I am running out of shows to binge-watch, so when I saw nearly all of my friends raving about a new show on social media, I paid attention and made a mental note to watch This is Us when I had a moment. My initial reaction to the show’s premise was that it was a clever story, but it depended on tired feel-good moments to create a sense of “soul-warming.” I wasn’t hooked–and even more than that–I was sickened by one narrative in particular.
The show is centered around three siblings who are each struggling with their own mid-thirty crisis on their thirty-sixth birthday. On the surface, their stories draw people in, because they are stories that many of us have encountered before, reconciling broken families, breaking up with a dead-end career, and deciding to “lose the damn weight.” But, I noticed that in the very first episode, one that is supposed to introduce us to the characters, the two brothers are introduced with more depth than the sister.
In the first five minutes of the show, we meet one of the brothers, Randall, in his large corner office. There are a lot of mathy graphs on his computer screen. We almost immediately learn that he is looking for his estranged father.
Then we are introduced to the other brother, Kevin, who seems to be a successful actor. In his first scene, he is shown with two women in his bedroom. Just as soon as we learn that he is sexually active, we also learn that he is unhappy in his current career. He wants to be a world changer.
And then we are introduced to Kate, the fat sister. And, the only thing that we learn about her is that she is a sad fat chic. Her fridge is full of junk food–all of which is covered in shaming notes.
After the first scene, I thought that maybe they would give us more about Kate’s character–not just her initial internal struggle, but what she does for work, who she loves, what makes her laugh. I was wrong.
Throughout the first episode, we learned about the complexities of the two brothers’ lives. We learned that Randall is married with two children. He is rich–so rich that he bought a $143,000 car. He is looking for his estranged father and he finds him–and then he is compassionate enough to invite him into his life. We see what makes him smile. We see his career accomplishments. We see his vulnerability.
In Kevin’s story, we see that he is a famous sitcom actor, but he wants more. He wants to be a world changer so bad that he has a meltdown in front of a live audience that probably ruins his acting career. We don’t fully know Kevin, but we know what his talents are. We know what he is passionate about.
And then there is Kate. Beautiful Kate. Fat Kate. Sad Kate. In every scene she is either shaming herself, counting calories, or explaining why her life can’t begin until she “loses the damn weight.” One of her most cringe-worthy lines was directed at her famous brother, “You’re the only good thing in my life, Kev.” Then she goes to a weight-loss support meeting and meets a handsome, charming, funny, fat guy that is totally into her. They go on a date where she explains to him why she couldn’t possibly have sex with him because it has been a while since she has had sex. “I am thirty-six and this is not a very pretty picture,” she said, referring to her body. At the end of the show, her date kisses her on the way out and she smiles for the first time. So, what did we learn about Kate? We learned that she is fat. And unhappy. And that the only thing that made her happy for a moment was attention from a man.
America loved this show, and we loved it because we have all lived it on some level. I understand Kate’s narrative, because I’ve lived the sad fat girl, body-shaming, calorie-counting, can’t-be-happy-until-the-weight-is-gone life. I have lived this false narrative for over twenty years, and now I reject it.
I began rejecting this narrative last year around this time, a week or so before my birthday. I realized, as I was about to turn thirty-four, that I had let another year slide by without “losing the damn weight.” (If you’ve ever been overweight, then you are probably no stranger to goal-setting based on first days of school or birthdays.) But, last year, something in me snapped. I realized that since I was fourteen-years-old I had told myself that I couldn’t possibly be happy, that my life wouldn’t be complete until I lost weight. I told myself those lies because I was introduced to the first of many failed deprivation diets when I was thirteen-years-old. Part of my unhealthy cycle of diets began because there were people in my life who were verbally abusive about my size–and I believed them. Then the unhealthy cycle was fueled by the ridiculous diet industry that screams at all of us. The result of this up-and-down was that everything in my life, for the past twenty years, has been overshadowed by my size. Everything.
I am a college graduate. I have a masters degree. I have been an opera singer. I am a writer. I am a woman of faith. I have had my own career crises. I have loved deeply and been hurt deeply. And yet, for twenty years I let my size overshadow my complex character. I have had a beautiful, rich, complicated, storied life, and yet, so often, the only narrative that I was willing to hear was that my life couldn’t begin until I lost weight.
It has been one year since I rejected that narrative, and it has not been easy. Since I snapped my sad fat girl storyline in half, I have discovered exercise for fun. I quit counting calories. I have been on several dates. I have bought a new car. I have gone to therapy. I have started school again. I have lost a significant amount of weight–and I have stopped letting that define me.
I am a large woman and I have a life that is full and complicated and ever-changing, just like everyone else. But, I am still occasionally tricked into believing that my life should be dictated by the “sad fat girl” narrative.
Why are we so trapped by the sad fat chic storyline? Is it because it’s the only story we know? Is it because it is what we are fed by the diet industry that is so prevalent in our lives? Is it because we have been tricked into believing that women should care more about their size than the richness of their lives? Yes. Yes to all of this.
But, what are we to do about being trapped in this narrative?
There are women who want to lose weight. There are women who are happy with their body. We all have different thoughts about body positivity and health and size. And yet. So many of us are defined by a weight “journey.” So many of us believe that our lives can not be full until we have crossed the threshhold from the sad before to the magical after picture. We must collectively reject the narrative that a woman’s life can’t begin until she is thin.
And maybe, when we see women on social media posting exclusively about their diets, you know, for “accountability,” we should ask her more. We should hold her accountable to the fact that her life is more than a diet. Ask her about her beautiful grandchildren, or how she scored on her final exam. Remind her that she is smart and funny and worthy of a better story.
When we are presented with a show that presents fat women in a singular storyline that we all know too well, we must reject the tired sad fat girl narrative and say, “No. This is not us.”
We are funny, brilliant, hard-working, dynamic women with rich stories.
This. Is. Not. Us.
What I’m Reading
These books are currently cozied up with me in bed each night. (Tell me I’m not the only one who sleeps with my books like they’re stuffed animals.) I bet that you would enjoy them, too. If you haven’t already read these, then click on the pictures and let’s read together – like a book club, but we get to stay at home and no one has to wear pants or a bra. Oh, and it’s definietly BYOPS (Bring Your Own Peanut Butter Spoon).
Also on Clothesline Confessional
Do you know what happens when someone tells me that I am intelligent, hilarious, compassionate, or strong? I start to believe that I can change the world.
I found my honest Hallelujah that carries the weight of both my gratitude and my questions, and I let it go to a God who hears me and responds with, “You go, honey. You go!”