Episode 12: This is NOT Us–NBC’s Hit Drama Doesn’t Do Fat People Any Favors


Hello, and welcome to The Fat Lip! I am Ash, your host, and today I’m talking about the portrayal of fat women in media again. This time we’re breaking down the new NBC Primetime show This is Us. And, just a note of warning. If body hate and major weight-loss talk is going to derail you, you should skip this episode and you should definitely stay very far away from this show. Or, if you are watching this show and aren’t caught up, I’m going to spoil it for you really hard, so sorry!

I have talked a lot on this show about representation. I want to see fat people in media! It’s one of the biggest steps, I think, toward normalizing fat bodies in our culture. But it’s so, so rare, especially to see fat women in tv and movies. With Melissa McCarthy we got that, and she is hilarious and she’s even done a few movies where her size was not even part of the conversation. She’s not as fat anymore (and to be clear, that’s her choice and it’s fine by me) but her fat characters were definitely a step in the right direction. But one sorta-fat white actress getting big roles in Hollywood is not enough, and I’m always looking for more.

This fall I was scrolling through a list of upcoming network shows, and I saw an image of an actually-pretty-fat woman holding onto very conventionally-attractive man, and I immediately got excited. The show would be called This is Us, and it would feature a fat actress in a lead role, and it even looked like she’d have a sexy love interest!

So, I was stoked for the show, and I watched the first episode as soon as it aired. *sigh* My excitement burned out very quickly.

In the first shot we see of the fat woman character (her name is Kate on the show), she’s standing in front of a refrigerator full of food with hand-written post-its all over it. Some just say “Bad,” or “250 calories per spoonful.” Others are more direct. Like the cake with the note that says “DO NOT EAT THIS.” And then she rips it off to reveal another that says “Seriously, what is wrong with you?”

Now I knew, at this point, that this wasn’t going to be the show I was hoping for. But I decided to stick with it. And then in Kate’s next scene we see her from behind, wearing only underwear, deliberately taking off all of her jewelry as she steps onto a scale. Which she immediately falls off of and sprains her ankle, by the way. And of course she doesn’t have ice, so she puts a tub of ice cream on it.

You can see where this is going. Kate is a fat woman who hates herself and her body. That conventionally attractive guy she was hugging? It’s her twin brother. But she does get a love interest! He’s a really funny fat guy that she meets at a diet group (think those horrific Weight Watchers weigh-in and support group meetings), but one of the first thing she says to him when he asks her out is “I can’t fall for a fat person right now.” Because she’s going to lose the weight.

And as if it’s not clear enough how the show feels about fat people, the first time they approach the subject of sex, Kate apologizes for her body saying “this is not a pretty picture” and Toby reacts in a way that says “it’s okay, we’re BOTH horrifying under our clothes.”

If you need to pause this episode to go scream at the ocean or something, I totally understand.

So this is what we get for our fat woman character. Kate is 36, probably in the low to mid 400s, and she is dieting because she hates her body. And, you know, a lot of fat women are in this place. They are desperately trying to lose weight, and this is their reality. But I have two major problems with this portrayal.

The first problem is that Kate’s fatness is her ONLY character trait. Her brother is an actor and a fuck up who has complex unexamined feelings of abandonment from their father’s death. Her other brother is a black man who was raised in a white family, has his own kids, and has just found his biological father only to discover that the man has terminal cancer. There are even flashbacks to her parents trying to discover who they are while raising three kids. Every character is whole and complex except for Kate. Even in flashbacks to her childhood, the only thing we know about little Kate is that she’s the fat one. And adult Kate is ONLY fat. Everything she does revolves around it. Kate is never more than two lines of dialog away from a comment on her weight or her diet.

So what is blindingly clear here is that Kate is written by someone who KNOWS a fat woman but who can only see her weight. I looked this up, actually, and the guy who created the show has a fat sister on whom Kate is loosely based. I don’t know whether to be angry or cry that all this guy knows about his fat sister is that she’s fat. He clearly didn’t ASK her what it’s like to be a fat person. He just writes his own experience of her.

And even in places where we should get some insight into what fat people experience from the world at large, we don’t. When Kate’s on a plane, she buys two seats and uses an extender, but there’s no exploration of what that’s like for her. We see people reacting to the horror of having to share a plane with a fat person, but there’s no real or implied admonishment for that behavior. The entire scene reads like a spectacle. Look at the things this fat person has to do on a plane. Look at how people react to her. How sad for her.

We see Kate at the gym, Kate scolding Toby (the fat boyfriend) for having dessert, Kate walking out of Weight Watchers when she loses a pound and a quarter and Toby loses eight, Kate announces that she’s going to have gastric bypass, and on and on. Every scene is about Kate’s weight. EVEN HER NAME RHYMES WITH WEIGHT.

Okay, that’s maybe a coincidence.

But still, it’s the only thing the show thinks is worth knowing about her.

And, I mean, let’s talk about Toby. Toby’s the classic funny fat guy character that we have seen a hundred times. But all we know about him is that he’s funny and fat. We don’t even know what he does for a living. For a while he’s just the fat guy that goes on dates with Kate and isn’t allowed to have dessert.

But at some point Toby decides he doesn’t want to diet anymore. And I want to cheer when this happens because the show acknowledges that this is a choice that a fat person can make! Except that the overwhelming tone is that Toby is just weak and lazy and just not committed enough to change his life for the better! Obviously!

And, because he’s not going to diet anymore, Kate feels like he’s a liability to her own weight loss journey and dumps him. He was a great guy who was really nice to her, but she dumps him because he isn’t actively trying to diet anymore.

And, to tie this storyline up in a big, shitty bow, Toby ultimately decides that he can’t live without Kate, flies across the country to be with her and her family on Christmas, tells her that he’s going back on the diet, and then he has a heart attack. Because that’s what happens to fat people who don’t tow the line.

They really couldn’t affirm everything concern trolls believe in any better than giving the fat guy who quits dieting a heart attack.

Which brings me to my second major complaint about the show’s portrayal of fat people. It’s tired as fuck. These are storylines and characters that we see ALL. THE. TIME. Every fat character in every show has had a heart attack.

Remember that very special episode of The Fresh Prince where Uncle Phil cheats on his diet and collapses in the kitchen?

Is this STILL what Hollywood writers think happens? One day you eat one handful of Twinkies too many and your heart just says NOPE? Because the Uncle Phil heart attack happened in 1993, and 23 years later and they’re still writing this scene. And honestly, at least Uncle Phil had a personality and a job and things to say other than “I gotta lose this weight”. In some ways This is Us’s fat characters seem like a step back.

And yes, some fat people are dieting. Yes, some fat people have heart attacks. But not all. But this is the only storyline that fat characters get.

And, by the way, thin people diet and have heart attacks, too, and yet this is never a thin character’s principle plot.

I just want more. I want fat characters who have full lives, a variety of interests, and a million struggles and triumphs that ARE. NOT. RELATED. TO. THEIR. WEIGHT. This shouldn’t be that hard! Like, you should literally be able to cast a fat actress in nearly ANY role. Fat people are normal and have interesting stories that have nothing to do with their bodies, just like thin people do. What they are giving us here is not. enough.

So, I was fed up with this show from the beginning, and it has not gotten better. I did have a small shred of hope that they were going to redeem Kate in the second half of the season. Most of that was decimated by them pulling the Uncle Phil on Toby, but there was still a tiny, tiny bit left.

And then I read an interview with Chrissy Metz, the actress who plays Kate, and I lost all hope. In the interview, Metz reveals that her contract with the show requires that she lose weight along with her character.

Okay, so that’s pretty shitty. She goes on to say that she wants to lose weight anyway and just considers this motivation to do so. And she sorta says that she wants to do it for her health, but then that she’s more likely to do it for someone else than herself, but then it’s about her health again. And then she says a few years ago she lost 100 pounds because she knew she’d have to to book jobs. So it’s all a little weird, and it seems like even she can’t decide whether she’s losing weight for her health or for Hollywood, which is troublesome.

And look, she’s allowed to lose weight if that’s what she wants to do. And she can even do it for her job or for her health. That’s all fine by me. What she does with her body is her own decision. And if she is getting pressure from the show or the network to lose weight, she likely can’t expressly say that because she wants to keep her job. I don’t blame her for any of that.

The real problem is the show itself. We can’t pretend that this show is revolutionary for casting a fat woman if they are requiring that fat woman to lose weight. You don’t get credit for diversity if you’re then enforcing conformity. And ultimately the show is just reaffirming to fat people that if you want to be accepted and included, you have to be making every effort to get thin. If you want to be an actress, you’re going to have to shrink yourself to fit into the actress box. This isn’t progress.

And I want to address another thing that Metz said in the interview. After she talked about how she was losing weight for her job but really for her health but really for her job, she also goes out of her way to assert that she’s not losing weight because she thinks “big bodies” aren’t attractive and she’s not “selling out the big girls.”

Now, this “selling out” phrase comes up a lot when prominent fat women lose weight, and I want to talk about it. In the fat community, we hold our very few examples of fat role models in very high regard, especially when those role models seem to be happy with their bodies. In most cases, though, these women eventually lose weight and then start talking about all of the backlash they’ve gotten from fat women who see their weight loss as a betrayal. While I do not deny that there are some people out there who are angry that they’ve lost their fat role model and consider her a sell out, in most cases I think the problem with the newly thinner celebrity is the change in language.

Let’s take Rosie Mercado, for example. Rosie Mercado was pretty fat, and she was beautiful, and she spent her fat career talking about how fat women are sexy and vivacious and bold and how fat doesn’t mean unhealthy. But then Rosie had weight loss surgery and got thin and started talking about how when she was fat she was at rock bottom and her quality of life was diminished and she just had to take responsibility for her life. And she says that she got hate mail from fat activists because she had lost weight. But Rosie’s offense to fat positivity was not that she lost weight, it’s that she completely disavowed everything she’d ever said about being fat and happy.

So no, I don’t think Chrissy Metz is selling out on the fat community by agreeing to lose weight. That’s her decision. Where she sells out is where she doesn’t just say “I’m doing this because I want to keep my job, and it sucks that I have to do that because there’s nothing wrong with my body.” A simple sentence like that would show us that she gets it and that she still has our backs. An acknowledgement that she knows that the system is broken but that she has to bow to it to pay her bills is all it would take for her to retain her fat integrity.

She doesn’t say that, though, and it’s disappointing. But Chrissy Metz is just one person and just one actress. She isn’t going to fix things on her own, and some would say that even being on a show like this is her contribution. Some would say (and are saying) that the fact that a mainstream network show hiring a very fat woman is revolutionary.

But This is Us is NOT revolutionary. It’s the same treatment that every fat character has ever gotten in Hollywood. It’s the same treatment that every fat actress has ever gotten in Hollywood. This show hired Chrissy Metz, but they didn’t do right by her. They didn’t even give her a whole character.

And as a fat community we have to stop celebrating media like this for making the bare minimum effort to include fat characters. This Is Us doesn’t deserve any accolades for hiring a fat actress when they are only using her to uphold the harmful stereotypes about fat people.   

In fact, the saddest part of Chrissy’s interview was the end. She says that there have been “discussions” behind the scenes about how Kate’s story might eventually focus on other facets of her life which Metz says is really exciting. Let me say that again. She said that the show creators have told her that MAYBE her character will EVENTUALLY have a non-diet-related story. Which makes it really clear that Kate’s only function on this show is to be a sad fat person, but MAYBE if she’s LUCKY she’ll get to have another story arc someday.

This makes me so angry and so intensely sad. But I might be saddest for the show creator’s fat sister. Her brother really seems to see so little in her. It’s heartbreaking.

So no. This is NOT us. Because not all fat people center their lives on their diets. And even those who do have stories of worries and talents and fumbles that have nothing to do with their weight. This is not all fat people are. This is NOT us.

As always I want to thank Starcrusher for the music you heard in today’s episode. Go to cstarcrusher.bandcamp.com to get his new album, Goodbye Halcyon Days.

And our Patreon supporter of the week is James H. James is from the Internet, and rumor has it that he’s joining my friend-family very soon, and I could not be more thrilled about it. Seriously, so, so happy for you two!

If you are not a Patreon supporter, you should really consider becoming one. There are stickers! Go to patreon.com/thefatlip to learn more.

And I’m still seeking stories for our fat dating series! I especially want to hear from fat people of color, fat disabled people, and fat queer people, so if you have a fat dating story to tell, get in touch using the contact page on thefatlip.com.

P.S. If you have a minute, please rate and review the show on iTunes! Every rating and review gets us seen by more eyes and heard by more ears, so it’s super important.

We’ll be back again next week for a special holiday show, so see you again soon! Thanks for listening!