There are a lot of reasons to love Orange Is the New Black which returns for its 5th season on June 9. Netflix’s hit series captivated everyone’s attention when, keeping with the central plotline of Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, it threw a white woman in federal prison. It has mastered the dramedy genre, and there is rarely room for boredom. In the process of watching Piper’s struggle to adapt to her new life behind bars, viewers got to know a whole slew of characters who continue to paint a diverse picture of womanhood, humanity, and the culture we live in. One of the most diverse shows on TV, OITNB has always done a great job of uplifting the stories of women of color, queer women, trans women, poor women, mothers, and obviously, women in the justice system.
But the show is special to me for another aspect of diversity that it tackles. I’ve never seen a show with so many plus-sized characters. Taystee, Big Boo, Black Cindy, and Dayanara are all main or recurring characters that represent the 67% of us who wear a size 14 or higher. In a moment when we’re finally pushing back on the idea that beautiful and camera-ready mean white, and insisting that on screen representations do better at reflecting the demographics of the real world, hardly any shows depict the size diversity among us as well.
OITNB took it a step further with the aforementioned characters by de-centering their weight as the main part of their stories. Often in television and films, a person’s fatness defines them. It becomes their defining characteristic and the thing that preoccupies their time and energy. Rarely do they get to exist like other characters who have jobs, love interests, hobbies, and ambitions that don’t include losing weight. For example, Chrissy Metz's character on This Is Us spent the entire first season obsessing about her weight, a trend that is likely to continue into the second. This isn’t the case in OITNB.
In my opinion, Dayanara was the sex symbol in the first season, as her relationship with correctional officer John Bennett blossomed. Big Boo is also a sex symbol in her own right as a masculine-presenting woman. Taystee gets the kiss of my dreams from Poussey and brings so much personality to show, as does Black Cindy. From the flashback scenes about their lives before Litchfield prison, we know that all of these women had bigger concerns than they’re love handles. Even Characters like Red and her some of the older inmates remind us that bodies do things like age and collect scars and injuries.
That we get to see so many different kinds of bodies in an often unfiltered state is important. As Loni Love recently reminded me in an interview, we need to normalize different kinds of bodies, not hide them away. OITNB got this memo years before everyone else, and I love them for it.