3 Ways Fat Suits are Terrible
I have to admit I don’t usually think much about the use of fat suits in Hollywood, but a couple of things have recently brought them to my attention.
One is reading commentary about Sarah Paulson wearing a fat suit to play Linda Tripp in Impeachment: American Crime Story. The other is watching some old episodes of Friends, with the many cringe-worthy moments of Courtney Cox in a fat suit.
And as I thought and read more about fat suits, I realized the many ways in which they’re terrible. Here are a few.
1: Promotes fat-shaming and weight bias
I haven’t seen Impeachment, so I don’t know much about it except what I’ve read, but in general, no one wears a fat suit in movies or on TV to make their character more likable. Instead, it’s usually done as a way to introduce unfunny jokes and show the character is lazy, sloppy, and/or has a low moral character.
Monica from Friends is probably the most well-known example of this, but in case you’re not familiar with it, here’s the short version. Monica used to be fat in high school, until one Thanksgiving when her brother Ross brought his friend Chandler home for the holiday, and Monica overhears Chandler making rude comments about her size. She decides to lose weight, and the next year, Chandler is blown away by how hot she’s become. They even eventually get married, but not after many jokes at the expense of young, fat Monica.
When I first watched Friends, I’m sure I felt something upon seeing fat Monica. Maybe it was surprise that she didn’t actually seem that heavy, at least not compared to me. Maybe it was envy for her weight loss. I honestly don’t remember.
But seeing it again now, I’m horrified by the casual cruelty of the comment, of the way she was a punchline and so overplayed. Like when she sat on the arm of the couch and the whole thing tipped up, even though all other five Friends characters were on the couch. Or when Joey first saw a video of Monica from high school and current, thin Monica pointed out that the camera adds ten pounds. So Joey asked, “How many cameras were there?”
And in the alternate timeline of Friends, when Monica never lost weight, she was portrayed as a sad, pathetic person who’d never had sex because she was overweight and whose only joy in life was eating candy.
All this does nothing but indicate that it’s okay to make fun of people who are overweight and that anyone who weighs that much doesn’t deserve to be treated kindly or like a real human being, only as a caricature.
Plus, as this article from Fluffy Kitty Party points out, the whole idea of putting a thin woman inside a fat suit seems to give credence to the idea that every fat woman has a thin woman inside, just waiting to come out. Believing that is not only false but also damaging to women in heavier bodies.
2: Perpetuates myths about body size
Then there’s the problem of storyline. With Monica, and with the character Patty from Netflix’s short-lived show Insatiable, the use of fat suits fuels at least three problematic myths.
The first is that it’s easy to lose weight and keep it off. But as now know, it’s rare for anyone to lose a substantial amount of weight without gaining it back, but these media images make it seem like such weight loss should be a snap.
Second is what your body will look like post-weight loss. Monica lost weight in under a year, and Patty in just a few months. Both experienced rapid changes to their bodies, but it didn’t look that way. Where were the stretch marks from the initial weight gain? Where was the loose skin from losing so much weight?
Our bodies change, but they’re never going to look like Courtney Cox. Even with surgery to remove loose skin, you’ll have scars, like the ones I have on my arms. But Hollywood doesn’t like showing that reality.
And finally, these stories perpetuate the myth that only by losing weight would anyone want to be with someone – no one could stand being with a fat person. This is obviously false – just look around the real world – but watching Hollywood representations, it’s hard to remember that. Certainly, I believed it for a long time, longer than I’d care to admit.
These representations and stories are starting to change, with shows like Shrill and This is Us, but we have a long way to go.
3: Reduces opportunities for heavy actors
And finally, while this may seem obvious, it’s worth noting that putting a thin actor in a fat suit means that a heavy actor doesn’t get a chance to play that role.
For shows like Friends, with a person at different weights, it makes a little more sense, though it shouldn’t be a given not to have another actor play the person at a heavier weight.
With Impeachment, though, there’s no excuse. Linda Tripp didn’t radically change body size, and as an article from Salon points out, “[If] it was so important for ‘Impeachment” to portray Linda Tripp with this body type, it’s clear [Sarah] Paulson wasn’t the right fit.”
I completely agree, particularly when there are already so few roles to be had for plus-sized women.
Fat suits remain a problem
Fat suits don’t show up in Hollywood quite as often as they used to, but it’s still often enough. And while this may not be an everyday problem, they contribute to a lot of negative ideas about people in larger bodies, and those ideas have real-world consequences. Here’s hoping that in another ten or twenty years, we won’t need to keep having these conversations.