Depictions of fat women in TV & film have rarely done them any justice. Whether it’s the mockery of fat Black women seen in Tyler Perry’s Madea and Eddie Murphy’s ‘Norbit’ or various fat characters sidelined to the funny best friend (à la Kim in Moesha), the representation of fatness in TV and film has always placed these women in spaces where they’re stuck to the sidelines, offering quippy jokes and an opportunity to make the skinny protagonist feel better.
But as times have evolved, so has this representation. We are seeing the body positive movement place fat women in spaces they deserve to not only be seen and heard – but own. Whether it’s women like Melissa McCartney and Rebel Wilson (pre-weight loss) in starring roles or most recently, a stunning Paloma Elsesser on the cover of American Vogue – conventional body norms are being kicked to the curb – and one woman showcasing their value particularly in film is Grace Barber-Plentie.
“Fatness held very negative connotations for me as a kid. As a fat child, I was regularly encouraged to lose weight, to exercise more – this was centred around my ‘health’, but the solution to being healthy was always just weight loss, with no consideration of the mental impact it might have on me,” says the writer and curator.
“I was used to seeing fat people treated as a punchline or a joke in films, or non-fat people wearing grotesque fat suits in films and TV.”
This damaging view of fatness is something many young women can relate to – but for Grace, growing up in the social media era meant witnessing a change in attitudes towards larger bodies and this helped change her perception of fatness over time.
“I became more aware of the body positivity movement via social media over the last few years and I also had an obsession with the 2007 version of ‘Hairspray’ – there’s weirdly a lot of body positivity in that for a mainstream film, and some of it must have seeped into my brain even if I wasn’t acknowledging it.”
Grace’s experience of seeing fat women in film partially led her to create @Fatinfilm – a platform which celebrates the various fat women in film who provided representation and could be seen as a precursor to her most recent work as the curator of Barbican’s ‘Reframing The Fat Body’, which took place late last year as a part of Barbican’s Emerging Curators’ Lab which celebrates up and coming young talent.
“I applied for the Emerging Curators Lab at the Barbican, which was an opportunity for programmers to present an event based on the theme ‘Inside Out’. I was interested in developing some kind of event around inhabiting a fat body (inside), and how fat bodies exist and are perceived in the world (out) so it felt like the perfect opportunity.
“After that, we did a week-long series of Zoom sessions with members of the Barbican team to learn about how programming for Barbican works, and to help develop our ideas.”
In Grace’s sold-out programme, which is set to make its online debut on the Barbican’s Cinema On Demand platform in February, seven short films were selected which showcased the various lived experiences of fat women across the world.
“Initially, I was worried that I wasn’t going to find enough shorts to fill a programme, but I was very lucky that after lots of searching, I was able to discover some really great films. After that, I tried to think about which films would compliment each other – what was I trying to say with the programme? Did I want only fiction, or only documentary, or both? Eventually, I was able to find a perfect synergy.”
Grace’s selection of films created a cohesive look at an envisioned fat utopia where larger bodies are accepted and challenged many misconceptions which are often associated with bigger frames.
“The biggest misconception for me is that fat people are limited in what they can and can’t do physically because of their size,” says Grace.
“Here, we have fat synchronised swimmers and pole dancers who are strong, healthy and empowered – and comfortable in their fatness! Also, these films involve fat people talking candidly and within their own inclusive spaces about how they feel about their fatness – so hopefully that’s giving non-fat viewers a window into what it’s actually like to be fat, the joys as well as the challenges.”
From Melbourne’s fat femme synchronised swim team as seen in the short ‘Aquaporko!’ To the queer feminist utopia ‘set far away from BMI norms and the male gaze in Riot Not Diet’, Reframing the Fat Body truly showed fat women occupying spaces free from societal restraints – something Grace hoped viewers took notice of.
“I wanted fat viewers to feel affirmed and know that they are seen and loved and I wanted non-fat viewers to listen, learn and reframe their points of view about fatness.”
For Grace, it was also key to have a diverse representation of WOC within the programme.
“So many of the founders of the body positivity movement were black women, and this is now being forgotten. Diversity – genuine, authentic diversity as opposed to a box-ticking exercise – is crucial to me in everything that I do, so I’ve strived for that in this programme, she affirms.
“This programme has films made by, and about people of colour and I think this shows that fatness isn’t just an experience for white women and that no fat experience is the same.”
While the representation of larger bodies in film and wider society still has a long way to go, the talented creative is hopeful.
“We need to look back at our history and archive the successes of fat representation over the years, in order to see what successes we’ve achieved already, and how far we have to go. But as with all diversity, I think it’s important that we see more fat talent both in front of and behind the camera. That feels like true representation to me.”
Reframing the Fat Body is streaming on Barbican Cinema On Demand until 28 February.