The Trouble with Fat Suits

There has been a lot of talk about Netflix’s show Insatiable online lately, including a petition to stop it from airing. And it’s not hard to see why. Watch this train wreck for yourself:

The story is straight out of the 80s: Patty is a sad fatty who apparently has no identity outside of being sad and fat gets punched in the face by a grown man, has her jaw wired shut, loses weight, and becomes Hot™️. She then uses her newfound Hotness to exact revenge on the people who bullied her.

yawn

The Teenage Transformation Movie is a trope as old as me. It appeals to teenagers because it’s simple wish fulfillment. Something happens, whether it’s discovering a magical amulet that helps your transform into the Most Popular Girl, or taking off your unflattering glasses to reveal the stunningly beautiful face that was there all along but everyone was weirdly blind to because teenagers are temporarily blinded by faces with spectacles or something, to being befriended by Alicia Silverstone who washes your hair and removes your flannel shirt and puts lipstick on your face. Then, hijinks ensue, lessons are learned, and the Transformed Teen learns that who they were all along was perfectly fine. (But they’ll keep the popularity and the hot boyfriend and the better clothes, of course.) Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of these movies, but I am not offended by the Teenage Transformation Movie. I find it lazy for a company like Netflix that has so many well-written, innovative shows. But I’m not offended by it.

What I am offended by is the use of fat suits. And using a thin actress and a hamfisted plot about Thinness As Revenge to teach a lesson about fatphobia and bullying.

So, let’s dig into what’s wrong with Insatiable. Despite the best efforts of people online, the whole series dropped on Netflix this weekend. I have no interest in it, so I don’t intend to watch it. Instead, I want to probe why shows like Insatiable are harmful, and why anytime someone suggests a fat suit is a good idea they should be promptly told to STFU, and why fat suits themselves are harmful.

The Fat Suit Itself

So, first, before we get into the metaphorical implications of the Fat Suit, let’s just take a moment to appreciate how utterly ridiculous this particular fat suit is.

insatiable-fat-shaming-netflix-main

If you’re going to put a thin actress in a fat suit (and you shouldn’t, for reasons we’ll discuss), is it that hard to put her in a fat suit that isn’t ridiculous?! She doesn’t look like a fat person. She looks pregnant, maybe a little puffy? We live in a world with incredible special effects artists who can turn people into monsters, zombies, human-animal-hybrids, goblins, dragons, centaurs, creatures that do not even exist, and make them look more realistic and believable than an actor in a fat suit.

The issue with fat suits like this one (and Fat Monica and Fat Schmidt and Fat Gwyneth Paltrow…) is that their very appearance is played for laughs. It’s not meant to look realistic; it’s meant to be comical, clownish, ludicrous.

fat monica
Fat Monica. Isn’t she just HILARIOUS?!

These fat suits are how people view fat bodies.

max
Fat Schmidt from “The New Girl”

Actors in fat suits are puffy, overstuffed. They waddle. They are stiff, their bodies don’t move naturally. They don’t look like people, really. They don’t move like people. They’re as unnatural as a computer-generated person in a movie alongside non-CG people.

Gwyneth-Paltrow-Shallow-Hal
Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shallow Hal”

But unlike CG people added for special effects, or because the actor passed away but the show must go on, the fact that they don’t look right, don’t look fully human, is part of the point. Because, to people creating these stories, they aren’t real people.

The character only becomes real when they lose the weight and can live their lives free of their fat suit.

The Lie of Fat Suits

The real issue with fat suits is what they represent philosophically. There’s a pervasive belief that inside every fat person lives a thin person just waiting to come out, once the person sheds their fat. Weight loss companies have depicted this literally. Weight loss shake company Medifast even had a whole advertising campaign centered around “Conversations with Yourself,” where people talk to their fat selves post-weight loss.

Fat people who have lost weight are seen as entirely different people post-weight loss. They “come into their true selves” through weight loss. Oprah has even talked about the thin woman “inside of us” in Weight Watchers commercials.

And it’s harmful as hell.

It’s harmful to people who are fat. People starve themselves, spend all their disposable income, consent to dangerous, life-altering surgery in pursuit of the lie that a thin person is inside of them, just waiting for them to shed their fat suit so life can begin. People go to great, dangerous lengths for weight loss because they’ve been conditioned to believe that they can shed their fat bodies like a fat suit and magically find their true selves within. They starve themselves, cut themselves open, because they have been told that their current body is a prison that is not who they “truly” are.

The truth is that we don’t have any reliable way to make a fat person into a thin person. Weight can be lost through extreme means, but that weight is almost always regained. Bodies are hard-wired to return to their set point. Bodies don’t like significant changes in your weight; your body is designed to fight it. And, so, most people regain weight. Most weight loss, even after gastric surgery, is not sustainable. And, even worse, significant weight loss through extreme methods makes it even harder to keep the weight off.

It’s also harmful to fat people who have lost weight. In Insatiable, Fatty Patty has her jaw wired shut after being punched in the face by a homeless man. (Which is an offensive part of the story that has gotten much less attention — homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime than to go around punching teenage girls in the face.) After a few months, she emerges thin, petite and toned. A Regulation Hottie™️! But, as most people who have lost significant amounts of weight can tell you, that is rarely what happens.

Fat people who lose significant amounts of weight are typically left with lots of excess skin. If you’ve ever watched “My 600 Pound Life” on TLC, you know that “skin surgery” is the second step in weight loss surgery, because losing weight isn’t enough. First, you have gastric bypass or a sleeve gastrectomy. Then, when you have lost weight, you schedule surgery to have your excess skin removed. Without skin surgery, the patients have painful sagging skin that is susceptible to infection. Many patients wear compression garments under their clothes just so they are able to go about their lives without pain. And the surgery itself is, well, barbaric. It’s painful. Elna Baker (who lost 110lbs through diet, exercise, and Phentermine) describes the aftermath of skin surgery in her This American Life segment, “It’s a Small World After All.” She is bed-ridden after one surgery (she had 4 surgeries total), with a band of flesh removed from her abdomen. She needs a friend’s help when the incision along her crotch splits one night in the bathroom, her skin splitting like the seam on her pants. She calls a friend, who has brought two Valiums — one for Elna, one for herself. Her friend has to help her pack her wounds “like she was putting the stuffing back into a teddy bear.” It’s harrowing. (And, just as a note, the segment could be triggering to some due to its discussion of weight loss.)

Fat bodies are not fat suits that can simply be taken off. They can be shrunk — but your body will not look like Debby Ryan’s or Courtney Cox’s or Gwyneth Paltrow’s after a few months. You’ll be stuck in an in-between place. You can look “thin” in clothes, but your body underneath will tell the tale of where your body has been. You can cut it apart and restitch it back together, but you will always carry the scars on your body.

Waiting for Life to Begin

Fat suits (and the narrative of shedding your fat skin to become your “true self”) contain an even bigger lie: that life can only begin once you are thin.

I believed this for years. I wasted years of my life laser-focused on weight loss so I could get the things I wanted. Love, success, happiness, freedom. Instead of spending my weekends out and having fun with friends, I went to Wegmans and shopped for produce. Instead of going out for drinks or simply enjoying my life after work, I forced myself to go to a gym and walk on a treadmill for an hour. Instead of enjoying food, I counted Points. I was convinced that when I “just lost the weight,” the world would open up to me. After all, that is what I’d been told all my life.

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that it occurred to me that I could have those things without losing weight.

And, amazingly, I do have the things I wanted. And I’m fatter than I have ever been. In March, I was married to a wonderful, kind, funny man who loves me — as I am. I have a good career that I find creatively fulfilling and pays the bills, with money left over for dinners, clothes, vacations, concerts. I have a nice house in the country, with a cute dog and cranky old cat. I have friends, we host regular game nights at our house. Life is good. And I didn’t have to lose weight to get any of these things.

me and greg
Me and my husband.

I wish I had known that this was possible when I was younger.

I wish I hadn’t wasted so many years chasing the lie. I wish I had known the reality of dieting, which is that it is not successful for the vast majority of people. I wish I had known, before I went to weight loss surgery seminars and spent years wishing I had the money to afford it, how life-altering, dangerous, and painful it is. I wish I had known that my fat self was the real me, that I was fine as I was, and that I could have the things I want without losing weight. I mourn the time I wasted obsessing over my weight, being hungry, being sad about my body and my weight. I mourn the loss of my youth — because I started obsessing when I was 7 or 8 and realized I was fat. And, mostly, I wonder what I could have accomplished with that time if I had not been so focused on making myself thin.

Characters in fat suits are always a “before.” They exist to show Monica Gellar, Winston Schmidt, Fatty Patty from Insatiable before they become their true, thin selves. They show what life was like before the character’s life truly began. Before they were worthy, before they were loved, before they were desired, before they had confidence, before they found success. Before they were happy.

It’s not as if Insatiable is the only place this lie is told. It’s just another teen show with this message. Perhaps it’s more egregious than other shows. But teenagers, amazingly, watch “Friends.” They watch “The New Girl,” where the character Schmidt’s fat past is played for jokes. They see Weight Watchers and Slim Fast and Jenny Craig and fitness commercials on TV. They’re getting it from other sources. If Insatiable had not been released, it wouldn’t have meant that a generation would be saved from the lie.

But it’s part of the lie. And I desperately want to tell young girls watching this show because they love Debby Ryan that it’s a lie. I want to call out the lie. I want networks and companies who tell the lie to be taken to task for the damage they do.

Listening to Fat People

The other issue with fat suits is that companies, media networks, creators, actors, have been told repeatedly by fat people that fat suits are not okay.

They have been told eloquently, intelligently, passionately that they are harmful.

Yet Hollywood still persists.

“Yes, but our fat suit is different because we’re trying to draw attention to fat-shaming!”

No.

“Yes, but we’re trying to tell this story and we needed to use a fat suit because …”

No.

“But just let us explain …”

NO.

“Watch the show and reserve judgment until you’ve seen …”

ABSOLUTELY NOT.

This is the frustrating thing. Fat people have been clear about this: fat suits are problematic, offensive, dehumanizing. And Hollywood still insists on using them, because the story they are trying to tell is different, that they’re actually trying to teach people about the harm of fatphobia, that it’s just a joke … but they won’t listen to us. They won’t listen to the people who actually live in fat bodies, deal with the consequences of fatphobia, deal with derision and discrimination in their daily lives due to fatphobia, who are victims of the systemic oppression of fat people. And, as a result, every time a show or movie puts a character in a fat suit, they become part of that systemic oppression. They become part of the machinery that harms fat people and keeps them from living their lives.

All I am asking is this: please, just listen to us.

You cannot teach a lesson about fatphobia by engaging in it. (Just as, for instance, you cannot teach a lesson about racism by putting a white actor in blackface.) You cannot claim it’s just a joke, it’s not that serious, when the people living in the marginalized bodies you’re turning into a joke live with the consequences. You cannot tell us we’re taking it too seriously when people like us suffer, even die, because of institutionalized fatphobia.

Please, just listen to us. Just trust us on this one. Putting a thin actor in a fat suit is never okay.

Weight Loss as a Character Arc

Here’s the thing that Hollywood doesn’t seem to realize: fat people are just people.

We have lives outside of being fat. It’s incredible, I know, but we do.

All the things that happen to thin people in movies? Love, loss, grief, pain, joy, turmoil, revelation? They happen to us too. We have relationships. We have struggles that are unrelated to our weight. We have successes, setbacks, painful periods of transition. We have torrid love affairs and terrible breakups. We have epic love stories. We get married, have children. We have complex, difficult, joyful relationships with our families, friends and spouses. We overcome obstacles. We are triumphant. We have full, rich, complex lives.

So why is this the only story that we ever tell about fat people? Stories centered on weight loss? The before and after? Why is losing weight the only way fat characters can discover themselves?

Why can’t we tell different stories?

Your Fat Friend has put together a list of alternative stories we could tell. AMC even started telling one of those stories this year with its show Dietland, which featured a fat actress in a lead role, and even created the first fat female antihero I can think of on primetime TV. This Is Us isn’t a perfect show, but Kate Pearson (played by actual fat actress Chrissy Metz) is becoming a fully realized, complex character — the show digs into her grief over the loss of her father, her contentious relationship with her mother, her codependent relationship with her twin brother, her resistance to opening up to love and fear of being hurt. Hulu is adapting Lindy West’s book Shrill starring Aidy Bryant.

Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson on This Is Us_1
Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson in “This Is Us”

You don’t even have to do it perfectly. Just try. Try to tell a different story. It’s so much more interesting than this tired tale.

It’s true, for most fat people, our weight is part of our lives. It’s something we struggle against, struggle to accept. We struggle to have doctors listen to us, to be hired and promoted, to be accepted, to be treated with dignity. It’s part of our lives. But it’s not the whole story. It’s not the whole story by far.

There are depths to be mined. And stories like Insatiable, well, they’re just lazy. It divides the world into fatties and beauty queens. It divides the world into victims and bullies. Most of us live in the gray. Most of us are somewhere in between. Just like thin people, we can be heroes, and we can be villains, and we can veer back and forth between the two. We can also be neither. We can fight, love, hate, triumph, take revenge, and live full lives.

Let’s start telling better, more realistic stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s