With news that Season 3 of Bridgerton is going to be focusing on the love story of Penelope Featherington and Colin Bridgerton, my first reaction was, Oh shit. Let me be clear — I love #Polin. But there's one thing that has consistently eclipsed Nicola Coughlan's flawless and gripping performance as Penelope — and that's her body.
Since Bridgerton first graced our screens, Coughlan has been the victim of constant unsolicited opinions about her body, even taking to Instagram in an attempt to shut it down. "If you have an opinion about my body please, please don't share it with me", she said. "It's really hard to take the weight of thousands of opinions on how you look being sent directly to you every day."
It's an experience that most women can relate to, especially larger ones. At every turn, diet culture edges into the conversation — whether that's talking about losing weight for an upcoming wedding, how much weight you put on by snacking, or how the XYZ workout could really help you shred. It's exhausting, even though I acknowledge my privilege of occasionally being able to pass as straight-sized, as a size 14.
For many, Bridgerton has become a revolutionary television show, proving that diverse casting is key to rich storytelling. We've seen South Asian women rejoice at the casting of darker-skin leads in the form of Kate and Edwina Sharma. We've seen Bridgerton effectively subvert Hollywood tokenism. We've seen the show depart from its source material in favour of prioritising diversity. And yet, we're still only presented with one plus-size person in the cast. Not only that, but their size is distinctly part of why they're presented as undesirable.
It's no secret that the Bridgerton books are highly problematic. From questionable male characters to gratuitous rape scenes, it's a feat that the television series is as progressive as it is. But there's one plot point that makes me extremely worried about the next season.
In the series' fourth book instalment, Romancing Mister Bridgerton, we dive into the love story of Penelope and Colin. Penelope has always been in love with Colin, being the victim of some good old unrequited love. She's described as "round" and "plump", and her mother is constantly dressing her in yellow, drawing comparisons to an "overripe citrus fruit". And it's not until book four that Colin starts falling for her — after she's lost a significant amount of weight.
She loses two stone — that's 12 kilos — to be precise. And while Penelope is still described as being larger, Colin only begins to notice her after her weight loss, the same old trope of not realising what he hasn't seen all these years. It's a textbook example of fatphobia. (Let's ignore for a second that beauty standards in the Regency period actually favoured bodies that looked like Penelope's.) In both the books and the television series, Penelope is frequently ridiculed for her weight — it's what makes her an undesirable partner and a great villain in the form of Lady Whistledown. After all, if a woman isn't ripe for courting, she should therefore run the most successful gossip column in town.
Yes, the series has done a fairly good job prioritising diversity so far. But at the same time, plus-size voices haven't been prioritised in the two seasons we've seen so far. Coughlan is the only plus-size person on the show, and is already airing some nervousness about the sex scenes she's part of, saying that it's "terrifying" being the new lead.
As someone whose weight has fluctuated and is constantly been plagued by weight-loss sentiments, I'm worried about Penelope's story will be handled. Thanks to Bridgerton cementing itself in the foundation of pop culture, Penelope's body won't be the only one that will be put under the microscope — all larger bodies will be examined, perhaps more than they already are. How they tackle this will have direct consequences on how society as a whole views the plus-size community.
If Bridgerton really is set on reinventing the wheel, there needs to be serious attention paid to the stories of those that live in larger bodies. I'm talking steamy sex scenes that are treated with the same vibe as that scene in Season 1, highlighting all those kind, wonderful, and enterprising qualities she possesses, and presenting stories that don't make her weight a centrepiece. Please, Bridgerton gods, don't make Penelope Featherington lose weight. Plus-size women need happy endings, too.