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Pop Culture
9 min

The persistence of fat-shaming in queer TV

Shows like Queer Eye and The L Word attempt to be inclusive of all LGBTQ2 identities. But the lack of body diversity on the small screen still leaves much to be desired

Iturn on Netflix’s Queer Eye on a Saturday in March to take a break from the state of the world and to shut off my mind. The fourth episode of Season 3 focuses on Robert Hitchcock, a man who is insecure about his physique and continually denigrates his “man boobs,” among other aspects of his body. It was cringe-inducing, but I stick with it, hopeful for that feel-good payoff each episode promises.

Antoni Porowski, the show’s food and wine expert, shows Robert how to cook more healthily. He asks Robert about his children’s eating habits and Robert says, “[My three-year-old] will just literally not eat anything. You would think she’s eating everything.” He explains that, to him, his toddler looks overweight.

Antoni interrupts Robert to ask, “Who’s feeding her?”

Robert lets out a sigh and confesses, “Me.”

I wasn’t expecting this moment. Not only is Robert obsessing over — and shaming — his child for her body, but Antoni heaps shame on him for how he feeds his child. No one asks what foods the child likes, or if she might have an undiagnosed food allergy that makes it difficult for her to enjoy the meals her father prepares. No one considers the fact that body size is determined by genetics, or that healthy societies include a diversity of bodies.

With a sinking feeling, I realize that all the LGBTQ2 love and acceptance touted by Queer Eye is a Trojan horse, used to pull me into the series just so these gorgeous, thin queer people can sucker-punch me and other fat queers like me. I feel foolish for having let down my guard when I already know how much society hates my body.

I started dieting at nine. My mother felt I had gained too much weight and my father agreed. They began restricting my calories and shaming me at the dinner table whenever I “over-served” myself, an undefined but unquestionable metric. For 21 years, I counted calories, worked out to the point of passing out and tried diet after diet. No matter how thin I became, no matter how much I starved myself, I hated my body. I somehow always had a goal to lose just 12 more pounds. It was always just 12 more pounds.

So when Antoni shames a father for the food his three-year-old child doesn’t eat, I immediately know how she will feel seeing this episode when she’s older. Statements like that will live with her and undermine her confidence. Her whole life and reality will be shaped by the ill-informed opinions of supposedly well-meaning adults.

While it purports to be about “more than a makeover,” Queer Eye is a series dedicated to helping people fit a narrowly-defined and deeply capitalist notion of what it means to be an adult and happy: someone who buys the right things to make themself beautiful and acceptable to wider society. And while I had only seen the positive aspects of Queer Eye before that moment with Robert, quieting any dissenting voices in my mind, I now realized that the ideal image forwarded by the show is one rooted in fat shaming — from framing John Stoner as being “slovenly” rather than focusing on how fat stigma might contribute to his depression, to the fivesome worshipping the small figure of participant Deanna Munoz. While some may argue that the series is accepting of fat bodies, any acceptance that requires addressing or mitigating “trouble areas,” as Queer Eye’s fashion expert Tan France calls participants’ stomachs, is not acceptance at all. Anything short of total and complete affirmation of fat people of all sizes is just another form of fat shaming.

The truth is that Queer Eye isn’t alone. Many queer-focused or queer-based series promote harmful fat stigma. Shows like Lost Girl, Queer as Folk, The L Word, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Glee have shaped me both as a queer and fat person. Each of these series helped me see queer people living their lives and finding joy, something I’d never seen before — and each placed a seed of doubt, self-hatred and fear inside me as a fat queer person. Of course, much of TV programming that exists is rooted in fat stigma, but there’s a particular way it stings when the anti-fat call is coming from inside the queer house. Perhaps more importantly, fat shaming and the erasure of fat queer people on TV has real-world impacts on those who are excluded and demeaned.

Fat stigma and fat shaming describe the criticizing and harassment of people due to body size, as well as the wider societal norms that make thinness the highest paragon of good. Discrimination against fat people has caused doctors to overlook symptoms of serious illnesses, such as bone marrow cancer, in favour of recommending weight loss and dieting to patients — and sometimes with deadly consequences. The truth is that the widely-accepted correlation between health and body size has been debunked over and over: studies have found that between one-third and three-quarters of those who qualify as “obese” are metabolically healthy, while unfit thin people are twice as likely to become diabetic as fit fat people.

Furthermore, many of the health outcomes originally attributed to fat people’s body sizes have since been associated with the stress of living with fat stigma. Not only are fat people discriminated against by our doctors, but we are also less likely to be hired for jobs that we’re qualified for, and we experience what one survivor calls “supercharged” forms of harassment and violence. The lives of fat people are significantly affected by these multi-sided onslaughts of hatred, as each instance of harassment strikes another location from the list of places one can safely go.

LGBTQ2 people already experience discrimination from both health professionals and wider society that results in negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, substance-abuse, cancer and arthritis. So for fat LGBTQ2 folks, it’s safe to assume that anti-fat and anti-queer stigma compound in ways that have yet to be studied.

Activists like those at Nolose, an organization that focuses on convening fat queer and trans people to “explore and celebrate intersectionalities,” and artists like Florida’s Shoog McDaniel are working to reframe queerness and fatness as celebratory aspects of being alive. A UK-based therapist, Dr Charlotte Cooper, has been documenting queer and transgender fat feminist community histories, which she has converted into a zine to honour their contributions to the fat acceptance movement. Fatness is a queer issue, both because queer people are fat and because, in many ways, anti-fat rhetoric employs historical anti-queer arguments against a new target. Where once queer people were maligned as being ill and having pernicious lifestyles, now fat people take on the role of unhealthy pariahs in need of conversion to become straight-sized.

Despite fat acceptance becoming more visible and accepted by queer people, body shaming still exists within our communities. Highly visible queer communities, those composed predominantly of gay white men, have long been places where thinness as desirability is not just the norm, but a bar for entry. Gay and bisexual men experience disproportionately higher rates of disordered eating and steroid abuse, in part due to the pressure to have the “right” kind of body. Of course, this focus on body image is particularly damaging to queer men of colour, who can never meet the mainstream, Eurocentric standards of beauty embodied by the predominantly thin and white Instagays. It is then one’s proximity to whiteness, maleness, fitness and thinness that makes it acceptable to be included in these communities.

“I think that is part of the reason that I watch a lot of queer shows and shows in general in pop culture with my guard up,” says shea martin, an educator from Boston who is Black, queer, non-binary and fat. “The traditional mainstream gay culture is so fatphobic and anti-Black to begin with that it’s actually not surprising to see it onscreen.”

This reality has resulted in martin carefully selecting what television they do watch. “There’s a lot of shit I can’t deal with. If I’m watching a show rooted in Blackness, there could be a homophobic joke. If I’m watching a queer show, there might be anti-Black or anti-fat storylines,” martin says. “Even with a show [like Queer Eye] that is so uplifting for people and supposed to be super inclusive . . . I don’t know if I trust the people on the show or the producers.”

Despite a poor track record, queer representation on TV is increasing. Where We Are on TV, GLAAD’s annual report on LGBTQ2 representation on TV, found that there were 113 regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime programming in 2018-19, up from 86 the previous year. Half of the 2018-19 LGBTQ2 characters were people of colour, marking a four percent increase from the year prior and the highest percentage recorded to date. However, body diversity continues to be a missing element in queer representation. Where We Are on TV doesn’t report a figure on the number of fat LGBTQ2 characters — and other than Shrill’s Fran, I can’t think of a recurring fat queer character on TV today: not on Pose, Schitt’s Creek, Killing Eve, The Bisexual, Gentleman Jack or One Day at a Time. (It’s worth noting that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which features Titus Andromedon, and Orange is the New Black, which has Carrie Black, would have been exceptions if these series were still running.)

Each of these shows brings multidimensional, never-before-seen-on-TV queer stories to audiences, and their contributions shouldn’t be undervalued. The lack of body diversity on these much-anticipated programs, though, sends a clear message to fat queer people: we are invisible and unworthy of representation.

“When we get these queer shows on TV, we give them a pass because we’re starved for representation,” martin says. “We’re excited to see [queer people] on TV and to see people who are not queer make space for us.”

For many bisexual and lesbian women, as well as queer and non-binary folks, The L Word represented a massive shift in representation. The Showtime series, which ran from 2004 to 2009, presented viewers with the high-gloss lives of a group of (mostly) hyper-femme queer women living in West Hollywood. While the show provided a counter-narrative to decades of negative or non-existent representation, it also reified a certain normative, predominantly white image of women-loving-women. The women of The L Word were by-and-large feminine, wealthy and very, very thin.

These images replicated a typical representation of women on TV, one many queer women don’t adhere to. For Philadelphian Shannon Spillman, program associate for the National Children’s Alliance, re-watching The L Word as an adult has been frustrating: “I realized being thin was really important to all of the [characters].” Spillman and I discussed the insidious nature of having a series featuring queer women (many of them played by straight actors) who ascribe to a very narrow body type, something neither of us have experienced in the queer femme communities we’ve come up in. My queer communities — my college rugby team, the spiritual queers I hung with in graduate school, my unapologetically progressive queer family now — have always been where my body size has been affirmed and accepted. In reality, it is only because of my fat queer friends that I have confronted my internalized fat-shaming and worked to create new narratives for myself.

“The crux of [not having fat queer characters on TV] is it makes me feel invisible,” Spillman says. “All of the experiences I had dating or coming-of-age were never represented in media — until Shrill.”

Shrill, the epic Hulu series featuring Aidy Bryant as protagonist Annie and loosely adapted from Lindy West’s New York Times bestselling memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, has been an anathema to the consistent deluge of fat hatred Spillman is used to. “I didn’t even realize how much I was missing the experience of my life being represented in a series,” Spillman says. She was drawn not just to the positive aspects of Shrill, like when Annie attends a Fat Babe Pool Party and sees all the self-love in action, but also to its darker moments.

[Shrill] includes some extremely real and extremely heartbreaking things I have gone through and other fat people have gone through — especially fat women,” Spillman says. She tells me a story about a time she was walking her dog when a car full of teenagers pulled over. They told her they liked her chihuahua, laughed and watched as Spillman’s face fell. “They were trying to say that I was so big my dog looked like a chihuahua,” she says. “People who aren’t this size do not know [these things]. They are so oblivious to what we live with.”

Dana Piccoli, writer and managing editor of Bella Media Channel in South Carolina, agrees with Spillman. “Women have all grown up in a society that is obsessed with body image and obsessed with weight. At a certain point, you get so fatigued by it that you stop caring.”

But Piccoli loves Shrill and is particularly a fan of Fran, Annie’s Black, sexy and queer fat best friend who helps her learn to accept and love herself. “It made me so happy to see a queer woman onscreen totally owning her body. I was like, ‘Exactly!’ You can be fat and you can be sexy and you can be savvy,” Piccoli says. “I’m super into plus-size fashion — I tend to notice what the characters are wearing and how people are dressing fat characters. I love how she wore her clothing and embraced herself.”

The boundaries between pop culture and reality are permeable, a fact that is gaining traction under the “representation matters” banner. And it does. When all of our queer TV is filled with only straight-sized people — or only white, able-bodied and cisgender people — we end up creating an ideal image of who is queer. And that leaves us with only a small box to fit in, barely freer than when we were in the closet.

It’s an incredible time to be a queer consumer of TV: there are now more mainstream shows directed by and featuring queer people than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore pervasiveness of fat-shaming messages that still exist. Queer fat people deserve better representation onscreen — representation like Shrill’s Fran. Not only is she proudly fat, proudly queer and proudly Black, she’s also free. When I see her onscreen, I see the queer fat Black people who have spent their lives fighting for our liberation reflected back at me.