Think about all the plus-size or fat characters you’ve seen in movies and television throughout your life. What images and tropes (or stereotypes) come to mind?
The first thing that pops into my mind is Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. That was a formative movie for me. Even though I more closely resembled Ursula, I related to Ariel. In part, that was because the story of The Little Mermaid is told from her perspective, but I also just didn’t want to see any part of Ursula in myself because she was clearly the bad guy. I understood that her fat body was an extension of her villainy. When it comes to media representation, fat people are often portrayed as immoral and insatiable - just like Ursula.
Right now there are very few plus-size or fat characters in shows or movies. If they are present, they are typically secondary characters and are often portrayed in a dehumanizing, unidimensional manner. Here are 15 common fatphobic tropes:
A fat character as a source of comic relief - especially where the character’s body itself is the punchline
A fat character as a side character meant to make the main character (always thin) look more appealing
A fat character as an unconditional source of relief and support for the main (always thin) character
A fat character as a villain
A fat character as unusually selfish or otherwise lacking in morality or maturity
A fat character as unhealthy, dead or presumably going to die if they don’t “lose weight”
A fat character undertaking extreme “body makeovers” or exercise regimens
A fat character as highly sexualized or inappropriately romantically aggressive
A fat character as lacking desirability (completely written out of romances, crushes, etc.)
A fat character as idiotic
A fat character as slovenly or disheveled
A fat character as unfashionable
A fat character who is secretly a thin person in a fat body, or secretly a fat person in a thin body (as in Drop Dead Diva, Shallow Hal)
A fat character who experiences a head trauma that makes them see themselves as attractive
A fat character as perpetually eating or thinking about food
Plus-size characters are also more likely to be portrayed in private or humiliating moments, e.g., going to the bathroom, experiencing flatulence, or having food on their clothes or face.
The implications of this kind of plus-size representation are potentially far-reaching.
Viewers of all sizes rarely - if ever - get to relate to fat characters, let alone find them to be inspiring. Plus-size audiences rarely - if ever - are able to imagine a life of dignity at their current size, and may feel it’s normal to undertake drastic or dangerous “makeover” measures to change. Ultimately, these tropes allow audiences of all sizes to see weight-based stigma as normal.
Why does examining - and ending - these tropes matter?
Always seeing certain groups of people portrayed in only one way negatively affects how we see members of that group. If we’re a member of that group ourselves, these tropes affect how we see ourselves. They create and affirm bias. They shape how we see people in real life, including ourselves. They make it difficult for people from that group to see themselves with dignity.
Just taking the time to notice how problematic these portrayals are is an important first step in changing how we see ourselves and each other.
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