How Much Progress Has Hollywood Actually Made In Showing Body Diversity?

Photo: Courtesy of NBC
Before she was Marilyn Monroe, 19-year-old Norma Jean Dougherty was just a would-be model, who, upon entering an agency, was told she was "too plump, but in a beautiful way." This was 1945, and the future Hollywood icon was auditioning for a company called Blue Book, when a secretary added a damning note next to her measurements: "size 12." Granted, a size 12 back then would be closer to a size 6 in today's measurements, but that only proves the point that women in Hollywood have been told to alter their bodies since the dawn of the industry.
Seventy-two years have passed since then.
Today, we hear a lot of talk about body diversity in Hollywood. It's an issue that has slowly inched its way into the national conversation, with stars like Rachel Bloom, Leslie Jones, Mindy Kaling, and Bryce Dallas Howard sparking debate about what it's like to have a body that doesn't conform to accepted standards of beauty in an industry that prizes appearance above all else. The recent Harvey Weinstein scandal has brought a lot of those issues to the fore. In her guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason called out the sad truth that "the No. 1 casting criterion in Hollywood is that, above all else, an actress must be 'hot and fuckable.'" Weinstein himself, it turns out, reportedly once asked for a lead actress to be replaced on a project because she wasn't "fuckable enough."
2016 brought us the unexpected success of This Is Us, the rare show featuring a plus-size woman, Chrissy Metz, in a lead role. American Housewife, about a plus-size mother of three (Katie Mixon) struggling to fit in in Westport, Connecticut, which premiered on ABC in October of the same year, is currently in its second season. And although both of those shows' plots rely heavily on those characters' appearances, their popularity suggests that, on the surface at least, things appear to be moving in the right direction — if at a turtle's pace.
But how much of that is actually having a real impact on what we see onscreen? Are we truly progressing towards a world where body diversity is a given, rather than an overly conspicuous plot point?
Let's start with film. In a study done exclusively for Refinery29 that analyzed 100 top films of 2016, Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg found that female characters were three times as likely to be thin as their male counterparts. When accounting for age, they found that 54.8% of 13 to 20 year olds on screen were thin, as opposed to 42.4% of 21 to 39 year olds and 18.6% of 40 to 64 year olds. That means that over half of the teenaged girls we're being shown on screen are "thin or extremely thin."
This has serious real-world consequences. In 2012, a study published in PLos One found that women who were shown images of other women of varying sizes quickly became more comfortable with different body types. It stands to reason, then, that the more body diversity we have access to on our screens and in the media in general, the faster we will accept ourselves and those around us.
Reflecting another slow-moving Hollywood push towards more gender diversity, 34 of those 100 films featured female leads or co-leads. But again, when analyzed through the lens of body diversity, the outlook is bleak. Of the 33 characters considered to have "human" bodies, only four (4!) were roughly a size 14 or greater, including one female role played by a male actor in a body suit, and another for which a thin actress used prosthetics to appear bigger (the Initiative declined to directly identify which films these were).
These numbers, while dismal, aren't surprising to Cristina Escobar, director of communications at The Representation Project, an organization which uses film and media as a way to make structural societal changes and break down stereotypes.
"Hollywood is not very old, but it has over its history really valued thinness, and shown the same types of bodies over and over again," she told Refinery29 on a recent phone call.
There are, and have been, outliers, but they're few and far between, and most fall within a spectrum of acceptable thinness that designates natural hip shapes as "curvy." (Think Christina Hendricks in Mad Men.)
"In the early aughts, we had Jennifer Lopez and her butt making news, as if such a thing were new, or newly desirable," Escobar joked. "But we’ve really been stuck in this pretty limited narrative, where Hollywood consistently tells the story that a woman’s value lies in her beauty, her sexuality, and her thinness."
Escobar points to Hitch — yes, the 2005 movie starring Will Smith and Eva Mendes — as an unwitting example of where Hollywood stands today. Smith, as the main character, is tall, thin and athletic. Then, you have Kevin James, who, as the supporting character, is entitled to have a different body type. By the end of the movie, both are paired off with beautiful, thin women. "And that really speaks volumes about where we are, and where we have been on body diversity," she explained. "It’s not a lot of wiggle room, men get a little bit more, and it’s sad for all of us."
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images; Courtesy of HBO.
But surely television is doing better, right? After all, look at Girls, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!
Sadly, that's not really the case. Looking at one episode of each of the 50 top-rated television shows among 18 to 49 year olds from June 2016 to May 2017, the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg found that 43.3% of female characters were thin, compared to 13.6% of men. That means that for every Hannah Horvath, there are two and a half Marnie Michaels.
A surprisingly large number of shows were found to feature female leads (30). But of these, only three were shown to be above a size 14 or greater. Even more depressingly, 64.1% of female teens on TV were found to be depicted as "thin or extremely thin."
But if you really think back, none of this is all that surprising. Just remember all the backlash Lena Dunham got every time she showed her body on Girls; or the fact that Gabourey Sidibe had to defend her right to film a sex scene on Empire because, as she put it,"a plus sized, dark-skinned woman" had dared to have a love scene on television; or the fact that women are still being asked to lose weight for roles, as Kirsten Dunst revealed earlier this year while promoting The Beguiled. (She refused.)
Women are still fighting for basic representation in media in general, and Hollywood in particular. But pointing to a few choice examples of progress isn't enough. Imagine a world in which a woman's weight is no longer a topic of conversation or a plot point — wouldn't that be nice?
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