Representation was a major buzzword in 2018, and widespread calls for increased diversity behind the scenes have led to noticeable improvements on screen. In particular, people of color and the LGBTQ community celebrated visibility wins thanks to movies like Black Panther and shows like Pose. But there’s one community that’s had to struggle a little more this year to be heard, and finally, it seems, they’ve made enough noise.
The community in question goes by many names — curve, plus-sized, body-positive, fat-positive, or sometimes, just fat — but much like any other marginalized group of people, they’re bound together by the same desire to be treated with respect.
In what seemed like a banner year for the community, stories derived from the curve experience hit the big and small screens one after another, from the Amy Schumer-starring I Feel Pretty all the way to Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald’s beloved Dumplin’. In between, Netflix dropped their controversial-but-widely viewed Insatiable and the Shannon Purser/Noah Centineo rom-com, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, while those with more mature taste turned to AMC’s Dietland.
Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston in Netflix’s Dumplin’; Shannon Purser in Netflix’s Sierra Burgess Is a Loser
With each release came assessments of whether that representation was actually representative of the plus-sized experience. And from the community’s collective critique of these and previous portrayals, people are finally starting to catch on to the dos and don’ts of telling body-positive stories. “It feels like we’re at the very beginning of a lot more widespread representation, so I hope people continue to be loud,” Sophie Carter-Kahn, one half of the duo behind the She’s All Fat podcast, told MTV News.
Each season of the podcast, she and her co-host April K. Quioh break down, assess, and generally talk about all things — including pop culture — that impact the plus-sized community and fat-positivity movement.
“I think like any other show or any other kind of media, the things that work best are when you have someone trying to tell their own experience and talk about their own story,” Carter-Kahn said, which is part of the reason why Dumplin’ was her favorite work of the year.
Based on the 2015 best seller by Julie Murphy, Dumplin’ tells the story of an overweight girl in Texas, named Willowdean Dixon, who joins a local pageant run by her beauty queen mother. The book and movie have been praised for their nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to be young and fat.
Danielle Macdonald, who portrays Willowdean in the movie, “fell so in love with” the book after reading it, she told Elle magazine. Then she heard it was being made into a movie. “I felt like I wanted [the role] for my teenage self — I never got that kind of movie growing up. It was kind of cathartic.”
Macdonald at the Los Angeles premiere of Dumplin’
That dearth of representation shaped what Murphy wanted to accomplish through her book. “For plus-sized representation, it’s really important for me to see characters who don’t have to lose weight in order to have a satisfying story arc, characters who don’t have to constantly rely on humor or this sort of one-dimensional thing that defines them,” Murphy said. “And then I think another great thing that representation can do is to show us multiple kinds of people, and so I think that means multiple kinds of fat people, because there’s not just one way to be fat.”
To achieve that aim, Murphy avoided the obvious weight-loss storylines and funny sidekick roles often reserved for plus-sized characters and created a world — a more realistic world, by the way — where the main character isn’t the token fat girl. Murphy used Millie, another teen who joins the pageant alongside Willowdean, to show a different plus-sized teen experience, and employed Willowdean’s loving Aunt Lucy to exemplify a positive adult role model. “If kids can’t see positive representation of people who look like themselves, it’s really hard for them to grow up and be a positive representation of themselves,” she explained.
Both Murphy and Carter-Kahn agree on the impact these accurate, positive representations of the plus-sized community stand to have. “I think that getting to see fat people being successful and thriving, that would’ve meant so much to me as a young plus-sized kid, a teenager. That would’ve opened up my mind and the world of possibility that was there for myself a hell of a lot quicker,” Murphy reflected, while Carter-Kahn said simply, “It would have been everything to me. Everything.”
Growing up with stories that frequently portrayed larger people as a weight-loss story, a villain, or just lazy impacted both women’s abilities to see themselves as the hero of their own story. “When I would read books, if I was imagining myself as the protagonist, I would imagine myself as thin, because I was like, well, if I wanted to be a protagonist, I had to be thin,” Carter-Kahn recalled.
She found her protagonist story line on Instagram, through the body-positivity movement. “When I was first getting into it I would spend literally hours just finding different people who looked like me on Instagram and looking through their posts and trying to imagine myself feeling that confident or imagine myself wearing the clothes they were wearing,” she said. “So for me, it’s very clear how visual representation makes a huge difference in being able to see yourself in a certain way or see bodies like yours in a certain way.”
As the online body-positivity movement organically grew, people in charge of making content caught on to the hashtag, and the response was loud and clear. “The audience has been waiting for this for so long,” Carter-Kahn said. “I think that the reaction to it is so genuine and that is going to continue to fuel things.”
Although Murphy points out that these stories didn’t have to wait until 2018 to surface — “I don’t necessarily think that now is the perfect time because I know that I would have loved to see a fat character like this when I was 10, 12 years old, 15” — but now is as good a time as any.
Saturday Night Live‘s Aidy Bryant stars in Hulu’s Shrill, coming in 2019
“Change only happens if people force it to happen… I think that, you know, no pun intended, we’ve all been really hungry for this for a really long time,” Murphy said. “There’s been lots of really important, especially to me, fat characters and fat stories that have come before this moment that I think every time we see a fat character and a fat character just getting to live their life joyously on screen is a triumph, so this is one of those moments that just feels like a really big triumph for a lot of people.”
And with the upcoming release of Hulu’s Shrill, based on the bestselling book by Lindy West and starring Aidy Bryant, there is more triumph to come in 2019.