I am fat. I don’t say that in some self-depreciating way, hoping for pity or friends who will tell me, “No you’re not, you’re beautiful” (and for the record, fat and beautiful are not mutually exclusive). I say it because it’s an oft-quoted fact that the average American woman is a size 12 and I am larger than the “average American woman,” thus making me fat. Rationally, I know there’s nothing wrong with my weight (I usually know this emotionally as well, but that changes from time to time). But, my self-esteem only exists in spite of the negative messages I constantly receive from television. A television show rarely features a fat person, and when it does, he is usually male (Kevin James and Drew Carey both carried sitcoms). When it does feature a fat woman, she is usually older. Young, fat woman are virtually invisible.
This is a wider trend in television. When a young, fat actress is shown, her entire character is based around the fact that she is plus-sized and she’s usually extremely unhappy about it (hello, every weight loss show ever).
In middle school, I was obsessed with “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” It was about all these cool, Canadian teenagers (obviously, I needed to re-evaluate my definition of “cool”) who starred in the ultimate soap opera. I secretly watched it in my room at night, awestruck at what high school life was supposed to be like.
During one of the earlier seasons, “Degrassi” featured a character named Terry. She was plus-sized and became a model, but she also had really poor self-esteem and dated this creep named Rick who abused her and then put her in a coma. She never reappeared onscreen. On the one hand, it was kind of neat to see a chubby girl as a character on television. On the other, her plot lines only dealt with her weight. Other characters’ plots explored different parts of their lives — why did it only matter that Terry was fat?
“Glee” is one of my favorite shows. It started out with one fat character, Mercedes, and added another in its second season, Lauren Zizes. The second season is generally regarded as pretty bad, but Lauren single-handedly saved it for me. Lauren was fat, but she had confidence. She didn’t deny it or shirk the label, and it didn’t keep her from having the types of relationships she desired. Lauren knew she was a diva and she owned it.
But of course, there’s the problem again — Lauren’s only characteristic was that she was fat and loved it. Any plot lines that surrounded her were only about this one thing. While it was refreshing to see Lauren and Mercedes deal with some of the issues of fatness, it was limited.
Television tells me that my life should be defined by my weight. Skinny girls do everything on television — they fall in love, fight with their parents, run television shows, become secret agents, serve as White House Press Secretary and find themselves in inappropriate love triangles. Fat girls don’t do these things, at least, not without worrying about their weight.
Sure, there are television shows that feature fat women — Melissa McCarthy won an Emmy for “Mike and Molly,” ABCFamily had a show about teenagers at a fat camp and Lifetime has a show called “Drop Dead Diva” about a supermodel who dies and wakes up in a fat lawyer’s body. In all these shows, though, the character’s weight is essential to the plot. Zooey Deschanel’s “New Girl,” while hilarious, would never get made about a fat girl. Fat characters are often pushed to the side, forever secondary characters.
The thing is, I don’t live my life pushed to the side. My weight isn’t life defining; it’s not even close.
You could easily read this and wonder why it matters. It matters because fat women, on average, make less money than their skinny counterparts. It matters because fat women (and men) are less likely to attend college. Sometimes, media portrayal is half the battle to changing opinions.
I once told someone that Adele is my spirit animal, which is a joke, but only partially. To me, Adele is so cool because she’s just doing her thing, making music and being awesome. She writes songs about love and loss because fat people, incredulously to the people who make television shows, are people too, and we feel all these things. We just also happen to like cupcakes.
Victoria Edel is a sophomore in the College. GIRL MEETS WORLD appears every other Friday in the guide.