The Wellness Quest by Dr. Kate Browne
This week, I need to start my post with a confession:
I love the movie Heavyweights.
For the uninitiated, Heavyweights is an early Judd Apatow film about a group of boys who are forced to go to fat camp. It stars Ben Stiller in one of his most outlandish roles as Tony Perkins, a former camper turned celebrity fitness guru, who brings his “PerkiSystem” to the camp. The movie that results from this premise as ridiculous as you’d expect, and features the typical teen weight loss conceits that you’d expect to find from a premise that begins with “kids at fat camp.” As Common Sense Media notes, its take on body size and weight loss is confusing, as it’s a fat-joke-a-minute kind of movie that’s also filled with satire. Its protagonist, Gerry (Aaron Schwartz), comes out a hero in the end, and so much of the film’s humor comes from satire that highlights the absurdity of celebrity weight loss gurus. I understand why it’s a movie that comes out on the wrong side of fat positivity for some, but for me, it was the first movie I remember seeing with fat kids (boys, really) with complex personalities and varying motivations. It meant a lot to me to know that there was a movie where fat kids could shine.
Later, I would fall in love with the character of Helga Phugly in The Oblongs, an adult-oriented cartoon that premiered on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim that featured characters affected by the literal runoff of economic inequity. Helga, voiced by Lea Delaria, has an insatiable appetite that she satisfies by crudely bullying people into giving her food. She also carries a deep delusion that “The Debbies,” the carbon copy popular girls, are her friends. And yet…before Helga I’d never seen a fat girl speak her mind and name her desires in an unashamed voice. Sure, she gets jammed up in a sewer pipe and flashes an audience after she eats too much of her raw bacon costume, but Helga is Helga. No shame.
My interpretation of these representations in film and television has become much more nuanced since I first saw Heavyweights and The Oblongs, and I’m grateful that we have more diversity in body size so that extremely problematic characters aren’t the best we can get. But we still have a long way to go for film and television to adequately represent characters of all body types. This is especially true in film and television for kids. My 5 year old son watches a lot of mainstream film and television, and it’s rare to watch something with him that doesn’t have a fat joke in it. I recently spoke to a group of tweens who noticed that the fat characters in their shows are always the villain, the best friend of the hero, or so clumsy that they break everything. We have a long way to go.