Take a moment and a deep breath, because we need to talk about the problem with body-shaming in mainstream media.
Recently, Netflix has been receiving a lot of backlash for its new show Insatiable. The premise of the show is that Patty (Debby Ryan) , a bullied, overweight high school student, gets punched in the face by a homeless person and has to get her jaw wired shut (because of course she does) and basically becomes conventionally attractive and thin, because she cannot eat for a summer. Now that Patty is hot and the center of attention, she plans on getting revenge on everyone who fat shamed her, while overcoming residual insecurities and accepting herself.
This sounds like a joke, but Insatiable is not the only mainstream TV show that has crossed a line. The 90s mega-hit Friends put Courteney Cox in a fat suit during flashbacks, depicting Monica’s teen years. “Fat Monica” became a running joke on the show, and boy have people found it funny. Clips of “Fat Monica” dancing, eating, and running are viewed thousands of times online. She has even been used to defend Insatiable's casting decisions, and like Patty, Monica only became desirable once she lost weight, making her chubby past merely comic relief.
Similarly, the very thin Gwyneth Paltrow donned a fat suit in the cinematic disaster that is Shallow Hal, a film in which a shallow man portrayed by Jack Black, falls in love with a woman he sees as supermodel thin, only to discover that she is actually 300 lbs. He realizes he loves her despite her weight because he had the opportunity to get to know her.
There are so many things wrong with these plots.
YouTuber and body-positivity activist Meghan Tonjes commented on the Insatiable trailer, expressing her frustration with the concept, as well as fat suits in general. Tonjes, like many others, feel the use of a fat suit is often times damaging, that the concept of disguising a thin actress as a fat person treats the body as a joke, something disgusting and funny that the character is dying to shed.
I truly do believe the Insatiable cast and crew when they say they planned to shed a light on body shaming through this dark comedy. I do not think their intention with the fat suit was to make fun of fat people or body shame anyone. The fact of the matter is, however, the show, like many others, is missing the mark. The narrative that Patty can only stand up for herself once she is thin is troubling. Why must Patty become “hot”? Would it not be much more powerful to see a character accept herself and defend herself as she is?
Furthermore, the way Patty becomes thin promotes the toxic stereotype that all fat people are fat because they eat too much. If only they starve themselves or get their jaws locked shut, then they can be pretty. This narrative completely ignores the fact that people’s weight fluctuates for a variety of reasons, be it health conditions, genetics, stress, depression, etc.
At the end of the day, mainstream media has a responsibility to do better. Fat girls becoming thin and then getting what they deserve is a lazy plot that needs to be retired, no matter the “intent” of the show or the good hearts behind it. These shows should not risk taking attention away from the actual issues at hand by dressing people up in fat suits and commenting on their eating habits. If the intent is to tell a story of acceptance, growth, and tolerance, they should actually write that story.
To end on a positive, there are some programs you can watch that have done this, such as British TV show My Mad Fat Diary and dark comedy Dietland. These shows are proof that we have done better and we can do better in the future.
Emma Ragusa is a Copy Editor for The Rational Creature.