So true confession: Right now, I am so in love with Kate from the television series “This Is Us.”
I started watching without knowing much of anything about the show, other than having heard others rave about it.
So imagine me, watching the first episode, and seeing basically for the first time ever a body like mine on prime time television. (Biggest Loser doesn’t count. Also, I now have a television for the first time in ten years, so may have missed a lot in the interim.)
It’s not that Kate is politely plus-sized, a little curvy; she’s beyond carrying a little bit extra flesh to living in a significantly larger body, one the medical community would no doubt label as “morbidly obese.” And yet, to the credit of the show’s creators, she gets to be a real character, with depth and nuance, with a particular history, with a role in the family system, with a partner who loves her for her. She’s a character who it’s easy to have affection for, a dear human being. Her size is undeniably part of her, but it doesn’t dwarf the rest of who she is.
I won’t say that everything about the way she’s portrayed is perfect, or more precisely that the ways her size is navigated are entirely helpful. Diet culture is clearly a piece of the narrative. But this is true with American culture in general, that diet culture so often dictates the worth of a body like hers, and I think the questions Kate is asking and the ways she interacts with the world are basically true. There’s an integrity to her character.
I think what I love are the ways I can see myself so in her.
That’s powerful, when for my whole life, bodies like mine have often been excluded from the realms of normality, silenced in the shame of being larger, or removed from the public eye.
Sometime in the first season, Kate gets on a plane and flies. She asks for the seatbelt extender. It’s the first time I have ever seen someone else go through that scenario.
And yet, it’s a scenario I go through every time I fly. I don’t even try the seatbelts first anymore, because 90% of the time, they won’t fit. So I get on the plane and ask the first flight attendant I see, and I don’t apologize for it. And once I find my seat, I’m constantly thinking about who is sitting nearby and how they will perceive my body in that space, and how to take up as little space as possible in a seat already the size of a postage stamp.
Kate does this too. And suddenly a thing I do mostly quietly and to the side, without a lot of pomp and circumstance, and without having seen someone else do it before, is in the public eye and normalized.
But it’s more than this too. She navigates love and sex. She navigates pregnancy and miscarriage (an experience I’ve also had, including how strong she tries to be in the aftermath, and the ways it’s complicated with parents.) She navigates familial expectations around food. She navigates brokenness, trauma, childhood woundings. So on and so forth.
My being drawn to her though highlights something I’ve been thinking a great deal about lately – namely the need for representation of normal bodies in the media, whether bodies like mine or bodies like yours (i.e. organic, not airbrushed, not meeting the standards, or if you somehow do meet them, not objectified with your worth reduced to certain curves and lines.) Fat bias isn’t only unjust for larger bodies; it also contributes to the over-sexualization and objectification of thin bodies.
And it’s not only the media portrayals, but also the importance of hearing from everyday others in their own voices.
One conversation that is gaining more traction surrounds the ways fat bodies are discriminated against across a swath of arenas – whether in pay equity and hiring practices, or access to appropriate healthcare that takes seriously concerns without relating everything back to weight, or having intellectual contributions taken seriously, or the cost of fashionable clothes for larger bodies, or the struggles people in larger bodies have in finding love and mutually rewarding relationships without being fetishized. This isn’t an exclusive list, of course.
So much of the injustice we experience is bound up in cultural narratives of what is desirable and what is moral. Fat bias is as real as racial bias or gender bias, but is often less talked about.
The ironic thing is that we who are in larger bodies learn the biases and commit the injustices right alongside everyone else. In my case, my body has always been how it is. I don’t have memories ever of being in a thin body. I do remember a time when I thought my body was strong and I felt free, before I learned I was “wrong” from one older family member in particular who told me from the time I was tiny that unless I lost a little bit of weight, boys would never like me, so I should eat more lettuce. But I was never thin.
In other words, from the beginning I learned that I was not in the realms of the desired, and that I would perhaps have to work extra hard to show that I could be moral, a hard-worker, with good ideas. That’s a legacy that exists today even. And it has been easy for me to judge myself, to drive myself hard toward perfection of those things I do have control over, and have learned ways of relating that attempt to mask my body. For instance, one way I have learned of connecting with others who would quietly assess and judge my body is to just do it first, explicitly name my own body hatred and now we have something in common.
I too have believed the fat bias cultural narratives against my own fat body. I have participated in my own oppressions, and those of others.
Which means that I too have had to begin the process of re-learning, re-seeing, re-valuing my own body, but also the bodies of others who look like me.
A piece of that has been pressing toward the stories of larger others whose lives fly in the face of the narratives culture so often offers, and challenging myself to embrace representation of larger bodies.
Here I think of the ultra-marathon runner Mirna Valerio, the yogi Jessamyn Stanley, the fat-activist Marie Southard Ospina, all whose work I have followed for some time now. I think of those whose stories I’ve heard in the Food Psych podcasts, about their relationships with food as children, how they moved through diet culture, and have come out to something more intuitive. In these stories I see glimmers of myself. And I think of friends, who are further along this journey than I am, and are celebrating their bodies as they are, inviting me to celebrate too, or are merely living boldly in the bodies they have, and without apology.
The need for representation is a dire need, and engaging larger bodies through the visual and narrative culture we consume is a critical step on the path to overcoming fat bias and moving toward equitable treatment for those in larger bodies.
It’s a project I’m committed to as well as an artist. I am drawn to the human form as a subject of exploration and enquiry. When I am portraying the human body in art, I find myself pressing toward body types which aren’t stereotypically represented – so male forms which aren’t the epitome of a masculine ideal, and female forms which are fuller and with unique particularities in comparison to what is readily available. And there’s intersectionality here as well – unconventional beauty is present in non-white, non-cis-gendered, older, and otherly-abled bodies.
But beyond merely American culture, in a broader sense, the valuation of bodies along the typical cultural lines bleeds into the church as well. And for me, this is a deeper concern – the ways belovedness is filtered through American beauty culture narratives about worthiness, instead of through the truth of baptism. Because fat bias is often evident in questions of morality, Christianity receives some of the American cultural baggage around bodies, while itself contributing its own unique baggage back to American body culture. Yet with the incarnation at the center of everything, Christianity ought to be able to make some claims about the belovedness and worth of the human body. Yet too often, the church merely reflects body biases evident in the surrounding culture.
Which means representation is also needed in the church. I’m grateful where I see others living boldly into who they are, and hope that by simply being a leader in this particular body and showing up in a space where I can be seen, my presence will be subversive and testify to a deeper truth – namely the ways all bodies are beloved since Jesus.