Imaginary Fat People

I went to see America’s Sweethearts last week. I’d heard the movie kind of stunk, and I could have seen John Cusack’s big, adorable head spout much better dialogue in other movies, but I went anyway. I went to see Julia Roberts in the fat suit. I needed to see what the film industry’s idea of a 180-pound woman looked like.

It turns out that Julia Roberts really does look like a 180-pound woman in the fat suit. I was pretty impressed, actually. She had some fakey-looking chubbiness around her face, but the general idea was right. She had a full face; she had a belly and a more ample chest, and what impressed me the most when I first saw her–when she walked into the hotel room in that flashback scene–was that she was just the Julia Roberts character with a fuller face and a belly. She acted the same way and she dressed pretty much the same way (Though when you’re the size she’s at in that scene, you don’t tuck your top in. You just don’t.).

But for the most part, the illusion worked. Almost. Because then the next time Julia Roberts made an appearance in the fat suit, she was stuffing her face. She was on a movie set and lingering by the craft services table with her cheeks full of food, with one hand feeding herself and another hand reaching for more food. The moment that scene came onscreen, everything changed about Julia Roberts’ performance in a fat suit. She’d become an imaginary fat person.

Imaginary fat people have food in their hands most of the time. Or their pockets. Often imaginary fat people speak with their mouths full. Imaginary fat people are socially awkward. Imaginary fat people are thin inside, but it’s hard sometimes to tell where the inside leaves off. The fat of imaginary fat people exists either in a fat suit or nowhere at all.

I’m talking about more than just onscreen stereotypes of fat people. Imaginary fat people aren’t quite the same thing. Their actions are stereotypical, certainly, but they come off quite differently than those of an overweight actor who performs fat-person cliches. Chris Farley played plenty of scenes in which he ate like a pig and smashed chairs by falling on them, but these things were about his physical comedy, the way he use his size, not the fact of his size in itself.

Imaginary fat people can be fat without the distractions of “character.” Fat is the character and imaginary fat people breathe themselves into life. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

During Julia Roberts’s first fat suit scene, the audience in the movie theatre didn’t know how to respond. When the hotel room door opened to reveal her standing there with her fat, there were a few tentative snickers; possibly a few were inadvertent, from surprise. Later, during the food scenes, the audience burst out laughing abruptly but wholeheartedly, relieved, as if they understood something at last. Or as if someone who had made them uncomfortable had suddenly left the room.

They also laughed when Julia Roberts gotupset and went down to the restaurant of the hotel by herself–a different hotel this time; now she was thin–and she ordered three big plates of food at once and ate from them voraciously. Of course they were laughing at the fat person who wasn’t there anymore. I mean, I laughed, too.

But then I realized I would never do that–eat like the way she was eating, alone, in public. Everyone I know who is fat has a problem with eating in front of strangers. You worry what people will think about you, what they’ll imagine.

An imaginary fat person doesn’t need a fat suit, but it helps. Think about all the Fat Monica jokes that have been told over the years on Friends. For a while it was enough to make verbal references to Monica’s past life as a fat person, sort of an inside joke. Skinny Monica would respond with little more than an exasperated look–oh, you guys! –whenever Ross and Rachel and Chandler made jabs at her phantom fat. The jokes were on nobody. But at some point it seemed everyone wanted to see the nobody, so the show’s writers put Monica in the fat suit, they wrote flashback sequences and alternate-reality episodes in which she would appear.They made the joke bigger and brought us all inside of it.

It sounds like that movie Shallow Hal will have the same kind of mind tricks as well–the movie where Gwyneth Paltrow plays a fat woman in some scenes and a thin woman in others. Supposedly the gimmick is that whenever Jack Black looks at her in the fat suit he sees her as a thin woman for some reason, and through this illusion he falls in love with her–therefore he really falls in love with a fat woman. But of course the fat woman isn’t real; only Gwyneth Paltrow is.

When you think about it, imaginary fat seems to be the only kind of fat the popular media can deal withat all. For months I’ve been reading stories in Us and People which insist that actresses are looking “healthy” again, natural again–using as their proof photos showing actresses first in their “too skinny” mode and then at their heavier, “more comfortable” size. I could pick out a few differences here and there–Portia de la Rossi’s arms, maybe, which are no longer as bony–but for the most part I couldn’t discern any kind of significant change in size. It’s a bizarre visual exercise: object lessons in looking at fat, in recognizing it only after carefully studying its absence.

We’re being told to look at ordinary arm flesh, or the occasional spill of skin out the side of a tight strapless dress, or the tissue that covers the hip bones–we’re told to take particular note of this stuff, and call it fat. The only fat we’re allowed to consider is the fat on someone like Charlize Theron. The only acceptable fat is practically invisible.

In the middle of Us magazine’s cover story “Hollywood’s Obsession With Weight” was a sidebar with a positive story about Carnie Wilson’s weight loss surgery. Having the sidebar there didn’t really seem to make sense, because the rest of the story was about actresses who were losing too much weight. But then, when you start to think in terms of imaginary fat, it makes perfect sense to include Carnie Wilson. Do you think anyone would have really given a shit if Carnie Wilson had lost all her weight by dieting and exercising? She would have gotten some press and some praise, probably, but the real attraction is that she lost the weight so quickly. Read any story about her and notice how often she’s quoted as saying things like, “It was as if I’d blinked and the weight came off.”

If fat can vanish like that, it might not be that real, right? We must love to think so.