Earlier this year, photos of cult-fave and oft-memed actress Sarah Paulson circulated on social media. The images showed Paulson in character as Linda Tripp — the whistleblower involved in the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998, and a woman who happens to be plus-size — for the upcoming season of American Crime Story: Impeachment. For her role, Paulson, who is straight-sized in real life, seemed to be wearing padding and facial prosthetics to make her appear fat (a word that’s been reclaimed by modern body positivity activists as a neutral descriptor, rather than an insult or derogatory slur). Paulson is a fantastic actress, an Emmy-award winner for American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson; but why not just cast a fat actor to play the part of a fat character?
Every year it seems Hollywood takes another small step toward more on-screen diversity. Just last year, UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report revealed that film roles for women, and people of colour in particular, were on the rise — at least on screen. (Behind the scenes is a much different story.) And according to the university’s 2021 study, audiences prefer diverse representation in their casts. Unfortunately, fat people are always left out of the conversation surrounding media representation.
Hollywood has long had a poor reputation when it comes to problematic representation for fat people. On screen, fat characters always seem to linger on the periphery, but are rarely allowed to take up space in the centre of the story. They also hardly ever seem to exist outside of certain stereotypes (lazy, loud) and tiresome archetypes, and are rarely if ever cast as the main character or even the love interest, Often, these characters are pigeonholed into villainous or comedic side roles (i.e. “the funny, fat friend,” a character trope that Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy are surely familiar with). Frustratingly, this comedy is often rooted in the action of self-humiliation or physical humour based on one’s inherent fatness — or what I like to call, the mind-numbing “ha ha, fat person fall down” gag.
Even worse is the entertainment industry’s adoption of the dreaded fat suit: a weighted and padded bodysuit that gives the actor the appearance (and sometimes temporary experience) of being overweight or obese. Offenders include Mike Myers as the grotesque Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers series; Gwyneth Paltrow as Rosemary in Shallow Hal, a character that seems to exist solely to teach the male lead a lesson about inner beauty; and Chris Hemsworth as a version of Thor who has “let himself go” in Avengers: Endgame.
Often these characters serve as a warning (Adam Sandler as the future version of Michael in Click), an obstacle (Eddie Murphy as Rasputia in Norbit), a worst case scenario (Topher Grace as an “obese” Eric on That ‘70s Show), or a reminder of an unwanted or traumatic past (Julia Roberts in a flashback as Kiki in America’s Sweethearts; Courteney Cox as “fat Monica” in Friends flashbacks). Being fat isn’t inherently good or bad, though, so why is it always presented as the ultimate failure on screen?
Discrimination against fat people is so normalized in society that we often fail to recognize what it looks like.
It’s not just the way these characters are represented that hurts fat people in the long run. These insulting suits, which are often paired with facial and other prosthetics, are dehumanising to actual fat people who can’t just slip out of their fatness — and their very real lived experiences as fat people — at the end of the day. They cannot peel away the prejudice they face on a daily basis. Plus, when roles for fat characters go to thin or straight-sized actors, talented and dynamic fat actors, up-and-coming or otherwise, are left out, resulting in a loss of potential income and opportunities that only perpetuate the real-life systemic marginalisation and oppression of fat people. And yes, fat people are oppressed.
Discrimination against fat people is so normalised in society that we often fail to recognise what it looks like: It’s the shrinking size of seats on commercial airlines, resulting in stress and upcharges for plus size passengers. It’s the two measly racks of dowdy, overly expensive extended-size clothing in the far back of the department store. It’s the throwaway fat joke in the children’s movie that quietly creates a harmful stigma. It’s the lack of career opportunities and pay disparity due to an employer’s perception that fat equals slothful or inept. It’s the dangerous implicit bias some doctors carry against overweight patients, particularly women, which can result in misdiagnosis or even death.
When fat people are poorly represented on screen or treated as costumes for non-fat actors, they’re not just being willfully excluded or made the punchline of a tired joke. They’re being actively harmed by a hostile system that upholds the status quo and makes it okay to mistreat those whose bodies don’t fit the conventionally attractive or socially acceptable mould. Because when fat people aren’t seen as real people, they aren't treated like real people.