When I first started watching This Is Us, I admit, Chrissy Metz’s character Kate had me worried. Would she be a fully-formed character wherein her weight was merely one part of her story, or would she be a plus-size one-trick pony like so many other curvy female characters that had disappointed me before? It was an uncomfortable, creeping kind of concern that revealed an ugly truth about television and film: plus-size characters (but let’s be honest, mostly plus-size women) are one-dimensional.
I consider myself a woman of the curvy variety, still squeamish with the F-word—a.k.a. fat—for reasons I have yet to uncover in therapy. (Shout out to my government-subsidized therapist, who most definitely doesn’t read FLARE.) When I watch a new show and I see a body type I relate closer to than Miranda Kerr’s, I cringe because I know what’s coming: fat is funny and pathetic, rather than beautiful and authentic.
I laughed awkwardly through Bridesmaids as Melissa McCarthy’s entire character hinged on her fatness, and effing sue me for never watching Friends because I flat out refuse to live through another Fat Monica joke. If I think back far enough, even Sookie on Gilmore Girls fell flat because of the fat-shaming that went on throughout the entire series. These plus-size women were reduced to a single note, with one thing always made obvious: they are plus-size people, and that’s all they’re allowed to be.
But Kate Pearson on This Is Us is a beautiful, shining beacon of freaking light with more dimension than an actual diamond. And, for possibly the first time, I see some of my own struggles with body positivity and self-acceptance reflected on my TV screen. And, definitely for the first time, I’m given a narrative that can serve as a guide to overcome these hurdles.
First things first, a shallow fact: Kate is hot AF. She’s not reduced to her weight; she is a multi-faceted human being who, yes, struggles with self-esteem. But she also has sex, dates attractive men, dresses beautifully, sings like a damn angel, and is hilarious and smart. *GASP* The horror.
The first episode of season two was monumentally body-positive. We see Kate flake out on a singing audition, only to return later in the evening to demand a late try-out. She’s rejected, quickly decides it’s because of her weight and goes on a kick-ass rant about being more than just her size, motioning to her thinner counterpart who landed the singing spot. But it’s not about her weight at all, the judge points out, it’s her lack of practice.
If you have ever been fat-shamed, chances are there was a pang in your heart for Kate like there was in mine. Because though being rejected for being fat sucks (been there, hated that), it can become an easy place to hang shame and self-worth. What this show, and this scene, specifically, excavates so expertly is the effect society’s obsession with bodies has on the psyche of a woman who has lived through it. Internalized fatphobia becomes the excuse for every rejection, every heartbreak, every lost job opportunity, every slightly unenthusiastic glance. It permeates each part of life. And part of Kate’s healing is realizing this is a falsehood we were conditioned to believe.
The focus of the show is on how Kate sees herself, which is much more educational than ramming down our throats what we already know: society as a whole is pretty fatphobic. This Is Us digs deep—sometimes uncomfortably so—into self-esteem without being corny or trivial. They put the power in Kate’s hands, exactly where it belongs.
Though I’m wary to expect television and film to take responsibility for the images they produce, the fact of the matter remains: we learn from what we see. We feel unimportant or invalidated when we don’t see ourselves represented on the big screen. And those inclined to body shame, to be homophobic, or to be racist—their views are validated when they aren’t forced to acknowledge the diversity in the world. If we see fat women as one type of woman (sexless, goofy and unattractive), this is what we will believe; that they are nothing more than their size.
Kate is changing that.
It’s a hopeful reality This Is Us presents to a world struggling with fat acceptance. They’ve created a space where Kate’s struggle with her weight is actually her struggle with loving herself. We see—through her interactions with her twin brother, her parents and her boyfriend—that her worst enemy is often herself.
The people in Kate’s life see her truth: she’s not a caricature, a joke, a health hazard or pretty “for a fat girl.” She’s a human being and we’re living her story through her eyes—not the story of a plus-size woman through the opinions of others. Chrissy Metz said it best: “This is art catching up to life.” Hell yeah it is.
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