Fat Girls on Film or: How I Learned to Stop Hating My Body and Start Demanding More from Hollywood

Danielle MacDonald sees something she wants to be in Falling for Figaro. 
Danielle MacDonald sees something she wants to be in Falling for Figaro. 

When Kate Hagen’s mission to curate a cinematic canon for fat girls came up short, she searched out films that best transcend ‘fat girl’ tropes, and suggests how Hollywood can serve an audience neglected by decades of poorly drawn caricatures. 

Author’s note: Throughout this piece, I use the word ‘fat’ to describe my own experiences, as well as the main descriptive word to describe bigger bodies, as I am personally most comfortable with the word ‘fat’. I understand that it is a loaded, complicated word for many of us. I hope it can function here as a gateway to the larger conversation suggested within this piece, not as an insult to anyone reading.

When was the first time you saw yourself on screen?

Not in the blankly aspirational hero-with-a-thousand-faces sort of way, but in the oh shit did these writers observe my entire life as a field study way, that marrow-deep connection to a celluloid hero that makes you sit back in your seat and shudder with recognition. Ask most people and their answer is some third banana on a sitcom who wore glasses and loved geometry, or a matinee idol who exploded their entire reality in one Saturday afternoon, but for me, the answer to this question was more elusive.

I was 23 and new to Los Angeles when my brethren of fat girls on Tumblr started incessantly posting about My Mad Fat Diary, a series adapted from Rae Earl’s memoir of the same name. In Rae, portrayed with incredible, specific nuance by eventual BAFTA winner Sharon Rooney, I saw myself in a character for the first time: a terminally horny, fat teenager obsessed with the more nuanced talking points of Oasis vs. Blur and the not-so-bad boys at school, all while juggling the tumult that comes with being the fat best friend to a certified knockout, and the massive amounts of emotional, physical, and psychic baggage that come with Growing Up Fat™.

“It’s fucking embarrassing how good I look some days.” Rae (Sharon Rooney) is never lost for inspiring words in the E4 series My Mad Fat Diary.
“It’s fucking embarrassing how good I look some days.” Rae (Sharon Rooney) is never lost for inspiring words in the E4 series My Mad Fat Diary.

I’d seen Now and Then and Fried Green Tomatoes a dozen times before middle school and hung editorials of Mia Tyler and Crystal Renn on my bedroom wall to be studied like exotic birds. But even as a movie- and TV-obsessed youth, it took more than two decades of watching before I could really see myself reflected in a living and breathing embodiment of what it feels like to grow up as a fat girl who uses sarcasm as a shield for every small death brought on by “but you have such a pretty face!” I saw myself in every oversized flannel worn by Rae to cover her fat arms, every awkward pool-party gaze, and most of all, in her tearful speech to her ten-year-old self in which she tells her she’s perfect just as she is.

Rae resonated with me deeply as I tried to land my first assistant job in LA after film school. Every time, the procedure was the same: I’d arrive for an interview alongside many leggy, vaguely Nordic blondes, and start sweating through the tightest size-twelve skirt I owned. I knew long before being called back I wasn’t getting the job. No matter what my other (meager but certainly comparable!) qualifications are, short, fat and Midwestern were decidedly not wanted for even an entry-level, behind-the-scenes gig. It was a tough lesson, but it catalyzed in me a desire to keep pushing my way into Hollywood on my own terms and narrowed my focus on becoming a reader, which led to my current job of almost a decade with The Black List—quite the silver lining.

But even as someone who moved to LA to work in film and TV, I hadn’t fully considered that I’d never seen a character that I could truly relate to as a fat woman, something I’d just begun to reckon with in my early twenties. As Lesley Kinzel wrote in her brilliant exploration of “before and after” weight-loss photos, most of my early years were spent chasing that magical “after” moment, when my life would begin. Once I lost weight, I could really start living—that was what diet culture had begun beating into my brain from the first time my pediatrician mentioned my weight in kindergarten.

Real women have Real Women Have Curves (2002) on their Letterboxd watchlists. America Ferrera as Ana Garcia.
Real women have Real Women Have Curves (2002) on their Letterboxd watchlists. America Ferrera as Ana Garcia.

In the tumultuous teenage years while I was still trying, with growing desperation, to change my body, I hadn’t stopped to consider that my own experiences as the woman I was were almost never reflected back to me. Or that there were millions of other women who probably never saw themselves in previews of the coming attractions either.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, any positive depiction of a fat woman felt like a gift from the beauty overlords, a morsel of benevolence from a post-Olestra, pre-Tumblr, all-Perez Hilton and Atkins Diet world. The aughts were an especially terrible time to be a teenage girl (raise your hand if you were victimized by a Teen People editorial about wide-leg jeans, our support group meets on Tuesdays) and a particularly horrible moment for body image in American culture. The aspirational quote of the moment was Kate Moss’s infamous, since-retracted “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, tacked up in junior-high lockers just as pro-eating-disorder blogs began to thrive.

Half a lifetime on, I’ve found myself revisiting those brutal teenage years of bodily alienation, where I was the Smart n’ Funny Fat Friend™—never the lead—in my own personal coming-of-age film. There were so few characters to see myself in, I could count them on one hand: the hefty hideaway girl herself, Ricki Lake, as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray; Sara Rue on Ryan Murphy’s brilliant but canceled Popular; and America Ferrara in Patricia Cardoso’s masterful Real Women Have Curves (and later, Ugly Betty)… and that was about it. In the early 2000s, I surfed endless hours of cable searching for fat girls on film, but rarely did I ever find anyone resembling the fat women I knew and loved in my own life.

All of Letterboxd knows she’s big, blonde and beautiful. Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in the original Hairspray (1988).
All of Letterboxd knows she’s big, blonde and beautiful. Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in the original Hairspray (1988).

At the age of twelve, when I was about to be at my personal fattest, Shallow Hal hit cable. Lord knows the Farrelly Brothers aren’t the most sensitive of filmmakers under the best of circumstances, but in spite of the presence of body-posi icon and certified hottie Jack Black, Shallow Hal is a low amongst lows, even for that era of ick-tacular bro comedy.

The film became a quasi-event; repulsed chatter about how a thin, recent Best Actress winner could possibly want to slum it in a fat-suit for the Farrellys dominated Entertainment Tonight. Even though I knew I was settling in for a cinematic trainwreck, I had to find out—after all, what other options were there for fat girls at the movies twenty years ago?

Morbid curiosity became clammy nausea as trailer guffaw moments like Gwenyth Paltrow’s enormous panties being thrown across a room or her carrying of Black across a bridal threshold played out. The film further instilled in me (like most all media of the time) that my own growing body was a joke, a sideshow exhibit to be leered at, run from, or begrudgingly accepted only in the guise of whatever inner-beauty bullshit Shallow Hal allegedly explores. Paltrow seems to have possibly gained a sliver of empathy from her “humiliating” experience in the film, but even with two decades of distance the movie still feels like an especially odious piece of post-9/11 comedic refuse.

“How do you take your tea, Sweetie?” Jane Campion favorite Genevieve Lemon in the director’s 1989 drama-comedy.
“How do you take your tea, Sweetie?” Jane Campion favorite Genevieve Lemon in the director’s 1989 drama-comedy.

I’ve talked with fat female friends my age who had similar experiences with everything from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Norbit to Friends or How I Met Your Mother. Hollywood has always been an industry driven by a very narrow definition of aesthetic beauty and attractiveness (thin, white, straight, wealthy) but casual vitriol towards fat characters was present across the spectrum of film and TV until the last few years, when the lens of internet culture finally allowed fat viewers to start speaking up about negative portrayals of characters (and caricatures) who looked like them.

And yet, Hollywood and most independent films remain mostly uninterested in fat female stories that don’t involve an ugly-duckling narrative often driven by weight loss (please stop recommending Brittany Runs a Marathon to me, I will never watch it, tysm), some kind of insane comedic set-up (we really let a bonk on the head motivate the plots of two movies about fat women!) or allow fat characters to be anything besides tropey supporting characters like The Harried Mom, The Supportive, Undersexed Best Friend, or the Sassy, Oversexed Co-Worker.

Shirley Stoler every scene in The Honeymoon Killers (1970). 
Shirley Stoler every scene in The Honeymoon Killers (1970). 

Some of my earliest IMDb searches were for films about fat women. Since then, I’ve scrubbed through countless films and shows in a quest to find fat female protagonists that actually resonate with me. Discovering movies like Jane Campion’s Sweetie or PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, and actors like Shirley Stoler (who spoke candidly to The New York Times about stigma she faced as a fat actress 45 long years ago) felt like decoding a secret cinematic language that was only decipherable by me and my fellow fat girls.

Seriously: consider how many movies you’ve seen, across your entire life, starring a fat woman in a leading role, where her size isn’t a problem to be fixed. Really think about it! Even I, the eternal IMDb sleuth, have only come up with a Letterboxd list of around 30 films from the past 50 years featuring a fat female lead who gets to live something resembling a life that feels representative of my own.

The director-star collaboration was especially tight for The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) director and star Radha Blank.
The director-star collaboration was especially tight for The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) director and star Radha Blank.

I was thrilled to see a sex scene so focused on a fat woman’s pleasure then lead to a moment of raw vulnerability for Radha Blank in her staggeringly accomplished debut, The Forty-Year-Old Version. Anne Fletcher’s Dumplin’ was practically made for my Dolly Parton-lovin’, former-pancake-waitress self, anchored by a stellar lead performance from Danielle MacDonald, who’s been assembling quite the résumé with Patti Cake$, Bird Box and French Exit too.

MacDonald even has her very own new rom-com, Falling for Figaro. It’s not particularly rom, nor com (the film literally isn’t over until the fat lady sings—yikes), but her opera-aspiring Millie is professionally high-achieving, juggles romantic options, and gets to do so in a wonderful array of wardrobe options by designer Carole K. Millar.

From the first few bars of Elastica’s ‘Connection’ I knew I was going to love Coky Giedroyc’s underrated How to Build a Girl, starring Beanie Feldstein in a 1990s boy-crazy daydream. For the award-winning Rocks, Sarah Gavron saw more than 1,300 young women to build one of the most relatable ensembles of teen girls ever put to film, led by the fearless, indelible Bukky Bakray as the ultra-resourceful Rocks herself. Unpregnant gave me the queer teenage-dirtbag representation I never knew I needed in Barbie Ferreria.

Beanie knows how to build a red-carpet-worthy awards outfit (even if Johanna’s award in How to Build a Girl (2019) is not worth winning).
Beanie knows how to build a red-carpet-worthy awards outfit (even if Johanna’s award in How to Build a Girl (2019) is not worth winning).

After debuting at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s stirring, poignant The Body Remembers When the World Broken Open nabbed six Canadian Screen Awards nominations, including a Best Actress nod for lead Violet Nelson in her film debut (a role that came about from an open casting call, when traditional casting measures did not deliver). And I definitely felt a smidge too much recognition in one of Booksmarts academically accomplished, socially inept lead duo—once again played by our most beloved Beanie.

Watching these stories, storytellers and actresses emerge has been undoubtedly exciting, but it’s still a very short list of very recent films—admittedly western-leaning, too (by all means, please suggest films and I’ll add them). And it’s not at all a representational sample of the very audience that is consuming it, which is odd for an industry so obsessed with market segments and how to best monetize them!

Kwakwakaʼwakw and Honduran actress Violet Nelson gets dystopian in Night Raiders (2021), a follow up to her break-out role in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019).
Kwakwakaʼwakw and Honduran actress Violet Nelson gets dystopian in Night Raiders (2021), a follow up to her break-out role in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019).

To nobody’s surprise, a 2012 study of TV characters in the Obesity journal found thin women to be over-represented on screen. Although just five percent of women in American culture are underweight, thin women make up a third of television characters. And though current American statistics show that 35 percent of the male population and 40 percent of women are in the obese or overweight category, on screen we see just 24 percent of male characters and 13 percent of female characters represented in this group.

It’s more than just a numbers game—it’s also about what happens to fat characters when they are allowed on screen. The study found that “heavier characters were more likely to be in minor roles, were less likely to be involved in romantic relationships, had fewer positive interactions than thin characters, and were often the objects of humor”. I wish I could find similar information around portrayals of fat women in film, but in spite of many academic studies around size representation, the majority of research data focuses on the smaller screen. I would be thrilled if the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative could explore this data as a part of its revolutionary work on gender in the industry.

Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), a sparklin’ diamond in a rhinestone world.
Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), a sparklin’ diamond in a rhinestone world.

How can we begin to understand the complex questions around portrayals of fat women in film when we don’t even track data related to their very cinematic presence? It should come as no surprise that the somewhat unreliable numbers we do have for fat women on screen are still utterly dismal. There are a scant 228 titles across IMDb’s database of more than seven and a half million media entries tagged with ‘fat woman’, 115 for ‘fat girl’. ‘Overweight woman’ and ‘obese woman’ yield a meagre 35 and 43 results respectively.

For my mathletes out there—and even allowing for the fact that IMDb’s keywords are a crowd-sourced feature with irregularities and blind spots—this represents about 0.003 percent of all media. We don’t even get close to a single percentage point of visibility! That’s a pretty horrifying gulf in representation for the ‘average’ woman in the ‘average’ movie, eh? For Hollywood, part of the myth-making machine comes at the cost of effectively banishing female bodies that actually resemble real life.

In scrolling through the titles within each of those above-mentioned IMDb categories, one finds that most films include a fat woman only in a single scene, presented as a punchline or objet d’art (looking at you, Dodgeball and Nocturnal Animals) or that one episode of Louie we all suffered through (despite a memorable guest performance from the dazzling Sarah Baker), before finally hitting the safe harbor of Babycakes (seriously, where would any of us be without Ricki Lake?!) where a fat woman’s point of view is truly centered and explored in the narrative.

Do you feel the spirit in here, Hollywood? Ts Madison in Zola (2020).
Do you feel the spirit in here, Hollywood? Ts Madison in Zola (2020).

And as we look deeper into the frame, the inclusion of Lizzo in Hustlers, Joy Nash in Twin Peaks: The Return, and Ts Madison in Zola still feels progressive when, in reality, we should be seeing far more fat actors of all genders and body types as extras—in supporting roles, in crowd scenes, and in backgrounds—for media to be actually representative of our current world. (Tip for screenwriters: if you don’t specify it in your crowd description, you don’t get it. Be prescriptive about what your crowd looks like. Mindy Kaling’s HBO series The Sex Lives of College Girls is the current gold standard here.)

Independent films have focused marginally more on fat women’s stories than studio films, and the world of animation deserves a dedicated essay on its slowly game-changing work in portraying body diversity for younger audiences—from Shrek’s Princess Fiona to Arlo the Alligator Boy’s Bertie, and Gabi and Rosa in Vivo to Luisa in Encanto, there is certainly progress to admire. But back in the live-action realm, there’s still a massive gap in the marketplace when it comes to seeing a wide array of bodies on screens.

Animated icons Bertie, Luisa and Gabi apply pressure like a drip, drip, drip to the live-action industry.
Animated icons Bertie, Luisa and Gabi apply pressure like a drip, drip, drip to the live-action industry.

Or, even seeing borderline “can she really be considered fat because she’s just not ‘Hollywood thin’?” bodies. Why are we even talking about Kate Winslet’s and Melanie Lynskey’s bodies, or worse, making them talk about their bodies, instead of the next-level work those heavenly creatures turned in on Mare of Easttown and Yellowjackets respectively? Maybe it’s because daring to exist outside of the industry sample size is revolutionary for actresses in and of itself. (As Lynskey recently told The Guardian, in yet another interview about Hollywood’s relationship with her body, “They’re telling women that this is how you have to be, and it’s just not reality.”)

While factors like the death of the middle-budget movie, changing film-finance models, and the streaming-service explosion—not to mention a certain pandemic—have undoubtedly had an impact on how many films get made in a year, it’s still sort of shocking to see how many films shy away not only from a fat lead character, but any fat characters at all.

We should be storming the gates of every major studio and streamer in town. Why aren’t we? Because as an audience we haven’t even begun to deal with our own internalized fatphobia, or explore an empathetic understanding of the fat experience, or challenge the omniscient, oppressive diet culture that surrounds almost every daily interaction around food, movement and bodies.

Consequently, many viewers still see fat characters as second-class citizens. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Public Health on fat representation in television found that “popular prime-time programs reinforce discriminatory behavior against women based on weight and size, whereas heavy males receive little punishment or rejection, indicating a thin ideal double standard in popular media programs”, proving that the on-screen stigma not only exists, but is even harder for fat women to overcome.

Lakota Sioux comedian and writer Jana Schmieding—seen here as Reagan in the Peacock series Rutherford Falls—slices through Hollywood stereotypes.
Lakota Sioux comedian and writer Jana Schmieding—seen here as Reagan in the Peacock series Rutherford Falls—slices through Hollywood stereotypes.

Pretty damning stuff, but not news to any fat woman who has watched their own experience be minimized and mocked for their entire viewing life. I’m resigned to the wave of vitriol I’m likely to get online when this story drops, from film fans who have still not gleaned the medium’s greatest gift, empathy. (Read Aubrey Hirsch before you speak!) And I completely expect the requisite concern trolls telling me how they just can’t bear to read this because they’re just so worried about my personal health as a fat person, as they did en masse for my TED Talk (narrator: They were not.)

That kind of animosity is the starting point for daring to express any thought at all as a fat woman online—most of the time we can’t even have the nuanced conversation we need to have about fat women in film, because so few of us have the language necessary to speak to the fat experience. Even in writing this piece, I have imagined possibly angry emails from actresses I have dared to call fat, insisting I refer to them with something softer, like the dreaded ‘curvy’ or ‘zaftig’, because many fat women lack the language or emotional bandwidth to have these conversations respectfully and thoughtfully.

Bukky Bakray (left) became the youngest winner of the BAFTA Rising Star Award for Rocks (2019).
Bukky Bakray (left) became the youngest winner of the BAFTA Rising Star Award for Rocks (2019).

But in the same way that many of us have been learning the tools to talk about white supremacy, institutional sexism and misogyny, trans rights, and more, I would hope that maybe we can start taking a hard look at our messaging around fat people and how that extends to depictions of fat characters too.

Let me be clear: I am in no way equating any of these experiences or saying the levels of oppression are the same. As Laura Pohlman writes in her thesis on the evolution of fat female characters in contemporary American film: “White women’s body discourse can exist separately from their race, while the two remain inextricable for Black women.” We need to look at the fat experience as a part of the overall tapestry of marginalization and subjugation in contemporary society. When we talk about true intersectionality and inclusion, that conversation has to include fat bodies of all kinds.


Who do Marie Van Schuyler and Mrs Bowers have to kill to get a glass of champagne around here? Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French in Death on the Nile (2022).
Who do Marie Van Schuyler and Mrs Bowers have to kill to get a glass of champagne around here? Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French in Death on the Nile (2022).

Television is where a fascinating array of fat women have pulled focus in the last few years. The UK and Ireland have long led the way, thanks to stars like French and Saunders, Victoria Wood, Miranda Hart, Kathy Burke, Jo Brand and newer faces Roisin Conaty (After Life), Nicola Coughlan (Derry Girls) and Chinenye Ezeudu (Sex Education). (A special shout-out to Dawn French for her career’s many sizzling bedroom scenes, with lovers including Scottish hottie Iain Glen and archetypal London lad Phil Daniels.)

Firmine Richard, notable for her breakout role as Daniel Autiel’s lover in Coline Serreau’s Romuald et Juliette, has for too long been a lone face for fat French women on screen. Downunder, Indigenous actresses including Deborah Mailman, from Australia, and New Zealander Rachel House have blazed trails as non-sample-sized stars, and Kiwi comedian Alice Snedden is a fantastic addition to the BBC series Starstruck as Amelia, a wry friend of star and co-writer Rose Matafeo’s Jessie.

Cath (Minnie Driver) and Amelia (Alice Snedden) peel back the layers of rom-com tropes in BBC/HBO series Starstruck.
Cath (Minnie Driver) and Amelia (Alice Snedden) peel back the layers of rom-com tropes in BBC/HBO series Starstruck.

America is slowly making progress on the small screen, from my beloved Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) on Euphoria to Chrissy Metz’s Kate on This is Us, one of America’s most watched prime-time dramas, to Aidy Bryant’s constant scene-stealing on Shrill (joined often by fellow scene-stealer Lolly Adefope as her also-fat BFF) to the casual inclusion of fat women as regular ol’ supporting characters on shows like Hacks, Mythic Quest and The White Lotus. After directing Da’Vine Joy Randolph on Empire, Craig Brewer helped the emerging superstar cinch her role as the unforgettable Lady Reed in Dolemite is My Name by encouraging her to memorize one of Reed’s routines before auditioning with Eddie Murphy.

On series like Girls 5Eva, The Handmaid’s Tale, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Orange is the New Black, Riverdale, Rutherford Falls and Why Women Kill, fat actresses like Paula Pell, Ann Dowd, Beth Ditto, June Squibb, Lea DeLaria, Dascha Polanco, Shannon Purser, Jana Schmieding and Allison Tolman get juicy, fully realized parts that don’t currently have a cinematic equivalent. Television arcs allow fat actresses to exist as more than just a prop for the lead’s storyline. They can inhabit characters with much richer emotional lives than merely “dopey cop who doesn’t survive the second reel” or “fat party girl” (a real credit).

“I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed in Dolemite is My Name (2019).
“I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed in Dolemite is My Name (2019).

On TV, the part often goes to the best actor for the job, instead of the most internationally financeable actor, as tends to happen in film. So we get to see fat women as songwriters, journalists, political radicals and criminals. Creators are also beginning to realize the value of collaborating with actresses to craft more realistic fat characters, as well. At HBO, multi-hyphenate chanteuse Bridget Everett was able to use a deal at the network to co-create Somebody Somewhere, centered around her own working-class experiences in Manhattan, Kansas.

It’s a pretty simple solution to decades of poorly drawn caricatures for fat women: hire someone with personal experience—writer Lindy West and actress Aidy Bryant for Shrill, for example—and suddenly, it becomes a lot harder to paint an inaccurate character portrait. And it’s certainly worked before; in the world of fashion, more fat women and brands are finding their greatest success by catering to an audience they already know is underserved: other fat women! The same could be true in Hollywood, if more fat women become included at all levels of the production process.

Sam (Bridget Everett) sings like a goddamn angel in the HBO series Somebody Somewhere.
Sam (Bridget Everett) sings like a goddamn angel in the HBO series Somebody Somewhere.

Because when it comes to creating tropes around fat characters, the industry knows exactly what it’s doing. The new AMC series Kevin Can Fuck Himself, directly engages with the tired sitcom construction of “fat slob husband, beautiful can-do wife” while the inverse has almost never been possible for fat women.

The ‘almost’ comes from seminal ’90s sitcom Roseanne, one of the few safe-harbor shows for me as a fat kid. Not only did it depict a working-class Midwestern family that actually struggled (and weren’t just sitcom-poor) but it featured two sexy, sharp, fat leads in Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, whose combustible chemistry gave me hope for healthy fat love beyond just my own family. While Roseanne herself has done plenty to torch not only her own legacy but that of the series she once fought hard for, Roseanne still stands as one of the few massively popular prime-time American series starring a fat actress.

Roseanne Barr’s cheated-on housewife has a ruthless revenge plan underway in She-Devil (1989).
Roseanne Barr’s cheated-on housewife has a ruthless revenge plan underway in She-Devil (1989).

Less successful was Susan Seidelman’s brilliant debut vehicle for Barr, She-Devil, which would become Roseanne’s only real lead role in a film. Released in 1989 as Barr and her show were on the ascent, She-Devil’s black comedy is so progressive in making Barr triumphant over none other than Meryl fucking Streep that it still rankles most viewers. I first saw She-Devil as a kid and totally could not process it, because I could not yet fully reconcile—due to my own internalized fatphobia—that I was supposed to root for Roseanne’s housewife supreme, Ruth Patchett, instead of Streep’s pretty-in-pink romance novelist.

Watching the film as an adult woman who has come to terms with my own fat body is a completely different experience. I now see Ruth as one of the most relatable heroines in cinema history, brought to life thanks to Seidelman’s expert finesse of the film’s tonal tightrope and Roseanne’s own lived experience—she was a housewife and mother to three before being discovered in a showcase hosted by fellow fat icon, Rodney Dangerfield.

Yves Saint Laurent was euphoric to snap up Barbie Ferreira as its new US ambassador. 
Yves Saint Laurent was euphoric to snap up Barbie Ferreira as its new US ambassador. 

Roseanne, She-Devil and a number of the other series and films I mention here share one strand of DNA when it comes to fat female characters: they’re almost always working-class. Even in ABC’s closest and most recent Roseanne clone, American Housewife, the working class has become the upper-middle class, with lead Katy Mixon certainly not mulling service-industry jobs or unpaid bills like her foremother.

The stories of working-class women are hugely deserving of being told. It’s just that rarely do we get to see fat women living the lives of luxury their thin counterparts experience as a given (just try and envision a fat Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey!). But, at least in the cosmetics industry, there is some movement: Barbie Ferreira was recently announced as the new face of YSL Beauty, a global luxury brand that has historically not focused on people in bigger bodies. And Beanie Feldstein was recently featured in an ultra-luxe campaign for Gucci. Her radiant photos for the storied fashion house would’ve definitely been a part of my fat-girl inspo wall in high school, right alongside Barbie.

It’s almost as if… representation matters? Numerous studies have confirmed that fat people earn less in the workplace and face discrimination from the hiring process onward, and I have to think that consistently depicting fictional fat female characters as almost exclusively working-class reinforces pre-existing beliefs for many viewers around fat people being lazy, dumb and undeserving of the same kinds of joy thin folks experience. Rich and fat seldom co-exist in any character description that doesn’t also include monstrous—just ask Baron Harkonnen in Dune.


Oscar history is a useful litmus test for how we think about the kinds of roles fat actresses have historically been granted, and can expect in the future. In almost a century of awarding Best Actress trophies, the Academy has only ever bestowed the honor upon two fat women, six decades apart: Marie Dressler in 1931 for Min and Bill and Kathy Bates in 1991 for Misery.

I haven’t had a chance to track down Min and Bill yet, but in Misery, Annie Wilkes’ size (and implied resulting social ostracization) is essential to shaping her as an obsessive serial murderer—but it never gets deeply explored by Annie herself in the film. I’ve always wanted to watch a version of that movie from Annie’s perspective, because I know Kathy Bates would have been able to infuse her story with far more of Bates’ own authentic experiences as both a fat woman and a fat actress, and transcended the trappings of Annie Wilkes as written on the page in both Stephen King’s original novel and William Goldman’s screenplay (despite the fact that Goldman wrote the cinematic version of Wilkes with Bates in mind).

Kathy Bates, quite happy with her Best Actress Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). — Credit… MediaPunch Inc / Alamy
Kathy Bates, quite happy with her Best Actress Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990). Credit… MediaPunch Inc / Alamy

And Annie is a villain, lest we forget, which means she’s unconsciously reinforcing stereotypes around evil fat women we’ve seen many times elsewhere, from The Little Mermaid to Matilda. Bates makes Annie about as empathetic and darkly relatable as a multiple-murderess can be, but still there’s the lingering sense that Annie’s size is another shameful symptom of her personal failures and mental-health issues (especially given King’s penchant for villainous fat female characters throughout his career) that have led her to become the unhinged woman who commands the film.

I am at least glad that Bates used Annie Wilkes as a stepping stone to the rest of her fantastic career of more than 40 years, which now includes three more Oscar nominations, but I’d love to see a version of Misery directed by a fat woman. I believe she’d be able to find that nuance within Annie that the men who have crafted her so far have not.

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy refuse to have a bar of Hollywood’s beauty restrictions in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018).
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy refuse to have a bar of Hollywood’s beauty restrictions in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018).

Since Bates won her Oscar, there have been only two fat Best Actress nominees: Gabourey Sidibe (for Precious) and Melissa McCarthy (for Can You Ever Forgive Me?) in 2010 and 2019 respectively. For all of the talk about increasing diversity across the board at the Oscars, awards-worthy storytelling still rarely celebrates the perspectives of fat women in lead roles.

Best Supporting Actress winners have fared better, with Hattie McDaniel, Jane Darwell, Josephine Hull, Margaret Rutherford, Brenda Fricker, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer all taking home the trophy… for, it must be noted, mostly working-class roles. According to Academy voters, fat actresses, if they’re lucky, might be praised for a strong, submissive supporting turn—beyond that? Best of luck.

Television, again, has proven to be a more giving medium for recognition. I vividly remember Camyrn Manheim’s Best Supporting Actress Emmy speech, where she declared her victory one “for the fat girls”. Manheim starred as eccentric lawyer Ellenor Frutt on David E. Kelley’s The Practice, which debuted in the midst of our obsessive size-double-zero days in 1997. I’d never seen a fat actress win an award until that moment, and it had a huge impact on me; for the first time I thought that maybe ‘fat’ wasn’t a bad word if a beautiful woman on a Hollywood stage was saying it.


The thing about becoming a high-achieving actress is that there are many more facets to the job than the job itself—and the mental load varies depending on what the media, and society, demand of her. Even when a star like the twice-Oscar-nominated McCarthy does break through to the Hollywood mainstream, her size becomes more of a talking point than necessary. When she’s not being asked about her size in interviews, she’s being asked for her thoughts on other interviews that asked about her size (in a journalistic move known as “how to get her talking about her body by critiquing other interviewers who made her do just that”).

It should be—it is—enough just to play the role. I don’t demand more from actresses than that, but sometimes, I like to hear more, simply because I want to further empathize with what it takes to do the work that they do. But the media machine always, always wants to hear more, and the topic of weight is guaranteed clickbait. Handling the extra work of being a spokesperson for viewers, like me, hunting for themselves on screen, must be absolutely exhausting; a no-win scenario for the very few fat actresses who find themselves basking in the ever-fickle Hollywood spotlight—that’s if they can find an outfit to wear under those harsh bulbs.

Gabourey Sidibe is precious in her custom Christian Siriano sequin-beaded gown at a Golden Globes after-party. — Credit… WENN Rights / Alamy
Gabourey Sidibe is precious in her custom Christian Siriano sequin-beaded gown at a Golden Globes after-party. Credit… WENN Rights / Alamy

It’s still rare for a fat woman’s red-carpet fashion choices to be called anything besides “brave” —⁠can we please see the end of captions with variations on “huge fat whale of an orca dares to exist off-camera!” It is frankly just bad business that, in the age of Lizzo and her purple floral bodysuit, a mere smattering of designers have been willing to step up with awards show looks. Christian Siriano is one of the few luxury designers actively dressing bodies that exist outside of the Hollywood ideal, outfitting actresses from Leslie Jones to Christina Hendricks to Niecy Nash—and adding value to his name in the process.

Working in development and production in Hollywood has been incredibly illuminating for me as a fat woman, as I’ve begun to understand where these underwhelming, offensive portrayals begin to take root. I’ve gotten the full spectrum of reactions to my size in this business, from ultra-thin executives who haven’t wanted to shake my hand for fear of catching the fats, to an Oscars press-room chubby-chaser who asked me and every other fat woman there our dress size.

For fat women, there are often two paths: you’re either struggling to shrink your body and spirit to fit into a world that won’t accept the vastness of all that you are, or you’ll always be seen as an object of fascination and curiosity. I am constantly horrified (but not at all surprised) by how many people I know in my daily professional life who claim to be extremely progressive while still having a deep, true hatred of fat people (and would frankly be glad to never think of or see one on screen again).

Lizzo, positively blooming with untapped cinematic roles. — Credit… Instagram
Lizzo, positively blooming with untapped cinematic roles. Credit… Instagram

This is why I won’t dwell on the disingenuous and totally heartbreaking ruse when a fat actor’s sudden, rapid weight loss—pretty clearly the result of cosmetic or weight-loss surgery—is sold as “just a lot of hard work”. I don’t begrudge anyone making body choices for their own health, or to expand the range of roles currently available to them in a perversely limited industry. And I cannot begin to comprehend the scrutiny and pressure to conform that fat actresses face every day. It’s just… complicated, especially when you’ve come to love an actor for simply daring to exist as fat in Hollywood.

We have become conditioned to the tabloidesque thrill of seeing a performer gain or lose weight or otherwise go through a “punishing”, “unrecognizable”, “Oscar-worthy” physical change for a role. The “weight-loss journey” becomes a celebratory milestone merely for the sheer amount of media it generates—while celebrity news vultures wait eagerly in the wings to feast on the almost certainly inevitable swing back into a bigger body.

What we really need is to reprogram ourselves and our industry to accept that bodies change over time, often many times in one lifetime—whether that be through adolescence or pregnancy, through menopause or illness, through weight cycling brought on by the diet industrial complex, through medication, or through none-of-your-fucking-business—and the negative career implications of this should be exactly zero.

Because: for every step forward, every campaign for #JusticeforBarb, there is Renee Zellweger, or Sarah Paulson in a fat suit as Linda Tripp for American Crime Story (which is especially baffling given how well-cast Beanie Feldstein is as Monica Lewinsky, who also produced the series). There are late-night talk-show calls for “more fat shaming” or whatever the hell was going on with Insatiable.

Being a fat audience member can be depressing, infuriating and exhilarating in equal measure, often all at once as you realize not only how poorly Hollywood is doing when it comes to relatable fat representation, but how much money is being left on the table by doing so. (Just like the fashion industry! It would be funny if it weren’t so sad!)


Every day, fat women make the heroic choice to be boldly, unapologetically fat in a world that rejects us at almost every turn, but Hollywood continues to treat assimilation and compliance for thin female bodies as some sort of achievement to be unlocked. I am the average American woman, between a size sixteen and size eighteen—though not without my own privileges as a “small fat” and as a white woman.

Here’s hoping Euphoria season three really lets the Kat (Barbie Ferreira) out of the bag.
Here’s hoping Euphoria season three really lets the Kat (Barbie Ferreira) out of the bag.

While I’ve gotten to a point in my own body journey where I have survived a few near-fatal cases of chub rub and can accept the perpetual march of cellulite, there are so many young viewers who still have that journey of their own to endure, and I’d really like it if theirs could be a little easier. I want to see more average American women in movies, which means more actually fat characters, not just a runway eight and some plump cheeks.

The assured bravado that Barbie Ferreira brings to every frame of her portrayal of Kat on Euphoria (at least in season one; season two saw Kat’s presence dramatically reduced and, uhhh, reimagined, let’s say generously—here’s hoping season three brings us some better news) would have been absolutely revelatory and life-altering to me as an actual teenager. We need more characters like her in cinemas too.

When Hollywood sends the message that fat women will rarely, if ever, be the main character in their own stories, young fat women, like I once did, start to think that they’ll never get to be the lead in their own lives until they lose weight—or worse, that their fatness makes them inherently bad or damaged in some way. A 2004 study exploring eating disorders found that “obesity was equated with negative traits (evil, unattractive, unfriendly, cruel) in 64 percent of the most popular children’s videos. In 72 percent of the videos, characters with thin bodies had desirable traits, such as kindness or happiness.”

The Shrill pool-party scene that had us floating on air, featuring series co-developer and executive producer Aidy Bryant as Annie.
The Shrill pool-party scene that had us floating on air, featuring series co-developer and executive producer Aidy Bryant as Annie.

What a message that is to send to young minds. Change around fat characters has to extend in every direction through the industry. And yet, outside of cinema, the way we talk about fatness has improved dramatically since my own childhood. A landmark 2018 piece by Michael Hobbes in The Huffington Post, ‘Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong’, adeptly navigates and explores the complexities of the fat experience, covering everything from medical bias against fat people to the consistent failures of fad diets to the many perils of dating while fat. Authors like Roxane Gay, Lindy West and Rainbow Rowell have become bestsellers in fiction, non-fiction and young-adult literature by explicitly writing about their experiences as fat women.

Fat men, who have always fared better than fat women on film, from silent-era stars like WC Fields onward, are being spotlighted as true Hollywood hunks, their dadbods serving as the modern take on Burt Reynolds and the bearskin (though lord help an industry that is still entertaining fat suits as a casting solution, when we have the actors and actresses to play the roles—seriously, how is this still considered okay?!).

Fat women are more represented than they used to be within the cultural and brand consciousness, with labels like Savage X Fenty placing fat models beside thin ones for every piece of lingerie they sell and Ashley Graham’s whole, beautiful body moving through national razor commercials with glee. Instagram accounts such as Fat in Film celebrate fat actors across all media from an inclusive, understanding point of view.

Danielle Brooks proves there is no universal standard of beauty in Hollywood.
Danielle Brooks proves there is no universal standard of beauty in Hollywood.

Plus-size fashion isn’t always confined to the back corner of department stores anymore, with stars like Danielle Brooks becoming the face for inclusive brands like Universal Standard and Old Navy launching a national campaign around extended in-store sizing, led by Aidy Bryant. And thanks to the body neutrality and fat liberation movements driven by social-media conversations, young fat folks can now correspond with and learn from their fat elders.

But still, as the eternal watcher and as a fat woman, I want more.

I want to watch a fat girl fuck her gorgeous co-star, rolls jiggling as she descends into orgasmic bliss in silk sheets—and in more than just like, two movies. I want to watch fat girls on horseback, roping nefarious cowpokes before settling in for their own roll in the hay. I want to watch a fat girl slide down a staircase with guns blazing as she slices through a row of hardened criminals with easy aplomb. I want to watch a fat girl breeze and cavort through a wacky rom-com that isn’t contingent on her losing weight or sustaining a head injury. I want to watch a fat teenage girl lead an intergalactic punk trio of marginalized misfits to the galaxy’s wildest battle of the bands, featuring an all-original soundtrack.

I want the definition of fat characters to expand beyond the gender binary and include fat actors of all genders, to include the entire spectrum of experiences for fat folks of color, and to explore the multitude of identities that can exist along with fatness. I want to watch a fat girl save the world, the same way fat women on Tumblr saved my world when I was twenty. I want every fat little girl to grow up less lonely than me when it comes to seeing herself on screen. To not only be told that she’s perfect, but to see it on 3,000 screens across America.


Last spring, I stumbled upon Meg Elison’s award-winning novelette, The Pill (thanks to Gretchen Felker-Martin), which is the single most resonant piece of media I’ve ever encountered when it comes to the fat female experience. I was breathless and exhilarated when I finished reading; besides the harrowing final minutes of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, no piece of media about being fat has ever cast as potent a spell on me as The Pill did. When I finished, I was burning with an excitement that quickly turned to fury.

Every fat girl and her sister deserves to see themselves reflected on screen. Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux in Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001).
Every fat girl and her sister deserves to see themselves reflected on screen. Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux in Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001).

The Pill is written through an incredibly cinematic lens, but it’s exactly the kind of authentic, challenging narrative about the fat experience that Hollywood would avoid precisely because it is so provocative. Will I be proven wrong, Hollywood powers that be? I dare you to do it. We’d certainly all be better off in a world that contains a cinematic version of Elison’s exquisite weight-loss dystopia.

Voices that can speak to the fat experience from a place of authenticity, like The Vampire Diaries mastermind Julie Plec, Vida creator and inclusion advocate Tanya Saracho, indie super-producer Christine Vachon and Tuca & Bertie and Sex and the City writer Samantha Irby, are becoming more visible behind the scenes, but women still only make up about twenty percent of all film-industry roles overall, let alone roles with production power, which is where we most need them—so that somebody can write Meg Elison the massive option check they deserve.

But… some good news before we go. Looking through the 30 films I found for my Letterboxd list, a full third are from the past decade alone. Maybe it’s too soon to hope that this is a paradigm shift. Or maybe not. 2022 has started slowly for the entire industry, but we have already been gifted Laura Galán in the karma-filled Sundance Midnight selection, Piggy. (Yes, it’s about size-related bullying, but also yes, Galán is gorgeous, she looks freaking hot in her pink bikini, and at no point is she made to change herself.)

Collaborators Carlota Pereda (writer-director) and Laura Galán, who plays Sara in the 2022 Sundance Midnight hit, Piggy (Cerdita, 2022).
Collaborators Carlota Pereda (writer-director) and Laura Galán, who plays Sara in the 2022 Sundance Midnight hit, Piggy (Cerdita, 2022).

Danielle Brooks has just been cast in the new adaptation of The Color Purple, Barbie Ferreira will soon appear in Jordan Peele’s Nope, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph has three films awaiting release. Lizzo has just announced a reality show focused on fat femme dancers, Watch Out For the Big Grrls. It is a direct response to not being able to find the dancers she needed for her live shows—“We’re not getting agents because we’re not getting jobs. We’re not getting jobs because we don’t have agents. Y’all are just pingponging,” she told Variety. The happy side effect is we get a whole show focused on fabulous fat girls. (“They do shit that I can’t do. They can do splits,” Lizzo promises.)

The landscape is wide open. The fat experience for women has been mostly unexplored on film, so the possibilities for fat characters and in fat storytelling are endless. Give me Queen Latifah as the wise President in some kind of intergalactic phantasmagoria. I’ll take a half dozen limited series with Margo Martindale in the lead, she can do literally whatever she wants. Where is my road movie starring Natasha Rothwell and Nicola Coughlin?

Margo Martindale is Instant Family (2018), undisputed.
Margo Martindale is Instant Family (2018), undisputed.

If Hollywood could reconsider traditional models of how films get financed as well as oh, say about a century of deeply ingrained standards of beauty, start casting more fat extras in every frame, hire more fat folks at every level of production and distribution, and make sure children’s media is presenting positive fat characters, we’d be well on our way to a more empathetic world. That’s my utopian vision of a better world as a lifelong fat audience member, and I really think it’s possible.

I’m certainly going to keep doing my own part in fighting for a better future for fat girls on film. It’s a tall order, but not an impossible one, especially given how quickly the industry has evolved to answer other questions raised around diversity in recent times (just look at the way Academy membership has morphed in the last five years).

The author saddles up for her trek from Ohio to Hollywood. — Credit… Photo Supplied
The author saddles up for her trek from Ohio to Hollywood. Credit… Photo Supplied

But before any of this happens, Hollywood itself needs to take a long look in its distorted mirror—on an individual and company level—and reconsider everything it thinks it knows about the fat experience. Any dramatic or cinematic curiosity around this topic first needs to come from a place of empathy and true desire to learn more about what it means to be fat. Maybe hire a fat person and ask them too, just an idea.

Francis Ford Coppola once said: “One day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.” As a fat little girl from Ohio who grew up loving movies despite them often not loving her back, and who followed those dreams all the way to Hollywood, I demand a better viewing world for the fat little girls to come. Just think about what they might be able to do if Hollywood made them feel like their celluloid dreams were not only possible, but welcomed and wanted.

I hope another fat girl in Ohio who loves movies knows I’m writing this for her and that she deserves to see herself on screen too. Trust me, you’re already perfect just as you are.


Kate Hagen is a writer whose cinematic preoccupations include sex, death and soundtracks. She is director of community at The Black List, where she also works as an executive and producer. A video-store obsessive, Kate appears in ‘The Last Blockbuster’ and is an advisory council member for legendary video store Vidiots. Read her essay ‘In Search of the Last Great Video Store’ or watch the TEDx talk.

Further Reading

Tags

Share This Article