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.


  1. says

    I read your Dove ad piece online, and came here from there. I was impressed and thought, “this is a blog I need to read!”

    I saw the link to this piece, and had to read it. You know, it’s funny… I never put this all together, but wow, it’s so true! I saw America’s Sweetheart, and remember that scene well. I am fat, I’d never eat that way in public. I don’t even want to buy stuff at bakeries – even when I am eating on plan and have the necessary points to spend on the goodies – because, gads, I have to ASK someone for it. Especially for heavy women, eating that way in public – alone, especially – just doesn’t happen. If I am with a friend, I might eat a lot, but even that’s rare. More likely, I’ll share a dessert. Then it’s like, well she’s fat, but what restraint!

    Thanks for reposting this – it was great and enlightening! I am definitely going to add you to my links!

  2. Kris says

    I too came to this past essay from the present. I’m reading your blog now after having bought and read the book! Anyway, I’m fat, and I’m *extremely* self-conscious about what I eat in public. Even when I order what I know is a lot of food, I eat it slowly, carefully, almost delicately: dipping one french fry at a time in my ketchup, for instance.

    I recently read a book where the protagonist has a lot of prejudices, and she says to her son as they pass an ice-cream parlor, “Every time I see fat people, they’re eating! They eat huge amounts all the time, and these people are probably the same ones suing McDonald’s…” or something similar. Yep, that’s exactly what I thought they were thinking.

    Even on my most self-loathing days, I like to think I’m providing a service, showing people a picture of what people look like when they eat what I eat. See, people? See what happens when you eat french fries? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

  3. Jennifer says

    You have a really good point about “America’s Sweethearts.” The Julia Roberts character publicly binges after she suffers emotional upsets–when she’s fat, and later in the restaurant when she’s skinny. That made me think she had an eating disorder. I’m not saying that all fat people or people who snack when they get upset have full-blown eating disorders, but I think her character’s exaggerated behavior in this particular case suggested one. When I saw the movie in the theater I remember thinking that no way would a binger consoling herself with food be stuffing her face in public like that, fat or thin, and that it wasn’t funny.

  4. says

    Shallow Hal definitely sends mixed messages, which is, you can fall in love with a fat woman who’s so fat that she breaks things, but only if you are hypnotized and tricked into seeing her “inner beauty”–as in, under all of that fat. And while she may be revolting in her fatness, you will see her as skinny Gwyneth Paltrow, this will excuse your misguided attraction to her. I just remember getting so steamed when they were doing press for the movie, and they kept insisting that it wasn’t mean spritied, and that it was a really sweet, empowering story…?!

  5. Rebecca W says

    Why is it that so many of these “imaginary fat people” in films and books need to have neatly packaged reasons for being fat? I suppose it helps to make them imaginary and more easily dismissed. I am so tired of reading otherwise entertaining and intriguing fiction, only to discover that any fat character involved in the story is either patheticly addicted to consuming vast quantities of food or villainized–often literally–as gluttonous and grasping which naturally results in physical obesity. A certain popular author whose horror/ fantasy fiction work I otherwise enjoy–let’s call him Shtephan Fling–has a disturbing habit of using fat people as villains or simply objects of pure terror. It drives me fucking insane and takes me right out of the storyline. Suddenly I’m “reading” something that pisses me off instead of experiencing story telling. It’s the same with film and television. I get whacked right out of my suspension of disbelief when confronted with the “imaginary fat character”. How does this serve the story or the storytelling experience? It’s a crutch and a sad sad one at that–worse than the dreaded over-use of adjectives if you ask me. Thank Christ for people like Wendy, keeping it real and complex and messy. I so wish you were writing popular fiction and making blockbuster movies.

  6. Russell says

    I think the reason the “imaginary fat people” in movies are always eating is at least partly because the movie makers don’t trust the audience to notice that the person is fat, and having them eat huge amounts is their way of having the person hang a big “I am fat” sign around their necks. It’s like when the plot of a movie calls for someone to sing badly. It’s never enough to have them sing badly; there have to be reaction shots of other people wincing, or a dog covering its ears, so that everyone will know that the singing is bad. But the hollywood attitudes towards looks are so completely messed up in so many ways. Look at any of the hundreds of movies whose plots call for a “beautiful girl” and a “plain girl”. The person playing the “plain girl” is always gorgeous, so it has to be indicated in some way other than looks that she’s the “plain one”, with glasses being the traditional signifier, because glasses mean you’re smart, and being smart means you’re not pretty.