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Pop culture is littered with examples of fat suits gone awry. There's "Fat Monica" from Friends, that time Tyra Banks pretended she weighed 350 pounds for a day, and (* shudder *) every single second of Shallow Hal.
The problem with these, of course, isn't in depicting people of various body shapes and sizes onscreen — in fact, we need more of that, not less. The issue arises when fat suits are used as a punchline (The Nutty Professor), or worse: employed as a before/after comparison that equates personal growth with weight loss, as in the case of January Jones on Mad Men, Julia Roberts in America's Sweethearts, and Max Greenfield's "Fat Schmidt" flashbacks on New Girl.
It's no secret that Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to promoting body-diversity onscreen. A recent study done for Refinery29 by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg, analyzing 100 top films of 2016, found that only four out of the 34 female leads were roughly a size 14 or greater. Given the fact that 67 percent of women in the U.S. are plus-size, that represents a woeful underrepresentation, which we, at Refinery29, have committed to push back against. What's more, of those four, one role was played by a male actor in a body suit, and another by a thin actress who used prosthetics to appear plus-size.
Critics point out that a straight-sized actor cannot possibly understand what it's like to experience the world as a plus-size person. Putting on a prosthetic for a couple of hours doesn't bestow universal knowledge of what it's like to live a lifetime in the shadow of traditional beauty standards. At the end of the day, actors can take off their suits, and go back to their lives. And as we push towards more diversity in film, and on TV, shouldn't we be encouraging plus-size actors to tell their own stories?
But there are some positive examples to point to. This is Us has been praised for its casting of Chrissy Metz in the lead role of Kate Pearson. But even that show has faced fat suit-related hurdles. People are hungry to see themselves onscreen in a way that they feel is real. This Is Us isn't a perfect show, but it has focused on body image and strives to represent people struggling with their weight more than almost any other show on TV right now. Perhaps that's why the series faced such fierce backlash when fans realized that Chris Sullivan, who plays Kate's love interest Toby, was wearing a prosthetic to make his body appear larger.
Both Sullivan and Metz have defended the use of the prosthetic. While Sullivan put down the criticism to internet outrage culture, Metz offered a more nuanced explanation.
“We tested a lot of gentlemen who were bigger, and I get it — people think the authenticity is kind of ruined by that. But Chris has been heavier, so I think he understands the plight of being overweight,” she explained on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live in February. “Also he was just the best man for the job. And people wear prosthetics all the time — it’s just weight as opposed to, like, a nose or a chin. It’s just kind of the name of the game."
In keeping with the tone of the show, costume designer Hala Bahmet, pointed out that "the term "fat suit" is not a term we use in my department nor on This Is Us."
"We use the term 'prosthetic' or 'prosthetic special effects suit' because it's most accurate and does not shame anyone nor carry any cultural baggage," she said. "The word 'fat' is not part of our lexicon."
Perhaps the issue isn't with the use of a prosthetic to give the illusion of weight, but rather in the intent behind it. Is it being used for cheap laughs? Or, as in the case of This Is Us, to help promote acceptance of plus-size people as individuals with complex inner lives and motivations, who live, laugh, and love just like any one else? Is there a right way to create and wear a fat suit?
To find out, I spoke to Bahmet, and Todd Masters, whose company, Masters FX, made Sullivan's prosthetic, about what went into crafting Toby's look on the show.
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