Heavyweights Is The Fat Joke I Can Get Behind

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
There aren't any fat girl movies.

There are movies featuring fat girls who play your sidekicks or your playground bullies. But, at least when I was growing up, there were no movies about fat little girls, or even not-so-thin ones. It wasn't something I yearned for as a not-so-thin little girl myself; I certainly didn't want to emulate someone who looked like me. I wanted to be like Kirsten Dunst, Anna Chlumsky, and the little sister on Party Of Five. I'd wanted to be Matilda, not the fucking Trunchbull. So, the first time I saw Heavyweights, I panicked.

Judd Apatow's feature-film screenwriting debut, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, follows a group of boys at a fat camp as they battle the new director, Tony Perkis (played by Ben Stiller, in possibly his most bizarre and otherworldly character after Derek Zoolander). Perkis is a burgeoning fitness guru, bent on transforming this rag tag bunch of chubby kids so he can use their weight loss to sell workout videos. It's a classic summer camp setup, hitting all the formulaic points you'd expect: scrappy underdogs, malicious villains, and the hero's journey to ultimate triumph —except, this hero is a doughy 6th grader. Twist!

All the stars of this movie — the hero, the best friend, and the scrappy underdogs — are similarly chubby, and I didn't know what to think seeing them all on screen at the same time. It was the first time I'd seen anyone who looked anything like me as the focus of a story. I want to say that I felt validated and recognized, and thankful to Hollywood for making this foray into body positivity. But, somehow I felt sure it was one big fat joke, and I kept waiting for the punchline. Was I the punchline?

I'd been the punchline many times, and I'm sure most other not thin 11-year-olds felt similarly wary of this fat-camp love letter. Still, I watched the movie whenever it popped up on television, enjoying the cozy comedy in spite of itself. I felt myself flinch away from every crack about the kids sneaking candy, or the poignant moments where the parents begged them to lose weight. Those things hit just a little too close to home. Each time, I waited for the blow to land with the familiar wave of shame and humiliation to wash over me, but it never quite did.

It wasn't until watching it 20 years later that I realized was what was missing: the shame and humiliation.
Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
On the one hand, Heavyweights is a middling kids' comedy. On the other, it's a great leap forward into the realm of body positivity and body diversity on screen. And, for better or worse, it may be the only one of its kind.

Settling in to watch the film last month, I was ready to be Officially Offended by the gaffs of the mid-'90s humor. As an audience, we're all a great deal more sensitive (sometimes to a fault) concerning the things we can joke about, and having written about this particular sensitive subject for the last two years, I had my wagging finger at the ready. The movie begins with Gerry (Aaron Schwartz) coming home on the last day of school to an intervention. His nice parents are worried about their husky kid and just want to "nip this thing in the bud" by sending him to fat camp. It's a familiar scene, but the difference is that Gerry doesn't crumple or blush with embarrassment. He's indignant and pissed at having his summer plans crushed by these jerks. He fights the good fight at sticking up for himself, but parents will be parents, and off he goes.

Throughout every conflict in the film, Gerry and his fellow campers show a similar resilience in the face of constant, egregious bullying. As their diabolical leader, Stiller's Perkis is a fat-shaming zealot, calling them names, and making every attempt at public humiliation. But, every time, they refuse to cave. They know what so many fat kids don't: They're nobody's punchline.

That said, there are plenty of fat jokes in Heavyweights. The kids poke fun at each other over and over, and then there's that candy-sneaking sequence. But, the movie doesn't fall back on stereotypes, because for once, these kids are the leads. As such, they're given a little more complexity than most secondary characters. And more than anything, this movie proves that it's possible to make fat jokes without dehumanizing fat people.
Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
There are other slightly subversive undertones to the movie, which, intentional or not, made me want to cheer. The kids are put on severely restrictive diets, leading them to hoard junk food like rare and precious gems. They're pushed to exhaustion during workouts, which makes them hate fitness even more. Once they finally trounce the evil, snack-stealing Perkis and finally get their food back, they celebrate with an all-night binge, and I'm like, "I told you so!"

The best and most surprising part of the movie comes after the binge party, when the kids wake up moaning with sugar hangovers. Their friendly, not thin counselor Pat (Tom McGowan) rouses them with a motivational speech about personal responsibility, and puts the kids in charge of their own meals. "If we start respecting ourselves, no one can touch us...We're as good as anybody, and it's about time we started acting like it," he tells them.

In any other movie, this would be followed by a montage of joyful weightlifting, giant salads, and numbers sliding down the scale with ease. But, in this one, the kids launch into delightful and totally reasonable behavior. They power-walk and take a cooking class. They enjoy themselves at camp for the first time because, at last, they're not forced to be hyper-focused about their bodies. And, not one of them winds up skinny.

That's what makes this movie such a triumphant underdog in its own right. Thinness is neither the goal, nor the redemption for these kids. They don't learn to count calories, but to practice healthy self-respect. This movie shows what the world might really look like if fat or not-so-thin kids weren't raised to hate themselves. In that world, we could joke about this sensitive subject because we wouldn't have to worry about the very real, endemic stigma that people of size face in so many facets of society — legal bias, housing discrimination, and prejudicial medical care. We'd treat these kids with humanity and they, in turn, would treat themselves with it. Only when you've secured your value in the world can you get off the soapbox, stop fighting, and learn how to laugh at yourself. And, we all deserve the chance to take ourselves less seriously, for a moment.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or
#antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just wanna say hi, that's cool, too.

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