In some respects, I had a charmed high school experience: I liked school, I loved my teachers, I had a close-knit group of friends, I got a job I enjoyed and made enough money to buy myself comics and video games. Like every teenager, I had struggles, but I was overwhelmingly confident for most of my time in high school.
I never really thought much about my body. I knew I was pretty, significantly more voluptuous than my peers once I hit puberty, and that I also had some more unique features (a pretty significant underbite) that made me look different. I got bullied occasionally for how I looked, the girls at my private middle school sometimes made fun of my clothes, much older boys catcalled 13 year old me as I walked alone to the neighborhood pool, and when I moved to a new school in 9th grade, one boy in my Bio class said I looked like a fetal alcohol syndrome baby. The words intimidated and scared me, but I worked hard not to be affected by them.
My first serious relationship started in the summer of my senior year of high school. I dated someone who turned 21 when I was 17. In that relationship, I began to equate my self worth with my physical appearance. In my head, my significant other loved me, so they were just teasing me when they told me they initially “thought I was easy” the first time we met, because I had big boobs and was wearing a short skirt. They were helping me by telling me when I could use to lose a few pounds around my stomach, that I should wear more pushup bras, that I should grow my hair longer. They were serious when they said my eyes looked “vapid.” They loved me, so everything they told me was true.
The truth is, I was abused.
And being a kid, I didn’t listen when my family told me to stop dating this person. I didn’t think anything of it, when, at my senior prom dinner, they ordered a glass of wine, and the waiter refused them because “why would a 21 year old being with a bunch of high school seniors?” I ignored my friends who didn’t enjoy being around my significant other because I thought “they aren’t mean, they’re just opinionated.”
We broke up because they cheated on me, slept with two other girls right after I went back to college from winter break. They called me and said “we need to break up.” Then, a day later, they called again, wanting to get back together. But my eyes were already clearer. I had already realized that they had abused me. I said “no.”
But the fixation on how I looked remained.
I’ve always thought I was attractive, but now my eyes lingered on the mirror looking for the flaws they had pointed out. I was gaining weight, some of my shirts didn’t fit right anymore, I had to go up a pant size and buy new skirts…
Then, one morning, years later, I woke up and looked in the mirror to find angry red stretch marks slashed across my belly.
My self loathing rose to an all time high. I had been put on a special diet to figure out what trigger stomach problems. “That must be it,” I thought. Both of my older siblings became more fit as they got older, skinnier than they were in college. But for some reason, I didn’t. I tore myself apart in my head. Insignificant online comments on my cosplay became huge hurdles for me. An online comment calling me a “kind of chubby Power Girl” translated to “she’s fat and ugly, how could anyone like her.”
The thing is, fat shouldn’t be a dirty word.
I will never be small, that’s not how my body is built. Fat does not equal ugly. This internalized sexism ruined me, but I’m slowly pulling myself out of the hole with the help of popular media.
For once, I am seeing fat people as beautiful and celebrated.
Lizzo is probably the first name that comes to mind when it comes to fat women being openly embraced in pop culture. I discovered Lizzo earlier in January 2019, when I happened upon the song Juice on Twitter. I was instantly smitten, not only by the catchiness of the tune, not only by the tongue-in-cheek direction of the music video, not only by the stellar, clever, and supportive lyrics (“if I’m shining, everybody gonna shine”), but also by Lizzo, a fat woman who is treated as beautiful and charismatic and worthy of attention simply because she is all those things.
Suddenly, I was seeing (and hearing) Lizzo everywhere. I started following her on Instagram and got to see her supporting other women (like her spending her Hustlers money on actual sex workers in a strip club, like her goofing around with her backup dancers of all colors and shapes and sizes, like her posting videos of all sorts of people people dancing to her songs), supporting herself, and being both a fashion icon and an icon for positivity.
Lizzo’s VMA performance was a peak moment of her progressive embracing of self love, fat acceptance, body positivity, and celebration of being who you are and feeling good as who you are. She directly addressed the crowd: “I’m tired of the bullshit, and I don’t have to know your story to know that you’re tired of the bullsit, too. It’s so hard loving yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back. Am I right? So I want to take this opportunity right now to just feel good as hell, because you deserve to feel good as hell!”
Lizzo has been making music and performing since 2011–how had I not discovered her until now? Because “fat” wasn’t seen as acceptable for pop performers in 2011 (or 2012, or 2013, or…). It’s still not, in the opinion of many consumers, because it’s “promoting an unhealthy lifestyle.” Now that’s some bullshit.
That’s also a topic that Shrill, the original Hulu series starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant, tackles multiple times. Bryant’s character, Annie, has a lot of people in her life that look down on her because she seems not to be “making an effort.” Her boyfriend doesn’t want to admit to his friends that he’s dating a fat girl, her mother is constantly offering “helpful” dieting advice (“six almonds keep me full for hours!”), and Annie is consumed by self hatred.
Shrill aired in March 2019. I binged the entire series on a Saturday afternoon (to be fair, it’s only 6 episodes long) and found myself sobbing joyfully when episode 4 (“Pool”) came on it. In it, Annie is invited to a Fat Babe Pool Party, and attends, but holds herself back from wearing a bathing suit and participating in the fun. Annie goes through frustration, not only that she is not as comfortable with her body as others, but the fact that society–her boss, her mother, the entire world–puts her in a mind prison where she’s been programmed to believe that she should hate herself because she’s fat, exclaiming “I’ve wasted so much time and energy and money, for what? For what?! You know? I’m fat. I’m fucking fat! Hello! I’m fat, you know?”
The moment that brings Annie to this point is when she finally jumps into, metaphorically and literally, the pool and is just surrounded by bodies in bathing suits. The moment is a beautiful, unreal image, with the underwater aspect giving an ethereal lightness to these big, beautiful, different, fat bodies. I cried watching Annie swim and smile, just to herself, just being herself in her own skin. The bodies are fat and they are beautiful. Annie is fat and she is beautiful.
Rebel Wilson also has a chance to be beautiful, and to get the guys, in the romantic comedy Isn’t It Romantic. Valentine’s Day is my anniversary with my significant other, and in 2019, we decided to go see Isn’t It Romantic.
We both had a fantastic time, and really loved the movie. It breaks down romantic comedy tropes and cliches in a loving and self-aware way. But one of the most stunning things about Isn’t It Romantic is that Rebel Wilson is allowed to be a fat woman and be beautiful. Her weight is never a joke, she isn’t relegated to the position of goofy best friend, instead she is the beautiful, fat star of the film. She gets Liam Hemsworth’s romantic interest, and wins her real life romantic interest simply by being herself.
Dumplin, a 2018 Netflix original film, also stars a fat girl who gets the handsome guy without having to physically change. The movie, based on a young adult novel by the same name, relies on Dolly Parton songs as the backbone for the message of self-love and self-confidence. Willowdean develops as a character who struggles with confidence in how she looks. She confronts her romantic interest, Bo, asking why he loves her, “you and I, we don’t work together in the real world, Bo. You’re supposed to be with someone like Bekah.” Bo simply tells Willowdean that she shouldn’t care what others think; “I think you’re beautiful, to hell with anyone else who’s ever made you feel less than that.” But then he pauses and says, “it doesn’t really matter what I think, does it?” Because, in truth, the journey of acceptance is for Willowdean to take, and her body is something she personally has to come to terms with, regardless of the opinions of others.
One thing that helps me accept my body is seeing it reflected in art. Sergle, an incredible digital artist who I’ve followed for a few years, often draws fat women. In her art, they are cute, aesthetic, and stylish. In a lot of her art, the fat characters also have stretch marks. It’s wild to think that something so common–all people get stretch marks when their bodies grow and change–is so derided and looked upon with disgust by gossip magazines.
For years, I tried to find the right cocoa butter formula that would get rid of my stretch marks, all while regarding my partner’s stretch marks on his hips and legs with affection (I once told him something along the lines of “they’re moments of your growth, captured”). But seeing these beautiful fat girls drawn by Sergle, with impeccable fashion and very prominent stretch marks, I began to accept my stretch marks as a part of me. I don’t have the “tiger stripe” infatuation pushed by mommy blogs, but I accept them, and that’s a huge step for anyone who has times when they hate their body.
In the first half of the final season of Bojack Horseman, Diane Nguyen makes an off-handed comment about not wanting to go back on antidepressants because they’ll make her gain weight. A lot of viewers didn’t pick up on that line the first time around, which caused some confusion with Diane’s short final appearance in A Quick One, While he’s Away, the final episode of the first half of the final season. Diane is fat. A common side effect of antidepressants is weight gain. Diane’s timeskip weight gain hit me hard.
Around the time I started noticing my stomach stretch marks, I had also started taking antidepressant medication. It’s laughable to imagine that it took a cartoon starring a talking horse to make me realize some of my weight gain was indeed due, in part, to taking a medication that helps me immensely with anxiety and depression. And the fact that Diane is fat, but also looks happy, is incredible to me. I’m happier, and in a better place now than I’ve been in a long time, in part because I have taken care of myself and my mental health with medication. Along with fatness, antidepressants are often stigmatized as “bad,” a “weakness,” or the punchline to a joke. They shouldn’t be. Antidepressants save lives.
And fat girls are no longer a joke (at least, in quality media). The real joke is the people who make fun of fat girls, because those people are stuck in a loop of self hatred and immaturity. Fat girls are beautiful, and not beautiful in spite of their fatness. Fat girls are leads in romantic comedies, and they don’t have to lose weight to win.
Pop culture is still a long way away from fully representing fat characters as fully fleshed out and with lives that do not singularly revolve around weight loss and fat jokes (look at Chrissy Metz’ contractually required weight loss in This is Us), but these few steps mean the world to me.
I still struggle with how I look, and my fixation on my body will probably never fully go away. I want to be pretty, but ultimately, “pretty” doesn’t matter.
Pretty doesn’t matter because I’m smart and funny and talented and loved. And I’m loved by people who love me as I am, even if how I look changes. I’m glad that pop culture is finally starting to reflect this as reality.