Being fat isn’t easy. I’ve been fat for as long as I can remember, even as a baby. That means I’ve never been a stranger to the horrible treatment many fat people get because of their weight. Of course, being a child, I couldn’t really grasp why being fat was so “bad”. Still, I was bullied relentlessly by my classmates (and even a couple of teachers) throughout most of my school years, and put on diet after diet by my parents to try “fixing” the problem. Nothing worked, and needless to say, I was pretty miserable in my daily life–far more miserable than any child should ever have to be.
Perhaps that’s why I turned to TV and the internet for solace; they were a temporary but welcome respite from the constant real-life reminders of how my body type was “wrong” and needed to be “fixed.” Or, at least, they were supposed to be.
Unfortunately, there was more than one instance where I would be watching Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, snuggled up and content on the living room couch, when suddenly… a fat character appears on screen. At first, my eyes would light up, and I would lean in, intrigued and pleasantly surprised. Wow, someone who looks like me! Finally, someone with a body similar to mine!
That never lasted long, though, because it would quickly become apparent what said character’s main and only purpose was: to be the butt of the joke. The “humor” would usually lie in how much the character loves to eat, or how gassy and/or lazy they are. One example of such a character I distinctly remember from my childhood is Owen from the cartoon Total Drama Island.
Examples of fat characters portrayed negatively
Owen is one of the main characters in the show. He displayed other characteristics besides the aforementioned negative tropes. The fandom wiki describes him as “huggable, upbeat, fun-loving, friendly, passionate, and optimistic.” But then it goes on to say that his “three biggest loves are eating, having a good time and passing a large amount of gas.” Unfortunately, those tropes are the only things I remember about his character because of how much they were emphasized in the show. The show’s premise was all about winning challenges, and his appetite and gas literally cost him a win multiple times throughout the show’s season. He would be unable to control his appetite and end up wolfing down something he wasn’t supposed to during the challenge, or his farts would reveal his location to someone chasing him while he hid. A few positive traits don’t neutralize the tropey stereotypes typically assigned to fat people.
An example of fat characters being present solely for comic relief is the character Hanako Ohtani from the video game Persona 4. The Persona franchise is one of my favorite video game series, so this hurt extra bad when I experienced her caricaturistic portrait and interactions in the game.
Hanako is a minor character in the game, and is only featured in a few scenes that are intended to make the player laugh. In one such scene, the main characters are on a school camping trip and going hungry due to their cooking attempt having gone wrong. They end up approaching Hanako, who is sitting on a bench and scarfing down a particularly large plate of food, and ask for her to share. She staunchly refuses, saying she’s on a diet and that this plate is all she has so it has to last her. This is supposed to be funny because there’s a lot of food, but she’s currently on a diet, implying she usually eats much more than this. Fat people enjoying food is hilarious, apparently.
In Persona 4 Golden, an enhanced version of the game with extra gameplay features and scenes, there is a scene where one of the main characters, Yosuke, buys a brand-new motorbike after having acquired his driving license. Shortly after, Hanako appears, and after a brief exchange, decides to sit on the seat of the new motorbike. When she does so, her weight instantly breaks the bike, and Yosuke cries out in grief while Hanako makes a quip and leaves. It’s funny because fat people are heavy… or something. Not to mention that, unlike Owen, Hanako possesses no positive traits. She’s portrayed as mean-spirited and full of herself and is obviously a character meant to be disliked.
I could go on: Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, Richard Watterson from The Amazing World of Gumball, Fat Monica from Friends, and of course, the obvious Wall-E where every human has become fat and lazy. However, I chose the above examples because they’re personal to me and my childhood experience.
Impact on the viewers, especially children
Like I mentioned before, seeing such negative portrayals of fat people in the media as a child only worsened my already negative self-image. It almost felt like I was being bullied both in real life and in my supposed safe space. I internalized the messages I would see on the screen, that fat people are bad, and that becoming skinnier meant I would become a better person.
Regrettably, this isn’t just me being dramatic. One study shows the tendency for popular children’s content to have fat characters show negative traits while thinner characters are portrayed positively. Another details how these portrayals psychologically affect viewers, possibly leading to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, among other things.
Children who are not fat are affected as well, because they will still internalize the messages they see, and it could lead to them bullying those who are not as thin as they are. It could also lead to disordered eating because of the “fear” of one day becoming fat and thus “bad”.
Adults aren’t immune to this either, though. Children are much more impressionable and will be inspired by the media much more easily. But they’re also inspired by the adults around them, and adults tend to say or do things that they might not realize are harmful because of how normalized fatphobia is. An example of this would be joking about how x person will get fat if they have another snack or have seconds. Other examples are clutching or pinching their own belly while staring into the mirror, or asking if an outfit “makes them look fat.”
These are all things that children can pick up on and internalize–I certainly did. Being more conscious of such phrases and, more importantly, having a talk with your child about body types are good ways of combating the stigma around fat bodies. After all, people aren’t born fatphobic; they learn it.
There’s already such little representation of bigger body types, but actually good representation is even rarer. It would be nice if my first reaction to seeing a fat character on screen wasn’t to tense up and prepare to cringe at whatever stereotypes the writers have decided for them this time.
Though there are way too many negative portrayals of fat characters in the media, there are always exceptions! If you know of any media where fat characters are portrayed positively, let me know in the comments down below!