Like Willowdean in Dumplin’, I didn’t always understand that fat girls are worthy of love, too

When you’re a plus-size person, you notice that there are very few people who look like you on TV and in movies. Often, the fat people portrayed in media are cast as the sidekick or the comedic foil to the real star, and rarely—if ever—as the love interests. Netflix’s Dumplin’ changes that trope, and it’s one of the many reasons why the film is so innovative.

Based on the Julie Murphy novel of the same name, Dumplin’ is about a plus-size teenager, Willowdean, who decides to join a beauty pageant. With the help of her amazing friends, Willowdean shows her small Texas town that she doesn’t need to change who she is to be every bit the beauty queen.

But Willowdean’s story isn’t just about her journey through the world of pageants. It’s also a love story.

The attraction between Willowdean and her co-worker, Bo, is obvious the first time we see them interact—but something holds Willowdean back from pursuing the guy of her dreams. If you’re a fat woman, her reasoning will probably sound very familiar.

Willowdean doubts that someone as gorgeous as Bo could really like her.

Considering her extra curves and Bo’s popularity with girls she deems more “appropriate” for him, Willowdean can’t imagine why he would be interested in her. At one point, she even wonders if Bo’s interest is nefarious—like some cruel prank played on the fat girl.

But all these doubts about Bo’s sincerity have nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the internalized opinion that fat girls don’t deserve love.

This isn’t a foreign concept to me.

I met my husband in high school. As I saw him walk down the hall on that first day of my junior year, all I could think was, “Wow.” Although we had the same math class, he didn’t notice me until months later. The very next day after our first interaction, he switched his seat in math class to sit next to me—but the sudden attention threw me off.

My husband—handsome, slim, blond with deep blue eyes—was totally out of my league. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have low self-esteem by any means. I was known for being outgoing, funny, and sarcastic in high school. I was a size 16 and owned every pound. I wasn’t raised to be ashamed of my weight or appearance, and I was taught to value the intangible qualities that made me who I was. My size wasn’t a factor in any of that.

But when I was faced with my first real experience in love, that confidence wavered. Why did this good-looking guy have any interest in me?

I knew for a fact that other girls were looking at him—they were thinner, cuter, and would look “right” standing next to him. I was certain that, aesthetically, we didn’t make sense together. I didn’t understand why he’d be interested in me.

For all my confidence, I was still a victim of that internalized thought: Fat girls didn’t deserve a happy ending.

It’s not that I didn’t think I deserved love, per se. It’s more that I thought the love I’d receive would come with conditions. No one could love me without stipulations. No one could want me without expecting me to change a big aspect of who I was—namely, my weight.

I secretly doubted that anyone I wanted would ever want me. I’d always have to work for someone’s love. That easy, Hallmark Original Movie kind of love, where boy meets girl and falls head over heels, simply didn’t happen for girls like me. I’d have to compromise my identity and what I wanted in a partner. I had a shameful fear that I’d have to settle for whoever would have me, or I’d just suffer through life alone.

But I was wrong. I was meant to be loved for who I am. The perfect person for me would love me whether I was fat or thin, sick or healthy, or anything else. And he does love me, unconditionally. He sees my insecurities and reminds me that they have no power over his love. He doesn’t consider my self-doubt to be an imperfection, but to be a piece of me worthy of love, too.

Fat doesn’t mean unlovable. Fat doesn’t mean ugly or less deserving. No matter what we’ve been told, fat doesn’t make us instantly undesirable.

Learning to trust that the people we love can love us back, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to accept that love, is difficult. I see a lot of my teenage self in Willowdean. She is so confident in who she is, but still so insecure in love. I felt her internalized shame—the kind that society drills into us fat girls—and I felt an instant bond with her struggle. When Willowdean worked to conquer these feelings, I felt like I was watching myself in high school, on my journey to accept a love that was meant for me.

Willowdean deserves her happy ending, just as much as I deserve mine, just as much as everyone—especially fat girls—deserves theirs. Even if our learned insecurity says otherwise, fat girls deserve all the love sent our way.

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