was always fat, I am fat now, I have never been thin, I never will be. I saw this interaction between a loving parent and a child just desperate to please that parent, to trust their reasons, to become the smaller person they think they have to be, to get that “happiness” that culture tells all of us weight loss will bring, when the complicated truth is that the unhappiness inside us is much deeper than the superficial flesh we’re told to shed like so much uncomfortable baggage. Sure, you can lose weight and be happy not to be subject to the myriad challenges of life in a fat body, as well as avoiding the social censure that even the most self-assured fat person has to sometimes contend with. But there’s likely a part of you that will also always wonder — Aren’t I the same person I was, inside? Is it fair or right that people value me more now when it’s only my body that has changed? It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair. Oh fuck.
There’s another moment, in the second episode, where adult Kate is dragged onto a dance floor at a Hollywood party by the irrepressible manic pixie dream fat guy Toby, and while he cuts loose she freezes under the looks of the people nearby, watching them watching her, seeing herself through their eyes, but not through their eyes, through her own lens of embarrassment and shame. They laugh with each other, some of them make eye contact, others do not, and this moment is brilliantly managed because the subtext is that we aren’t actually sure that these people are gawking at Kate, or if they’re even aware of her — but Kate thinks they are, and again, OH FUCK, because that is a feeling I know and remember, that feeling where you don’t know if someone is laughing at you, you tell yourself you don’t know they are but you realize they might be because sometimes that is the truth.
These are moments I connect to as part of my past — they’re not feelings I like to remember. They’re also part of my present, because no matter how radically accepting my fat ass might be, no matter how confident, how bulletproof, there will always be somebody who will think they’re entitled to point and laugh at me, and that’s a real thing I have to face in my life from time to time, and I can’t stop that. This is often just a part of fat experience, past, present, and future.
But I was surprised, in the week following the pilot, when there was so much backlash to the negative stereotypes around Kate; I thought people would just accept this sad fat character as gospel truth, that this is what all fat people are like. Instead, from Twitter to Salon, lots of folks called out what they saw as harmful tropes. Metz herself responded thoughtfully to the criticism:
“You know, it’s really hard for me because I have friends who are like, ‘Why do we have to talk about the weight? Why can’t you just be an actor who happens to be overweight in the show and you’re moving on with your life?’ and I completely understand that. Eventually I know that that will be the case — there will just be plus-size actors and it’s not going to be talked about,” Metz said. “However, this role is written about a woman who — it was loosely based on (This Is Us creator) Dan Fogelman’s sister — who struggled with her weight and her self-worth. And a lot of people do, and I have myself, as a human being. So this is a story that needs to be told because there are people who find their self-worth in the number on the scale.”
In Metz’s and This is Us’s defense, this is a story that should be told, because as much as I hate that millions — millions, FUCKING MILLIONS, it kills me how many millions — of fat women are filled with self-loathing and despair virtually every moment of their lives because they exist in a culture that tells them they are garbage, as much as I rage against this and work to dismantle the forces that create these circumstances — THESE ARE FUCKING TRUE THINGS. Yes, I want to see fat characters where fatness is incidental and not a plot point, I want to see so many fat characters that it’s not even a thing people notice anymore; but I also don’t want people to assume that being fat in a fat-loathing culture isn’t occasionally difficult, and that fat people who survive and learn to shine in this world anyway aren’t some of the strongest people you’ll ever meet, because they ARE. Anyone who overcomes this many messages telling them they are less worthy of human respect and dignity, anyone who climbs through that ideology to carry themselves out into the world every day without shame or apology, that’s an incredibly strong person. I am an incredibly strong person. Chrissy Metz is an incredibly strong person. Marianne Kirby, Gabi Gregg, Meghan Tonjes, Jes Baker, Ariel Woodson, Corissa Enneking and so many more extraordinary, stereotype-busting fat women are all incredibly strong people.
I just want Kate to be one of them too. I may not get my way on this. I may have to wait for that to happen. As This is Us’s story expands I do see where Kate’s story, even when it has been offensively reductive, is still something worth sharing, because there are a lot of Kates in the world and not all of them have the resources or motivation to be different. I can’t erase the Kates, as much as I’d selfishly like to, because under different circumstances, that might still be me. And wouldn’t I still want my story to be told, then? Wouldn’t I still be worth seeing even if I did not overcome the bullshit that I have? We don’t win by erasing the stories that are undesirable. We move forward by acknowledging the variety of human experience and working to break down the forces that make some of us hate ourselves. I may not connect with Kate’s story now, I may look at her desperation to lose weight and feel exasperated, but she may not be for me. She is sharing something that lots of people need to understand better if we are ever going to build a world where these stereotypes cease to exist.
So I can wait. I’ll have to.