Not the Me I See on TV

I’ve had a number of people ask me to comment on this NPR article.  [Trigger Warning: contains diet talk, body shaming, disordered eating discussion etc.)  It’s called “One Woman’s Story” and if that’s all it was I would have no problem with it.  Kara Curtis is entitled to her life experience.  She is allowed to conflate weight with health, weight with fitness, to be ashamed of her body, and to pour “all her energy and untold resources” into being thin. It’s Kara’s life and Kara’s body and Kara gets to choose whatever experience she wants.  It couldn’t have been easy to tell her story like that, she never tried to extrapolate her experiences to others, and I wish her all the best.

To me the problem isn’t this “one woman’s story”, the problem is that it’s basically the only story that we ever see told about fat women, especially from a news outlet.  When I see people like me portrayed on TV, in the movies, in magazines, and on the news with very few exceptions they are self-loathing, desperate to lose weight, unfit, unable to find love (or not even seen as sexual beings), the constant butt of jokes etc. I was once recruited for a reality show that was going to tell the stories of happy fat people.  But the show didn’t get picked up because “nobody cares about fat happy people, and lots of people don’t believe in them”. People don’t believe in me?  Am I a leprechaun? What the…

If NPR ran with something called “Two Women’s Stories” and one of the stories was of a woman who rejected the diet culture and lived a happy, healthy life with Health at Every Size that would seem more like balanced reporting.  Maybe they intend to offer a balanced perspective:  in their More About the Series box they say that they will talk about a “size acceptance” movement (quotation marks are theirs and don’t give me a lot of faith in how balanced this portrayal is going to be).  But that only comes after they say a lot of very questionable things about obesity as if they are given facts.  I hope that NPR isn’t joining the media frenzy OMGDEATHFATISCOMINGFORUS panic and contributing to a culture of body shaming and bullying as a cheap way to get readers and listeners, and I’ll wait to see how I feel about it until after the series is over.

It’s for this and many other reasons that I’m really excited to be in an upcoming documentary about weight and health. (See how I segued into shameless self-promotion? I’ve got skills!)  Darryl Roberts, creator of the incredible documentary America the Beautiful which you can find on Netflix, is wrapping his newest movie and it’s about the conflation of weight and health and BMI and health in the US and I have a part in it! I’m super excited to be able to show a side of fat women that’s rarely seen in the media.  I saw a pre-screening and the movie is amazing and I still kind of can’t believe that I get to be part of it.  If you are going to be at the ASDAH conference in August the movie will be screening there and I’ll be part of a Q&A afterward. I’m so excited!

Enough about me.  The point is that we do not have to buy what the media is selling us.  We do not have to be who we see on TV.  We can be happy, healthy, strong, fat, demanding of respect and certain that we are worthy of love.  The more of us who claim that identity, and the more people who know us and see us living that life, the harder it is for the media to make people believe the negative caricature of us that they like to portray.

If you feel like commenting today I’m curious to know :  Who are your favorite fat role models?

Published in: on July 29, 2011 at 6:42 am  Comments (53)  

53 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I wish I could answer your question. Instead, I wrote a whole post of my own a few weeks ago about my frustrations with NOT having fat role models–with wanting to look both fat and sexy, and honestly not knowing how.

  2. Camryn Manheim. I LOVED her in The Practice. She played a character who lived as a normal person doing what she needed to do everyday (and I don’t recall her character ever being on a diet and OMG, she even was PREGNANT on the show!!!).

    Oh and from the little bit I just looked up online, she kicks major butt (even when her weight is reported by all over the media–that I do remember from her real life pregnancy and yeah, they went there.

    But yeah, it was just awesome for me to see an actress on TV who was fat like me.

  3. When I think of fat role models, the first that comes to mind is Queen Latifa. She’s been rocking Cover Girl ads and commercials for years, and doing so as a fat woman who strong and confident and sees no reason to loose weight. She is proof that glamour and beauty can be for big girls too. There is just something so charming and sexy about her. and I think it is because she radiates with true self confidence and that aura that she isn’t taking any shit either. I just love it.

  4. Also, congrats on the part! Your story needs to be told in major media outlets. When it comes to weight, I think there are all kinds of stories. There are people like you who are active, healthy, fat, and happy, and there are also people like Kara who have been spoiling themselves on sweets to the point of addiction and have gained weight from it and are not healthy or happy. With Kara’s story, it would be wise if her priorities were on health instead of just thinness. Thinness may come as a result if she gets back on a healthy eating track, but it might not since she has screwed with her metabolism now. But either way, she needs to relearn how to listen to her body when it comes to cravings vs real hunger and put her health first.

  5. Brooke Elliott – Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime TV. She is young, beautiful, smart, fat and sexy. Brooke Elliott is lawyer, Jane Bingum, reborn after a car accident from a previous life as a model. The show addresses body issues in a light and loving manner. Her best friend is a model and between the two of them they play to Jane’s strengths in every area. DDD is light, funny, playful and engaging. I recommend!

    • I love Drop Dead Diva! And I think Brooke Elliot is super cool :)

  6. Camryn Manheim – she was the first woman that popped into mind, and the first one I ever saw on television that was a great role model for a strong, sexy woman who was also big. I watched The Practice in high school and she was the first role model for me. She also modeled for Lane Bryant, before Lane Bryant got lame about their marketing.

    Missy Elliott – Her music really speaks to me, and offers an alternative female view to the male-dominated culture of hip hop music. (It may not be the best message, more reactionary than even, but it is an alternative.) She is very talented and pretty body positive about herself.

  7. Ragen, contact NPR and suggest that they tell your side of the story! I know it would help so many larger women to know that one does not have to buy into the weight loss = health lie and that a person can seek health for the sake of health instead.
    I too hope that NPR is not buying into the ZOMGDEATHFATZISCOMING lie.

    • Seconded! You might even try the host or reporter directly (FirstinitialLastname @ npr.org) as well as commenting at the link. They do an awful lot of “WAR ON OBESITY” type stories over there, in my opinion. Journalists aren’t free of body issues themselves, alas.

  8. Fantastic post!!! I added America the Beautiful to my queue to the #1 spot!

    I don’t have fat role models so much as self-acceptance role models. I love love LOVE x 1000 Kate Winslet. She stands up against airbrushing, has declared she is DONE dieting, and doesn’t put up with Hollywood’s body-shaming crap. I also admire anyboy who has admitted to eating disorders and become vocal about helping others struggling with them, such as Portia di Rossi.

    I love Queen Latifa, representing fat women in beauty ads! She’s also hilarious! I once watched an interview with her on Conan, after her breast reduction. She was honest about it and about why she did it (back pain), and she was comfortable enough with it to joke with Conan. And I admire Conan, for being totally attracted to Queen Latifa, which he made very clear in the interview.

    And of course, Kathy Bates!! I can’t find a transcript of her Oscar speech anywhere, but didn’t she say something to the effect of “this is for all the fat girls”? She’s also very funny in Harry’s Law.

    I WAS a big fan of Sara Rue before she jumped on the Body Shame Train. My heart broke when I read an interview with her and she said that she can finally wear a bikini because she’s now a size 6 and not a 14. As a size 14 woman, I was insulted.

    • Actually, it was Camryn Manheim who said that, just happened to see that mentioned when I was doing some reading on her. Kathy Bates could have said it too though. She’s another awesome actress.

  9. Ragen, we are so excited that the director’s cut of the Americal the Beautiful2 will be at our conference and that you have gone out of your way (cause your schedule is crazy!) to be there with us. I am so looking forward to meeting you in person,

    Just want to let your readers know that the film showing is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. it is at the Sofitel San Fransisco, Go to the ASDAH website http://www.sizediversityandhealth.org, and click on the conference link and then the movie link.

    Hope to see a lot of folks there!

    Deb Lemire
    ASDAH President

    • I watched America the Beautiful last night. Big thank you to Darryl for standing up for the average woman! It definitely made me cry, especially at the end. Can’t wait for part 2!

  10. Ditto one of the above comments. Queen Latifah. :) I particularly love her in “The Last Holiday” — a feature-length comedy centered around her loving herself, living it up, and being utterly adored.
    Fantastic, fantastic post, by the way. As always!

  11. Ugh, I didn’t get far into that story – Tovia Smith uncritically saying that “Curtis knows what she really needs is not to burn more calories, but to eat less. And yet every time she tries to diet, she ends up binging.”

    1. Unexamined statement of “Fact.” 2. Actual fact that ought to make you question your assumptions, but sadly doesn’t!

  12. What struck me in the story: they said she gained 100 pounds in one year… did anybody look for a medical reason for this? I would think something like that would make a doctor think twice as to what’s going on with someone’s body instead of just assuming it was their fault.

    • YES. 100 pounds in a year and another 100 pounds over the next 15 years bears a bit more investigation.
      I’d love to see a story on attitudes to obesity from people who’ve always been fat vs. those who gained a lot of weight as adults, people who’ve grown up with fat families vs. those who’ve stood out, people who’ve gained gradually vs. those who put it on quickly, etc. I’m guessing that those of us who’ve always been fat would be more likely to be fat acceptors. On the other hand, those who haven’t grown up fat might might feel better because they didn’t grow up with all that fat shaming (generalizations, I know).

  13. Definitely Deb Lemire, president of ASDH and her gorgeous daughter Rachel. Deb is beautiful, talented and graceful. At age 57 I’ve had years of brainwashing by the media and still struggle mightily with body image. Deb and Rachel have had a huge impact on the language I use about myself.

  14. We need a fairness doctrine for stories about fat, health, weight loss, etc. Every time someone publishes a story telling me that my story is someone else’s story, I would like the REAL version of MY Story to be aired or publicized. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…One Size Does NOT Fit All. Thanks Ragen, for another incredible post!

  15. Congratulations on the inclusion in the feature, and I know you’re going to make some points during the Q&A session. From the time I first met her on our wedding day, my wife’s grandmother R. stood out as a role-model. As I understand it, she had always been a large woman, and never let that slow her down one bit. In her 70s, she climbed the pyramids in Mexico. In her 80s, she was teaching other residents of her retirement complex how to dance the Charleston. She was well into her 90s when she passed away, and even then, she was walking to the lunch room when she just dropped (and this was after almost completely recovering from a stroke a few years earlier). She never achieved fame and fortune by our culture’s standards, but she sure knew how to live. Anyone who dismissed her as just a “fat old lady” soon learned the error of their assessment, because she was one healthy, happy person. Whatever my body does as I age, I want my mind and my attitude to emulate her. My wife has been following in the same mode. She decided a few years back that she wasn’t going to let being fat stop her from enjoying life, and Good Lord willing, I’ll be right beside her enjoying that life for many years to come.

  16. Honestly? My fat role models are you and Lesley Kinzel, who blogs at Two Whole Cakes (http://blog.twowholecakes.com/).

    I’ve been fat all my life and I’m sick of hating myself and now that I’m nearly 40 I’d like to enjoy my life rather than apologizing for being alive all the time. You gals are showing me the way. Cheers to you both!

    • Seconded. You and Lesley.

      I just watched America the Beautiful yesterday, and whoa. Amazing movie and I’m sure the new one will be too. I’m too far from San Fransisco, but if they ever screen it in Atlanta I’ll be there, and I’ll rent or buy it as soon as I can.

    • Yep! And Joy Nash and Marianne Kirby and Kate Harding and Marilyn Wann.

  17. Hands down for the voluptuous role-models would be Aretha Franklin, Kathy Bates, Mia Micheals and Queen Latifa. It is strange that there is huge respect for generously proportioned female singers but no so much for female actors, dancers and everyday females. I guess attitude is everything.

  18. Love this!!! Really loved this comment: ‘ “nobody cares about fat happy people, and lots of people don’t believe in them”. People don’t believe in me? Am I a leprechaun? ‘
    My role models? My Nana, my great grandmother, just about every female in my family.
    Some of those mentioned above I admire for standing up and saying “if you don’t like the way I look, your prob not mine”, at least in essence. Funny how I’m sitting here trying to think of who is considered fat and who isn’t in my “idols” cause I generally go by attitudes and personality rather than physical image. Hmmmm. Will have to think on it.
    But I stand by the fact that most of my role models are closer to home. :o)

  19. I adore Roseanne. I love her honesty, her flair, and the fact that she’s never talked about losing weight for the purpose of making other people happy (or body hate). Love her!

  20. Thanks for talking about this story. I caught part of the interview on NPR and I was thinking about how sad I was for this woman in a way. Obviously not because she is fat, but because of how she frames all these things in her life! She walks for an hour in the morning, goes to work out classes, eats healthy food. If she were looking at her life from a HAES perspective, she would see all these positive things she is doing, but instead it’s this negative-thinking of being “too fat” to find love and that feeling of low self-esteem of not being good enough.

    Listening to her talk made me think about what positive changes I’ve made in my life in accepting my weight, getting away from ideas about yo-yo dieting and all that self-punishment. I think it would be great if they featured a broader (ha) range of fat people in the media, people who were loving an accepting themselves just as they are.

    I always loved that episode of Designing Women when Delta Burke’s character goes back to her high school reunion and talks about gaining weight, and while her classmates are laughing and making jokes about her, how she realizes that she has learned a lot as a person as well.

  21. I love Beth Ditto and Gabourey Sidibe has an infectiously happy personality.

    When I read that NPR article, I felt kind of good. Good in that, “Wow, I’m not in that place anymore!”. It made me realize how far I have come in building my self-esteem and loving my body.

  22. There is a link at the bottom of the article that says “If obesity has touched your life, share your story with NPR and the Public Insight Network.” I hope everyone on this blog will fill out the questions so we can get some fair representation going on (I filled it out and talked about HAES).

    I do love Brooke Elliot. Gertrude Stein was fat and everybody who knew her was captivated by her and she had an amazingly interesting life and career. I loved Queen Latifah until she joined Jenny Craig. And of course Ragen is my role model in all things! I’m so excited that America the Beautiful 2 is screening here in SF – I’ll be there with bells on!!

  23. some of my role models are just normal people in my life, not celebreties or anything. there are a few who are fat but don’t love their bodies yet, but they are amazing women. i have a few who are skinny and they don’t love their bodies either, but they are also quality women. I do like the character on Drop Dead Diva…(a skinny person and a fat person inside a fat woman’s body) although I have only seen the first season. At first she hates her body but she grows to love it pretty quickly.

  24. Ragen, as per suggestions above, why don’t you pitch your story to NPR? It sounds like the journalist is doing a series, so she’s probably open to stories.

    Here’s an unsolicited suggestion from someone who works in media: pitch it as your life story (e.g. a human interest story). You’re someone who has achieved so much and has the cojones to have good self esteem and not diet. Why I’m saying pitch it as your life story is that journalists get hit all the time with people trying to sell their point of view and so they have learned from experience to ignore people on soap boxes. If you go in with a mission to sell HAES (as per a suggestion above), it will go into the trash. But if you pitch it as a good human interest story, the chances are very good that it will get picked up, because it’s an unusual angle. Then the door is open to a conversation about health and HAES.

    You can even open the pitch by saying you see that they’re doing something on fat acceptance, so here’s a good story they might be interested in for that.

  25. I like Kirstie Alley – especially after her Dancing With the Stars. Her spunk, tenacity and commitment was inspiring.

  26. Dawn French. In her show Vicar of Dibley she was unrepentantly fat and happy, and was seen as very desirable by many of the male characters in that show.

  27. Beth Ditto – her sass, style and don’t give a shit attitude blows me away. Plus, anyone that sing Madonna in her underpants and not care – that’s someone to look up to :)

  28. The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French. She is woman and beautiful and funny and bright and kind and…did I mention funny?

  29. Fluvia Lacerda is AMAZING!

    http://fluvialacerda.blog.com/

  30. (1) Yea about the movie

    (2) Have you considered contacting NPR, local television, local radio and telling your story? Outcomes?

    (3) Queen Latifah. You didn’t ask but Jennifer Hudson is my biggest disappointment. It’s like, “I’m a star. I must be thin. I’m thin. I’m better.” Do you get that feel? Other role models: you.things about Beyonce– she’s not fat but not going after bony. I respect that. What an interesting question. I’ve never asked it of myself before.

    • Agreed about Jennifer Hudson. What has she done since losing weight? Sing for Weight Watchers. Not saying that fat made her successful, but I have a feeling she re-framed her life. Of course, I can’t assume anything about anybody else. But, I mean, she won an OSCAR when she was fat and now says, “before Weight Watchers, my life was ‘can’t’”. I don’t call winning an Academy Award as “can’t”. More like, “holy freakin crap you’re talented and that’s what matters!!” I feel like she’s lost sight of what matters.

  31. I love you for the Beth Ditto video. I’ve never seen it and I LOVE the Gossip.

  32. Lee Martindale. She was the first person I ever met who was active in size acceptance, long before I even knew about such a thing. She’s written some great fat-positive fantasy, and she edited the amazing fat-positive speculative fiction anthology Such a Pretty Face. The introduction to Such a Pretty Face says, “This anthology began with a premise–the heroes come in all sizes, and the conviction that it was time, and long past time, to tell the tales of those on the upper end of the size diversity spectrum.”

    Also Joy Nash and her amazing Fat Rant on YouTube. I think Such a Pretty Face and Fat Rant, together, are a huge part of how I started looking at myself in a way that didn’t mean feeling guilty if I looked in the mirror and liked what I saw.

  33. You’re an amazing role model!

  34. To be perfectly honest, my fat role models are my real life fantastic fat friends and the awesome people around the fatosphere! (This includes you!) We’re all living our lives and sharing our stories and it’s so inspiring.

    I read that NPR feature a while ago and thought it actually wasn’t too terrible, though I longed for Kara to stop hating herself. I find myself wishing for this all the time, every time I hear someone hating on their body. I know it’s a journey and I can’t force someone to love their body but once you let go of that hate there is such a freedom.

    I don’t care how Kara eats and I’m not going to judge her for that (unlike some commenters above?) I hope she finds a path where she feels good and is happy.

    And congrats on the documentary! I hope lots of people hear your message. :)

    • G-

      I really appreciate this comment and the willingness it shows to move past the divisiveness and not judge one another so harshly.

      Although I have read only a very small portion of the massive response that Tovia’s story caused, it has been so interesting to see reactions from all points on the spectrum. I’ve found that both the “fat is bad” and blogs such as this one have been equally critical. And I have come to believe that, while the discussion is great, the divisiveness between the various camps is harmful. It does support the advancement of a better, more accepting world for all.

      Tovia met me for one day, took our 9 hours of conversation and, with great respect, tried to present one aspect of my story in 7 minutes. Clearly, even a “lengthy” NPR report cannot capture my full 38 year journey or current mindset. I am sure you found that even a full length documentary can’t do that. Tovia had to choose to tell one part of a huge and complex story of body size and she choose the aspect that she felt would spark discussion. Clearly she was correct.

      It wasn’t the story that I would have preferred told. I really would have loved to have people hear about how I trekked across 500 miles of Spanish countryside solo with my backpack and had an amazing adventure at a size 22 or 24 or how I love to dance in bellydance and NIA classes and have been doing so for years and how I love clothing and my favorite things is to work with my stylist on finding just the right items that sing to my soul and express who I am.

      But here’s the thing: I have been a size 6 who hated herself and a size 28 who loves herself. At times, I have embraced the fat is bad and the fat acceptance ideologies. Sometimes I adore my life and feel grateful for exactly where I am and what I have and sometimes I feel trapped and limited. I am not one of you or one of them. I am one of the larger us trying to figure out how to make the most of this life, to love and respect and be loved and respected, to find joy and meaning as I move through it.

      -Kara Curtis

      • Kara– thank you so much for replying! I’m glad I got to hear your side of the story a little bit (I’m sure there’s much more to tell and I hope you can share it!)

        I agree with you that we as a society would gain so much by being more accepting and putting away body prejudice. Part of my strong reaction to the NPR piece was because I’ve lived through similar experiences and personally made a choice to say neither “fat is bad” nor “fat is good” but “Right now, my body is okay.” For me, it’s a more peaceful place and I do wish that everyone could give up some of their self-hate and find practices that support their mental and physical health in the ways that work best for them (and while they’re at it, not to judge people who are trying to do the same). It’s not something that you succeed or fail at, but a choice and a journey every day.

        I hope that you continue to have wonderful adventures in your body!

  35. I have a couple – one fictional one is Precious Ramotswe, partly because I LOVE the expression ‘Traditionally-built woman’. I am also going to say that separating the concept of exercise from weight-loss has been a really good value-shift for me – that exercise and movement is something I do for health, flexibility, freedom-from-joint pain and extra strength, not something I feel I MUST do to ‘lose weight and if I don’t then what’s the point’. That has been a very valuable lesson for me to learn and for that I have to thank you, Ragen.

    • Thanks rhiannonsaxon,

      One of the most sad things for me on this path was the day I realized that there are people who had never moved their bodies for any reason but to change the size and shape of them because that, our culture tells us over and over again, is the only worthy goal of movement. And so instead of being successes at moving they felt like they were failures at getting thin. Sometimes our culture really pisses me off!

      ~Ragen

    • I loved Precious Ramotswe as well, and being traditionally built never slowed her down!!

  36. Wow, you’re really amazing. You have such a kind and just way of making your point while allowing others the dignity of their beliefs no matter how much you might disagree. I would really like to get better at that skill. Thank you for this awesome blog!

    • Thanks Crystal,

      Your comment made my day. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do, so I’m glad that it comes across like that :) Glad that you like the blog!

      ~Ragen

  37. Oh I have another one – Clarissa Dickson-Wright, the cookery and food writer and tv presenter. When the first series of ‘The Two Fat Ladies’ was aired, she and her co-host Jennifer Pattison were asked if they found the title of the show offensive – one of them replied – ‘Well…there’s two of us…and we are both fat…but we don’t much like ‘Ladies’…it makes us sound like a public convenience.” (Toilet in case anyone was unfamiliar with the expression)
    I love her writing, and I love the fact that in her autobiography she speaks openly about having nurses astonished by the fact that she has good cholesterol levels and a healthy heart-rate and blood-pressure, and having them take the tests over and over, and clearly not believing her word…!
    I love the fact that she speaks honestly about being fat, about health and mobility, about addictive behaviour, about crazy upper-class English people, about her rollercoaster life, about relationships and love, with this dry, witty, down-to-earth turn of phrase. Such a fan!

  38. This is such a happy blog. Keep it up!

  39. Will the new Darryl Roberts movie be in theater? I worked for an organization in San Francisco called About-Face and we did a screening of American the Beautiful a few years ago. It was a really inspiring movie and I’m thrilled to hear he’s tackling the bs “obesity epidemic” (that’s where quotation marks actually belong).

    • Hi Marisa,

      I’m familiar with About-Face, very cool that you worked with them. I just fell in love with San Francisco on this trip! The movie will have it’s theatrical release in mid-October, I’ll let everyone know as things progress. I agree about the quotation marks!

      ~Ragen


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