How I Deal With Sexism And Fatphobia As A Female Plus-Size Comedian

I'm a female comedian, and I'm fat. In my experience, a fat woman who talks about her body on stage gets pity, while a fat man gets applause. The only way to change this sexist fatphobia is to joke about it, but the audience refuses to laugh. 
Over my comedy career, there have been times when I've avoided taboo topics. When a woman talks about sex, she’s ‘smutty’, and the comments on TikTok overflow with, ‘Why do female comedians always talk about sex?’ If we didn’t cum, at the very least we should get some material out of it, right?And when we talk about periods, it's all, Ew. That’s gross! You know what’s gross but doesn’t make an audience squirm? The masturbating and/or wet dream anecdotes I hear from male comics on a weekly basis. Every man and his dog have a joke about wanking, yet audiences can’t hear about my most recent egg drop? 

When it comes to joking about my looks, I feel like Goldilocks. Be too self deprecating and it’s ‘ohhh’ city. Be too braggadocious, and crowds can pull back in disbelief at the gall to have such confidence. Just like a woman’s body, the joke has to be juuuust right.

And then there's the topic of fatness. As a plus-size female comedian, any mention of my appearance can take an audience from raucous laughter to uncomfortable ‘ohhh’s’, or worse, silence. In the overlapping realms of sexism and fatphobia, there remains an unbreakable umbilical cord connecting a woman’s worth to her looks. And since fatness is still perceived so negatively, a fat woman on stage talking about her body is met with reactions of shame and pity. 
When it comes to joking about my looks, I feel like Goldilocks. Be too self deprecating and it’s ‘ohhh’ city. Be too braggadocious, and crowds can pull back in disbelief at the gall to have such confidence. Just like a woman’s body, the joke has to be juuuust right.
People don't have the same expectation of men. That’s why a fat man with a thin female partner doesn’t turn heads. We assume that he has other valuable qualities. He isn’t just his body. He’s interesting, hard-working, reliable, kind and probably provides for her. But a fat woman with a thin man? Alert the media! It’s cause for conversation and vicious commentary. TikTokers like Alicia Mccarvell and Drew Afualo have faced this double standard and speak about it regularly. 
Calling out the sexist-fatphobic reactions when you’re in the middle of a set is one approach, but it’s often the harder approach. I’ve only really become comfortable doing this in the past year. Before that, I would often avoid any body-related jokes, because standing in front of 300 uncomfortable audience members isn’t my idea of a perfect Saturday night. But as I became a stronger performer and better at my job, I began to find the challenge of confronting this taboo head on quite exhilarating. 
However, the opportunity to tackle an audience’s BS doesn’t always present itself head on. It isn’t always so obvious or so simple. Fatphobia is like ogres, who are like onions, “layered”, according to Shrek, the voice of my generation. 
A couple of years ago, I did a show at an RSL Club. This is my way of telling you the crowd was on average 60+. I put together a set that avoided any youthful slang, so as to not send these boomers into a tizzy. But halfway through my joke about visiting the doctor (something they all would have experienced), I was heckled. 
The first half of the joke, which has close to a million views on TikTok, goes as follows: “I don’t think doctors should be attractive. I’m sick, and now I have to impress you?”. A simple premise. The joke continues with me discussing my approach to flirting with the Emergency Room doctor as he goes through his intake questions. “He asks, is there a chance you could be pregnant?” I ponder which is the more attractive answer, ‘yes’ might imply I’m single, dating and fertile. Or, if I’m possibly pregnant but not sure, does that suggest I’m irresponsible?" But when I pose the rhetorical question, “should I be pregnant or not? What’s more attractive?” a man calls out, “I thought you already were!”
The room goes silent. His wife sits quietly beside him. She doesn’t even do the obligatory arm smack when you disapprove of something your partner says in public. I address his comment only briefly, but I’m unable to win the crowd’s trust back. Awkwardness and discomfort have flooded the room. What hurt most wasn’t the comment itself, but rather that the audience didn’t direct their shame toward the heckler, but towards me. 
I finish my jokes and leave the stage. The show continues, and later in the night, a fat male comedian takes to the stage. He spends the majority of his time joking about how fat, gross and unkempt he’s become in his 30s. The audience laughs…a lot. There are no heckles or pitiful lulls. 
In retrospect, I wish I'd taken time to speak to this heckler; to make him repeat his comment. People always feel and sound less sure of themselves when you make them repeat their heckle. We’ve all had to yell something two, three, even four times over loud music in a bar. By the third time, you’re like, was this ever worth saying? 
I’ve reflected on that show over the last few years. I was a greener performer, admittedly not as confident in my body, or in my power enough to verbally eviscerate an old man. But now? Oh baby, I dare them to try me. I’ll walk away with the deed to their waterfront property. 
As my career evolves, so too does my appreciation for the importance of comedy in reshaping the socio-cultural landscape. When a person laughs, their guard is lowered, and it is at this moment when a story, anecdote or differing perspective can pierce through, and make change. 
And change is undoubtedly coming, thanks to the tireless work of several plus-size women in the entertainment industry. Actress Barbie Ferreira left her role as Kat in Euphoria, frustrated by the limitations of her one-dimensional ‘fat best friend’ character. Urzila Carlson doesn’t shy away from discussing or utilising fat-related humour in her work, such as her eating a microphone hot dog on her Overqualified Loser show poster. Then there’s Michelle Buteau, who masterfully weaves playful references to her experience of being a plus-size woman in all of her work, and Nicole Byer who mocks the ‘fat women are brave’ notion on her Instagram posts whenever she wears a bikini.
In 2022, I saw Sofie Hagen perform her show Fat Jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Despite the crowd buying tickets to a show that was literally called Fat Jokes, Hagen had to call out moments when the audience started to shut down or pull away. But what a show to experience, seeing how impactful it was to talk about fat stereotypes and challenge everyone's preconceived ideas. 
Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling the very gendered, very tired, shame-based audience response to fatness. However, I do think that stand-up comedy will be the medium that completely reshapes our society when it comes to this taboo.
My approach to the topic has changed over the years. I've evolved from a novice comedian who made her body the butt of the joke, to avoiding the topic altogether for fear of audience reaction, to the performer I am today. I don’t want to lean into outdated and untrue fat stereotypes in my work. The fat male comedian gets laughs because society allows him to be fat, among other things, and lucky him! But I want a complete overhaul of the way we critique and talk about bodies, not just equal opportunity to mock myself. And that will take a smarter, better, more vulnerable approach to the subject. 
From where I’m standing, which is in the spotlight, I choose to call it out. To label the discomfort in the room. If we don’t, we further cloak ourselves, all of us, in shame, and perpetuate the notion that a woman’s value is intertwined with her body. There is no room on my stage for shame, pity or insecurity, and I challenge you to do the same from wherever you’re sitting. Here’s hoping it’s in my audience. 
Jess Fuchs is a Sydney-based stand-up comedian and writer. She performs all over the world and is currently touring Australia. You can follow her on Instagram and TikTok @JessFuchs.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!   

More from Pop Culture