When you’re growing up and trying to find your place in the world, you often turn to the media to find someone you connect with. This can be via movies, theater, television, literature, magazines, or music idols. Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, like I did, media options weren’t as boundless as they are now. We didn’t have streaming, or social media, or ready access to the internet. This left us, primarily, with the seven channels we had on local TV (unless you were lucky enough to have cable) and what we could find in the magazines we persuaded our mothers to buy.
As a relatively plump girl my whole life, I struggled to find women who looked like me in the media. There was an abundance of chubbier men, ranging from Homer Simpson to Philip Banks. The “fat funny guy with hot skinny wife” is something that we’re used to seeing across culture, even though studies have shown that people in long-term relationships more often than not have similar BMIs, as they’re usually eating and exercising together. When it comes to bigger women in media, the list gets longer with the years, but it is still way too short.
As a teen, my mom and I watched TV together a lot; it was a social activity for us, as it is for a lot of people. We watched shows together, discussed them during the commercials, and looked forward to catching the next episode. We didn’t have TiVo or the ability to watch a program the next day online, so being present in front of the TV was crucial. We loved reality TV when it first started – America’s Next Top Model, American Idol, Big Brother, The Mole, Survivor, The Amazing Race – we watched it all! Then, in 2004, The Biggest Loser started. I saw a lot of people that looked like me. They were older than me and mostly bigger, but they were closer to my body type than the model skinny people I was used to seeing on television. The show taught me I could be worth something if I lost weight. It said I would be happier if I lost weight.
This was not a new message to me. Prior to The Biggest Loser, “Fat Monica” from Friends had already taught me that as a bigger person, I was a joke. Monica was unpopular when she was younger and this was solely because of her weight. As an adult she still had all the same quirks and mannerisms she did before, except she was skinny now and therefore worthy of love and attention. Fat Monica only appeared in four episodes of the show, but is one of the longest running jokes throughout the 10 seasons. Her prior fatness is mentioned in almost half of the episodes. She was a hero to me. I could be fat in high school and still come out on the other side as a “hot girl.”
Along with reality TV, and sitcoms, my mom and I also loved crime shows: CSI and all their spinoffs, NCIS, and finally Criminal Minds. It was on Criminal Minds that I found my first real role model on television, a woman who was valued, and whose body looked somewhat similar to mine. Penelope Garcia, played by Kirsten Vangsness, is the technical analyst for the BAU team that the show centers around. She is mostly seen in her office behind a computer screen. Garcia is a character that is not only intelligent, but confident and stylish. She is also completely open with her emotions. Garcia was a game changer in my life. The best part about her character is that her weight is never mentioned; it’s a non-issue. She’s just a human existing with other humans and being fabulous.
Searching outside of the limited television scope for a fat role model, I turned to musical theater. The movie version of Hairspray, starring Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta, came out in 2007, the year I graduated from high school. I, had already seen the show, as well as the original movie, both of which were very important to me. Tracy Turnblad, the story’s main character, is described as a “pleasantly plump teen” from Baltimore in 1962. The show focuses not only on Tracy being an overweight teen who wants to dance. Full of upbeat songs, this show proved that a leading lady can be overweight, a love interest, and change the world without changing a single thing about herself.
When people ask me why the ongoing social media movement of body positivity is so important to me, I point to these examples. In a world where the media is constantly telling us that we’re not good enough – whether that’s because of our skin color to your hair texture to your face shape to your weight – we look for people who look like us and are succeeding. We look for people who are happy with where they’re at, even in the form of fictional characters.
As a plus-size woman, I personally cling to Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham’s accomplishments as if they were my own. I seek out shows like Mike and Molly, Huge, and Drop Dead Diva where plus-size women are the stars. I watch movies like Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect where the “fat friend” is comedic relief, and I feel bad but also happy to see that they’re even included.
The media has come quite a long way since I was a teen. But there’s so much further to go. I want to turn on my television or go to the movies, and see representations of people of all sizes. I want the media to reflect the firm truth that being deserving of love has nothing to do with what size pants you wear. I want the media to show that fat women are worth far more than just a laugh. I want them to show how beautiful we are, and I never want to imagine a girl like me sitting on her couch, watching TV, and being told that she’s not good enough.
Lauren D. is a Gemini – the talkative sign. She was a Navy baby, raised in Oklahoma, now living as a transplant in Minnesota. She loves meeting new people and exploring new places. When she’s not out having adventures, you can find her talking to dogs, researching where to be close to sloths, or binge watching the Food Network. She’s passionate about sexual and domestic violence awareness. She’s a self-love advocate and a body positive feminist. You can find out more on her Instagram or her blog.