Earlier this month, Netflix released the trailer for Insatiable, a new show about a fat high schooler who becomes thin after having her jaw wired shut, and then uses her newfound thinness to exact revenge on her former bullies. Fat people, people with eating disorders, and parents alike responded in a wave of shock, dismay, concern, anger, exhaustion and fear. (For those new to this controversy, Vox has a roundup of responses to the show’s trailer, including my letter to the show’s writers and the petition to cancel the show.)
But the problem posed here isn’t limited to Insatiable — the Netflix show is just the most recent in a long and storied tradition of weight loss storylines. Friends, New Girl, Just Friends, America’s Sweethearts and more have all utilized major weight loss stories as character development, punchlines, plot devices and more. Frequently, when we see fat lead characters on screen, they are played by thin actors wearing fat suits. This is Us, a notable exception to the fat suit pattern here, famously inserted weight loss requirements into Chrissy Metz’s contract.
Regardless of the project, the messages of weight loss storylines are overwhelmingly the same. A fat character’s life is in shambles. They are pitifully unattractive, painfully awkward with love interests, routinely bullied or mocked, and often, they are constantly eating. Then something happens that makes them “take control of their lives,” transforming them into romantic leads, popular students, or career successes. This transformation is nearly always symbolized by major weight loss — despite the fact that for all but 3% of dieters, weight loss efforts ultimately fail.
Despite these facts, weight loss storylines remain major plot points in movies and television. As a fat person, it requires a staggering suspension of disbelief to watch the same reveal, over & over again, which I have seen only a handful of times outside of these media representations. Again and again, thin actors remove their fat suits to reveal taut and toned bodies underneath — an impossibility for those of us who undergo major weight loss and are left with inches of newly emptied skin, hanging from us like a deflated balloon. Again and again, thin actors are shown in montages of running, swimming, dieting until they get thin — as if fat people are not taking these same actions every day. And again and again, thin actors, upon removal of their fat suits, gain confidence, love, sex, humor, friends, social skills, success and more.
But over two thirds of people in the US are now plus size — and for those 218 million, major weight loss isn’t necessarily a part of their story. They are, however, staying fat and getting laid, staying fat and being funny, staying fat and building vibrant communities, staying fat and living their lives with confidence, staying fat and riding out highs and lows, just like thin people. Despite that truth, we are left with the same stale storyline, over and over again.
So, as we await the arrival of Insatiable, the next in a long history of fat suit weight loss storylines, let’s take a step outside of that one, tired story. Here are some fat stories — many of which are real — that aren’t being shown on screen.
- A fat romantic comedy. Like any other rom com, but one or both of the romantic leads are fat. How novel.
- A mixed-size romance with a thin partner who struggles to get past their own internalized bias, the pressure they face from their thin friends, and embarrassment at having a fat partner.
- A fat action movie. Die Hard, but with a fat John McClane.
- A fat anti-hero. In the age of moral ambiguity on screen, let’s see a fat person with complex morality and real character flaws. A fat person who runs a weight loss pyramid scheme with a scam product, or a fat vigilante.
- Beyond genre films, there are plenty of real stories to tell about fat people. Like Amber Phillips, the writer and podcaster who was famously ejected from a plane due to a thin white woman’s complaints.
- Errol Narvaez, who was escorted from a plane — as fat people are every day — and took his story to the media.
- Fat athletes like Holley Mangold, the 350-pound Olympic weightlifter, or Lizzy Howell, the teenage ballerina and disability advocate.
- Vilma and Janos Soltesz, the fat woman who died abroad when airlines refused to seat her, and the husband who filed suit after her death.
- Rebecca Hiles, whose cancer went misdiagnosed for years because doctors kept telling her to “just lose weight.”
- There are movement stories to tell, too. The Fat Underground was a fat feminist group that organized and took direct action in the 1970s. NOLOSE was built by & for fat queer people to build community and build a movement.
- The fat people and parents of fat kids who organized against Georgia’s fat shaming billboards.
- And then there are institutional stories, like the story of fen-phen, the “miracle diet drug” later banned by the FDA for causing heart failure.
- Or the story of the National Institutes of Health changing the definitions of who’s fat in 1998, and the implications of that change on fat people across the country.
- The story of passing Michigan’s groundbreaking weight discrimination ban into law.
- A fat medical student who contends with fellow medical students’ deep-seated judgments and biases about fat people.
- A fat nurse or medical assistant whose job requires them to prep patients for gastric bypass surgery.
- A fat flight attendant who frequently handles thin passengers’ complaints about fat seat mates.
- There are adaptations, too. Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
- Guy Branum’s forthcoming My Life as a Goddess.
- August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
- Faith, a critically acclaimed fat superhero.
- Aidy Bryant’s excellent Girlfriends Talk Show segment from Saturday Night Live.
- We could make fat biopics. Barry White. Mama Cass. Jessye Norman. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Meat Loaf. Chris March. Beth Ditto. Aretha Franklin. Oprah Winfrey.
- We could make documentaries about fat activists. Sonya Renee Taylor. Caleb Luna. Marilyn Wann.
- Or about fat designers, blazing their own trail forward in a fashion industry that is more likely to hide fat bodies than cater to them. Designers and brands like Premme, Jibri, Copper Union, and Monif C.
- Documentaries about Shoog McDaniel, Substantia Jones, and other fat photographers who focus on fat subjects.
- A movie about Fernando Botero, the famed Colombian artist who primarily paints fat people.
- A story about fat children whose bodies are considered evidence of parental neglect.
- Fat actors competing for the same handful of roles, trying to build a career while being told to play extremely limited stereotypes of themselves.
- Any story about a larger fat person. Like, anyone who wears extended plus sizes in a story that doesn’t offer their bodies up like sideshows.
- A fat backup singer who wants to launch a solo career of her own.
- A fat casanova who’s handsome & charming meeting someone he wants to settle down with.
- A fat gay man of color trying to find community and relationships in mainstream gay men’s communities, which are often saturated with body shame and dysmorphia, and are too frequently the home of casual and not-so-casual racism. This could be a Jamal Lewis biopic.
- Bears, the beautiful and imperfect communities of bigger, hairier gay men. Hell, just make a movie out of Where the Bears Are.
- Fat admirers, their coming out processes, the challenges they face, the fat partners who feel affirmed by admirers, and the ones who feel fetishized by them.
- A movie about a fat vegan of color who takes on PETA’s racist and fat shaming tactics.
- Fat women navigating the world of dating, having great sex, having awful sex, dealing with partners’ internalized fat hate, meeting feeders, and more.
- Fat sex workers. Fat escorts! Fat dancers! Fat phone sex operators! Fat cam girls!
- Rub and Tug, but starring an actual fat trans man.
- A fat trans person trying to access transition-related health care, forced by medical systems to choose between embarking on another (likely failed) weight loss attempt and accessing medical transition, or accepting their fat body but living with gender dysphoria.
- Fat people in freak shows, including Sarah Baartman and Ruth Smith.
- A fat person who gives up on dieting and finds peace and freedom. Like, say, Jes Baker.
- A fat person who is also a bad person, has to confront the hurt they’ve caused, and grows into accountability to those around them. (Think Edge of Seventeen, but fat.)
- Fat people living in poverty at least in part because of their size, rejected from the military, retail jobs, service jobs — or any other industries that expect workers (often low-wage workers) to be thin.
- Fat models, fashion editors and photographers trying to make it in an industry that ignores or outright shames fat people.
- There are nuanced, multidimensional ways to talk about weight loss, too. We could show the personal change, warts and all, of a former fat person who becomes increasingly hostile to fat people, and the toll that change takes on their friendships, relationships, and the fat people in their life.
- The personal change, warts and all, of a former fat person who becomes an advocate for fat people.
- There are weight gain stories, too. Like a thin person who becomes fat and has to grapple with their own toxic attitudes toward fat people.
- A fat high schooler who stays fat and gets perspective instead of getting revenge.
- Or we could tell the stories of the fat people who have doubtless worked on fat suit movies, TV shows and stage productions.
There is no dearth of fat stories, fat art or fat artists. But there is a massive gap in those stories getting told. Writers, directors, filmmakers and show runners: there are fifty opportunities for you here, and thousands more where that came from. Run with ‘em.
Like this story? There are more like it, including Nocturnal Animals and the Metaphor of Fat Women and What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Twitter and Facebook.