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When are fat suits necessary?

Which narratives require thin actors to wear fat suits, and why?

Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash

“Fat suits are never necessary.”

I had made a bold claim in the wake of the premiere of Netflix’s Insatiable, and I knew it. The statement was, clearly, provocative for many. Fat people and survivors of eating disorders silently retweeted and liked, quietly assenting in droves.

A smaller number of people — who largely didn’t identify as fat, or as people with eating disorders — wrote emails and response tweets. The vast majority began with “But what about…?”

What about when a character goes through a significant weight change?

What about if it’s just a prop? Can’t it be a neutral tool to tell stories?

What about local theater? I work in a small theater company and our cast is our cast — we have to make do with what we’ve got.

What about Big Momma’s House?

What about Austin Powers?

What about Weird Al’s “Fat” video?

What about Monica in Friends?

What about Shallow Hal?

What about

What about

What about

I had anticipated pushback, conversation, clarification. But what I hadn’t anticipated was so many thin people’s investment in defending so-called “weight prosthetics.”

Overwhelmingly, fat people and people with eating disorders were clear: fat suit narratives insult fat people, present harmful images of us, and trigger relapses of eating disorders. Those points, by and large, weren’t disputed by anyone. But many responses sought to defend specific projects that had used fat suits — and largely their defenders weren’t themselves fat.

So why were so many thin people so attached to defending the use of fat suits?

The more I sat with these responses, the more I realized how wrong my initial tweet had been. Fat suits are necessary, precisely for the kind of productions their defenders had named. But those productions only really represent two narratives. They are stories we hear again and again — and they’re the only stories about fat people we get.

The first fat suit narrative shows a fat person’s pitiable and limited life, often as a fat teenager, a grey and grainy “before” picture, offered up as a tempting contrast to the technicolor “after” of the thin life that inevitably follows. Ryan Reynolds and Courteney Cox both played this role to the hilt in Just Friends and Friends, respectively. In this narrative, fatness humanizes a beautiful thin person, makes sense of their adult insecurities and neuroses, and evens the playing field between the audience and an otherwise impossibly thin example of the beauty standard. Over the course of the show, we watch them come to accept that, now that they’re thin, they’re deserving of the love and acceptance they’ve gained. (Stars, they’re just like us!)

The second narrative is more overtly mean-spirited. In it, a fat character is played by a thin person for a mocking, cruel kind of comic relief. The Klumps, Austin Powers, and Norbit all used this approach: put thin actors in fat suits to play exaggerated, food-obsessed, physically repulsive, socially dense and painfully unselfconscious fat people for laughs.

In both narratives, thin people write the script, thin people direct the movie, thin people play fat people — all for the benefit of predominantly thin audiences. These are fat narratives created entirely absent any actual fat people. Both present fatness not only as a changeable characteristic, but as a prerequisite for a real, human, well-rounded life.

Fat characters have not earned fat actors. Their stories are not worthy of fat writers. To the thin people who disproportionately create these narratives, fat stories are simple: fat people can be sad or we can be made fun of. We can be the butt of the joke or the moral of the story. But our utility ends there. Our fat bodies have not earned character development, struggle, challenge, change. We have not earned anger, joy, happiness, fulfillment, imperfection, or growth— only obliviousness and isolation.

Who needs life experience to know that some fat people are depressed, and others are jolly? After all, those are the only stories we hear.

The impact of using fat suits isn’t just a matter of limiting fat narratives: it can have real impacts in the lives of fat people. The fat people who work on set, watching their bodies so easily peeled off at the end of a shoot, as if it were that easy. The fat people who sit in the audience, watching thin people parody lives they’ve never led, playing outsized versions of insatiable, out-of-touch, laughably fat people, and making jokes that hold no consequence for them. The thin people who watch this completely fabricated major weight loss, then lecture their fat friends about calories in, calories out, claiming an expertise they’ve never earned.

These little inconveniences and tiny traumas add up over time. Like water on stone, those narratives chip away at our collective ability to see fat people as fully human: people who get married, get divorced, make mistakes, have regrets, overcome barriers, triumph and suffer. When we don’t see those stories, we forget that they are real. Even when they’re happening every day, in the lives of our fat partners, neighbors, friends and family.

Even more insidious than that is quiet underpinning offered by fat suits. Fat suit narratives subtly assert that thin people know as much — or more — about what it’s like to be fat than fat people. That fat bodies are only temporary, and that fat people who stay fat are simply shirking their responsibility to create a body that would earn them respect. If fat people cannot be trusted with our bodies, why should we be trusted with our stories?

There is a cultural weight to fat suit narratives, and it pulls all of us down. These narratives are contrived by thin people for thin audiences, regularly taking a set of assertions for granted:

  1. Becoming thin is a life accomplishment, and the only way to start living a real, full, human life.
  2. All fatness is a shameful moral failing.
  3. Thinness is a naturally superior way of being.
  4. Fat people who stay fat deserve to be mocked.

Fat suit narratives set up a painfully overt power dynamic, reinforced over and over and over again. But it’s one that’s so ubiquitous that we’ve come to passively accept it, using sheer exposure to quiet the objections of our conscience, which reminds us of what we already know. That there is more than enough body shame to go around in the world. That these narratives are deeply damaging and triggering to people with body dysmorphia and eating disorders. And that we know and love the very fat people these narratives place in their crosshairs.

Instead, we keep watching. Instead, we passively accept the idea that two thirds of the United States should be reduced to cautionary tales or stale punchlines. Instead, we defend fat suits.

Despite all the cultural complexities that fat suit narratives produce, the drive to defend them is rooted in something much simpler and much more troubling.

As I’ve spoken more and more to those who defend fat suits, the roots of their defense are painfully human and deeply understandable: the more they learn about the harm of fat suits, the more embarrassed they become. And they’re right to be. It’s embarrassing for any of us to realize that we’ve been part of normalizing something that hurts other people. It makes us think that we may have been insensitive, that we may have been complicit, that we may have hurt someone, even if we didn’t mean to. It leads us to comb back through our memories, looking for evidence we’ll never find: experiences of enjoying fat suit movies or making fat jokes. Experiences that are so commonplace we didn’t even commit them to memory.

When faced with that embarrassment, many of us are driven to defend ourselves — and, in the process, defending the things we didn’t notice that could be harmful. We allow ourselves to be pulled away from a realer conversation: one that offers feedback and nuance, and one that finds us listening deeply to one another. We allow ourselves to be pulled away from who we otherwise are.

Even though we didn’t mean to, we have hurt someone. And instead of dressing their wound and making a plan to prevent that harm from happening again, we are drawn into a reactionary defense of the weapon we thoughtlessly used.

But there’s something more enticing about fat suits. For many thin people, fat suit narratives offer more than a life preserver of blamelessness. For them, fat suits have an alluring siren song. Fat suit narratives, after all, are designed to make thin people feel good about being thin. Regardless of how their bodies came to be, these narratives seductively whisper to thin people that their bodies are prized accomplishments, that they have earned a ticket to being fully human, and that fat people have failed to exhibit their tenacity, vigilance, work ethic, penitence and virtue. They whisper that thin people do not need to waste their time or energy treating fat people with respect, or hearing out their experiences, because they are simply inferior.

It is a seductive call. Supremacy always is.

And the alternative is hard work. It is hard work to step into someone else’s shoes, see the world through their eyes. It is hard work to stare in the face of the harm we’ve unwittingly caused. It is hard work to make amends for hurt we didn’t know we were causing. And it is hard work to come face to face with our own failings, and reckon with what they’ve left in our wake.

All of that is hard work. But it is the work of building relationships, of learning to respect each other, even when our experiences differ. It is the work of love and dignity. It is the work of laying down the defenses we take up when we feel something raw and open inside ourselves. It is the work of accountability to the people in our lives, the work of helping to heal one another even when we haven’t fully healed ourselves. It is relentless, unending, crucial and human.

It is the work of vulnerability — unencumbered by all that bombast, free of the fat suits that so long protected our failings.

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