For better or for worse, the media has always been an integral force in shaping my perception of my body and the bodies of others. It has become a joke in feminist circles that, once one becomes aware of social justice issues, it is difficult to enjoy any form of media without heavily critiquing it. Since radically changing my views on body diversity, I have watched my favorite movies and TV shows fall from their pedestals as I see them for what they are: fat-phobic, glorifying the thin ideal; always seeking a cheap laugh at the expense of someone’s body or mental illness.
Last year, Netflix released two stories whose messages vastly contradict each other: the show “Insatiable” and the book-to-movie adaptation “Dumplin’.” Full disclosure: I did not watch “Insatiable,” because a) its premise is as appealing as overcooked spaghetti and b) I read critiques of activists and mental health professionals that convinced me that there was nothing original or empowering about the series. There was actually a Change.org petition created to stop Netflix from releasing the show due to its dis-empowering message and discriminatory content. From what I can gather, the show follows a young girl, Patty, who loses weight because her jaw is wired shut due to an injury and she is unable to eat. Emboldened by her newfound “hotness” and the power it affords her, she returns to her school to take revenge on her former bullies.
This show is problematic for many reasons. The narrative that a fat woman (or any person) must lose weight in order to be desired and have any real clout in this world, is a false one. The idea that all fat people are out of control and need to have their eating reined in by medical means, actively does harm to people trying to heal their relationship with food and their bodies.
Additionally, the show makes use of a “fat suit” in order to show flashbacks to their previously fat protagonist. By dressing up a thin person as fat, the show does several things: it assures us that fat bodies are works-in-progress and it creates a caricature of fat people that plays into our misconceptions about them. Fat Patty = miserable, friendless, alone. Thin Patty = sexy, confident, powerful.
“Dumplin’,” on the other hand, is a story about a fat girl with a refreshing lack of the typical weight loss narrative. Texas teen Willowdean idolized her Aunt Lucy, who taught her that her body could not keep her from living the life she wanted. When her aunt dies and she is left alone with her former beauty queen, image-obsessed mother, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant to prove a point: she is not the disappointment her mother believes her to be. I cried throughout the entire second half of this movie, and not just because it was sad—goddamn, it was relatable. I related to the strained mother-daughter relationship, when Will never feels like she lives up to her mother’s expectations. I related to Will’s incredulity when a handsome, charismatic boy is attracted to her instead of the other pageant contestants. I laughed and cried when Will finds a group of friends who are all outcasts in some way and they bond over their shared stories of rejection.
Truly body-inclusive stories in the media are few and far-between. I cannot fault Netflix and other companies for playing the field, but I can reject the notion that stories like “Insatiable” add anything to our collective conscious besides a reinforcement of self-hatred and systemic fat-phobia. We’ve made enough movies starring thin, white, heterosexual protagonists; we’ve seen enough fat girls lose weight as a means to a fulfilling life. If we want to see stories that empower and celebrate the diversity of people, we must support the ones that already exist and fight to have our individuality represented across all forms of media. Seriously, go watch “Dumplin’,” y’all.