Why One Controversial Element Of "This Is Us" Actually Has A Great Explanation

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Pop culture is littered with examples of fat suits gone awry. There's "Fat Monica" from Friends, that time Tyra Banks pretended she weighed 350 pounds for a day, and (* shudder *) every single second of Shallow Hal.

The problem with these, of course, isn't in depicting people of various body shapes and sizes onscreen — in fact, we need more of that, not less. The issue arises when fat suits are used as a punchline (The Nutty Professor), or worse: employed as a before/after comparison that equates personal growth with weight loss, as in the case of January Jones on Mad Men, Julia Roberts in America's Sweethearts, and Max Greenfield's "Fat Schmidt" flashbacks on New Girl.

It's no secret that Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to promoting body-diversity onscreen. A recent study done for Refinery29 by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg, analyzing 100 top films of 2016, found that only four out of the 34 female leads were roughly a size 14 or greater. Given the fact that 67 percent of women in the U.S. are plus-size, that represents a woeful underrepresentation, which we, at Refinery29, have committed to push back against. What's more, of those four, one role was played by a male actor in a body suit, and another by a thin actress who used prosthetics to appear plus-size.

Critics point out that a straight-sized actor cannot possibly understand what it's like to experience the world as a plus-size person. Putting on a prosthetic for a couple of hours doesn't bestow universal knowledge of what it's like to live a lifetime in the shadow of traditional beauty standards. At the end of the day, actors can take off their suits, and go back to their lives. And as we push towards more diversity in film, and on TV, shouldn't we be encouraging plus-size actors to tell their own stories?

But there are some positive examples to point to. This is Us has been praised for its casting of Chrissy Metz in the lead role of Kate Pearson. But even that show has faced fat suit-related hurdles. People are hungry to see themselves onscreen in a way that they feel is real. This Is Us isn't a perfect show, but it has focused on body image and strives to represent people struggling with their weight more than almost any other show on TV right now. Perhaps that's why the series faced such fierce backlash when fans realized that Chris Sullivan, who plays Kate's love interest Toby, was wearing a prosthetic to make his body appear larger.

Both Sullivan and Metz have defended the use of the prosthetic. While Sullivan put down the criticism to internet outrage culture, Metz offered a more nuanced explanation.

“We tested a lot of gentlemen who were bigger, and I get it — people think the authenticity is kind of ruined by that. But Chris has been heavier, so I think he understands the plight of being overweight,” she explained on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live in February. “Also he was just the best man for the job. And people wear prosthetics all the time — it’s just weight as opposed to, like, a nose or a chin. It’s just kind of the name of the game."

In keeping with the tone of the show, costume designer Hala Bahmet, pointed out that "the term "fat suit" is not a term we use in my department nor on This Is Us."

"We use the term 'prosthetic' or 'prosthetic special effects suit' because it's most accurate and does not shame anyone nor carry any cultural baggage," she said. "The word 'fat' is not part of our lexicon."

Perhaps the issue isn't with the use of a prosthetic to give the illusion of weight, but rather in the intent behind it. Is it being used for cheap laughs? Or, as in the case of This Is Us, to help promote acceptance of plus-size people as individuals with complex inner lives and motivations, who live, laugh, and love just like any one else? Is there a right way to create and wear a fat suit?

To find out, I spoke to Bahmet, and Todd Masters, whose company, Masters FX, made Sullivan's prosthetic, about what went into crafting Toby's look on the show.

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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
1) Designing The Suit

Fun fact: Googling "how to make a fat suit" will yield roughly 2,440,000 results. There's even an EHow page devoted to teaching you how to make one at home, if you are ever so inclined.

In film, though, nothing happens in a vacuum. You need special effects and costumes to work in tandem to create the full look onscreen. That's where Masters and Bahmet come in.

The first priority in designing a prosthetic is "comfort," Bahmet says. " We make sure the costume works with the prosthetic to create a realistic and natural look while allowing the actor to have a full range of motion."

Masters describes the actual fitting process as "oddly intimate." The first step, he says, is to meet with production and the performer to design the look, usually with the help of a Photoshopped drawing.

"Masters FX made incredibly realistic mock-up images of what he would look like so everyone could get a sense of it before they started construction," Bahmet said. "Our goal was to add weight while also conveying a sense of energy and vitality."

Once they settle on a concept, they make a body cast of the actor, so they have a mannequin to work off of. With that, the actor is no longer needed until the actual fitting, at which point they would try on some costumes to observe the overall look. Sullivan wears a high-tech smooth garment as a base layer between his skin and the prosthetic, and his costumes are layered on top.

Because Toby's weight is supposed to fluctuate throughout the show, Masters and his team made several prosthetics to reflect those changes in the character's body, but no other types of prosthetics — nose, chin or cheeks — are used. "Chris somehow performs his sizes, aside from what’s under his shirt and pants," Masters said.
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
2) How It's Made

Now, let's get down to the nitty gritty. Since — so far — we have never seen Toby naked, the prosthetic worn by Sullivan doesn't actually have to look like real skin. It's made of a lot of flexible fabrics like Spandex, along with foam, with some little sacks of beads and beans thrown in to simulate rolls of flesh.

Once the fitting is over, and the costume is on, the producers weigh in. "Sometime we get notes, like 'his fat should look more like my husband’s...', and 'I think this roll should be here,' kind of thing, Masters said.

Interestingly, the prosthetic that makes up the bulk of Toby's look on the show is actually the final step in Sullivan's process before shooting. The reason? Those things are H.O.T.

"Keeping the actor as cool as possible is a primary concern," Bahmet explained. "Prosthetics don't breathe well, and we do not want the actor to overheat. We wait until the last minute to dress him — after rehearsal, after hair and makeup. Dressing him in his prosthetic is often the last thing we do before the camera rolls."
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
3) Dressing The Prosthetic

Since Toby can't exactly make grand second proposal gestures wearing nothing but his socks, Bahmet's job is to create a costume that not only reflects the character, but also vibes with the suit underneath.

"My design process is the same regardless of size," she said. " I dress the characters to help tell the story as it unfolds. Costumes help the audience know more about the characters — who they are, where they've been, and maybe where they are going."

The challenge when it comes to plus-size costumes, she explained, is that the designs that she may have in mind often aren't readily available in stores. As a result, many of the costumes on This Is Us are custom-made or altered to get the desired look.

"I think the most common stereotype regarding plus-size costumes and fashion is the misconception that plus size folks don't dress as stylishly as smaller sized folks," Bahmet said. "I'm hoping that the work we do on This Is Us helps to further debunk this ridiculous stereotype. Our plus-size characters are as stylish and interesting as anyone. They have fun experimenting with their wardrobes and enjoy fashion and style."

Still, as we see over and over again on This Is Us, these harmful preconceptions are harsher towards women than they are men. It's important to note that while Toby may struggle with his weight, and self-acceptance, it's Kate who bears the brunt of societal expectations. The same goes for their costumes, Bahmet said.

"Women face tremendous expectations to be attractive and to conform to narrow and unrealistic standards," she said. "It's often an uphill battle for women (and girls) to be appreciated for their myriad qualities and contributions separate from their physical appearance. Increasingly, men and boys are facing these issues as well, but for females it's been a problem for a very long time."

67% of U.S. women are plus-size. Join as Refinery29 gives these women their own megaphone, doubling down on our commitment as allies, and partnering with them to catapult their powerful conversations into a true historic movement. #WeAreThe67