“I Feel Pretty” and Unseen

How to recognize weight bias in film reviews

Of all of the fifty top-grossing films of the 21st century, not a single one features a plus-sized female protagonist; few, in fact, ​include plus-sized women whose characters are even given names. ​Why might this be​, and how might this affect society’s perception of plus-sized women as a whole? Themes to be explored in this story include common character roles and token-ing, importance of weight or appearance to plot, and widely-held assumptions on self-esteem.

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Photo by AllGo — An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash

The Oxford dictionary defines “plus-size” as “denoting or relating to clothes of a size larger than those found in standard ranges”. Media sites assert that the average dress size for American women in 2020 is between 16 and 18; therefore, any person who wears over a size 16 could be considered plus-sized, if they so choose. Other terms, (such as curvy, husky, chunky, and more-to-love, to name a few), can be used as euphemisms for “fat,” which carries a negative connotation due to the common misconception that fat people cannot love their own appearance. While the body positivity movement is currently working to reclaim the term, “plus-size” seems to be the current societally-preferred way to describe overweight women.

Plus-sized women in film, specifically, appears to be a topic that is rarely brought up. This is likely because Hollywood is still working towards writing and casting women, in general, as film protagonists; as a result, representations of different types of women are few and far between. Not a single one of the top 50 grossing films of the 21st century includes a plus-sized female protagonist; few, in fact, include plus-sized women whose characters are even given names. Often, plus-sized actors make it, at most, to supporting character, as the leading role is reserved for thin, generically model-like women. Actor Danielle MacDonald, star of Dumplin’, describes the feeling in a New York Times article, which states that she “had observed stares at her midsection during auditions” for a movie in which she ended up acquiring the role of the protagonist. Expectations were subverted, but the issue lies in the fact that the expectations existed in the first place.

It is a bit difficult, when looking online for opposing opinions, to find anything anti-plus-sized women in film. Most sources, it seems, both scholarly and popular press, are not outright opposed to promoting positive body image despite a woman’s size. One journal discusses how a lack of plus-size representation in fashion can prevent plus-sized women from fully forming a self-identity, as they do not have access to as many clothing options as skinny women do. A study from the University of Mississippi reinforces this idea of the importance and social responsibility of representation of larger individuals in fashion. There are few peer-reviewed journals about plus-sized women in media at all, though, and those that are tend to use the word “obese,” rather than plus-sized, which equates having extra weight to having a disease. Not all scholarly sources discussing obese celebrities seem to be negative, however; the AMA Journal of Ethics argues that representation of obese people in media is crucial to the reduction in discrimination of larger individuals as well as wider-spread education on the obesity epidemic. Overall, recent articles about representation of overweight women in media tend to be positively biased and often suggest ways in which the issue can be improved upon in the future.

Society is not only influenced by film; its conditions inform what is made into film as well. This introduces the question, “what does Hollywood’s inclusion, or lack thereof, of plus-sized women in film say, rhetorically, about 21st-century consumers as a whole?” The answers lie in the artifacts: reviews of Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein’s “I Feel Pretty,” and Jason Moore’s “Pitch Perfect.” These two films are excellent representatives of the roles plus-sized women are cast in when their inclusion is significant to the film’s story, as they show the two sides of the same coin (or token, in this case) and much can be learned about societal views of large women in film through analyzing their reviews in reference to the plus-sized female characters. Tone and word choice are especially significant in understanding critics’ attitudes, so those will receive the greatest amount of attention in these analyses.

I Feel Pretty,” follows Renee (played by Amy Schumer), a cosmetics firm employee who is insecure about her weight and appearance. One day, while at SoulCycle class, she receives an injury that causes her to wake up feeling self-confident in her looks, leading her to achieve more of what she wants to do without worrying about others’ opinions of her. This might sound like an excellent message; however, The Telegraph’s review (written by Tim Robey) might explain why the movie amassed only a 36 percent by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Robey begins his review by explaining that the movie, “[sabotages] its own message,” of body-positivity, instead making itself out to be “cheap, cruel, and self-defeating.” Robey uses terms such as “total babe” and “Boss Barbie” to explain what Schumer is not, often comparing the comedian to her thin counterpart, Avery (played by Michelle Williams), meanwhile suggesting that the movie is shallow by pointing out what it fails to be, (a.k.a. the “high-concept” body-swap comedies of the 80’s). Robey’s review seems to focus more on the film’s writing than on the lead character, though when it does mention Renee, it typically discusses her insecurity and lack of self-awareness as a punchline. In his review, Robey paints Renee in a somewhat positive light in comparison to his view on the movie itself; however, he does this only by recognizing Schumer’s comedic talent, while at the same time putting down her character’s appearance and sense of self. The film, itself, also stereotypes larger women as lacking self-confidence, as Renee strongly dislikes her own appearance and wishes to be “beautiful”; this implies that plus-sized women are not only insecure, but are also societally viewed as unattractive. The fact that her newfound self-confidence leads her to be a punching bag additionally enforces the idea that large women should not be self-confident, and if they are, they should be ridiculed for it.

It is also to be noted that Schumer is not technically a plus-sized woman, though she is often labelled as one. This is crucial to understanding societal views on plus-sized women in film, as Schumer, who wears a size eight, is so much larger than the women who are typically cast in movies that she is automatically branded as “plus-sized”. Views of Schumer as plus-sized reinforce the importance of representation of average and larger-bodied women in film, as noted in the John Whyte journal article, since viewers are so unused to seeing average-sized women in movies that these women are confused for being plus-sized.

The decade-defining film “Pitch Perfect” features plus-sized actress Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, a friend and fellow a capella choir member to Beca, the skinny protagonist (portrayed by Anna Kendrick). Fat Amy is a generally well-liked character defined in the film by her sense of humor, her unfaltering self-confidence (once again used as a punchline), and, as her name implies, her weight. A review by Roger Ebert describes her as “ebullient, unstoppable, and raucous,” noting how memorable she is as a character. Besides explaining the origins of her name, Ebert mentions nothing of Amy’s weight or relevance to the plot, (as she simply acts as comic relief), and views her in a completely positive light. An article by About Face’s self-designated plus-sized writer Magdalena Newhouse disagrees, however, stating that “the script relies on tired assumptions about fat people for easy laughs,” referencing Fat Amy’s jokes about disliking exercise. Another instance of this, which Newhouse points out, is when Fat Amy is singing on stage and rips her blouse open; this is meant to be a comedic moment, but Newhouse believes that if the same thing were to be done by a woman who had been painted as “attractive” throughout the film, the gag would have had a completely different effect on the audience. This makes evident that the film can be seen as fat-phobic under the guise of being body-positive, as it perpetuates the ideas that plus-sized women are lazy and do not exercise and should, therefore, not be seen as sexy. Cinelli and Yang’s article is once again relevant here as well, as it recognizes that representations of plus-sized individuals take on a certain social responsibility since they bring attention to an underrepresented group, and Fat Amy’s portrayal, in particular, seems to be somewhat socially irresponsible.

Reviews of these two films make evident that representations of plus-sized women in film tend to rely on stereotypes and assumptions. Plus-sized women who are given roles in films most often tend to take on the role of the “funny friend” of the skinny protagonist, or if she is the leading role, the plot tends to focus on her desire to lose weight or drastically change the way she looks. This desire is not representative, though, of all plus-sized women, and it operates, once again, on the assumption that it is impossible for overweight women to be happy with their appearance. Forcing plus-sized women into stereotype-based token roles can be damaging to society’s views on and understanding of plus-sized women since it paints them as one-dimensional based on a set of assumptions created by a majority group in which they are not included. The fact that most scholarly sources on the topic seem to not be against the increase in representation of plus-sized women in film is surprising as well, considering the general lack of inclusion. This potentially reveals implicit — but not outright — biases of filmmakers and writers against women with larger bodies, though they might not want to speak out about it in fear of social sanction.

Overall, the film reviews do not exist with the intention of persuading audiences, but they are somewhat eye-opening to analyze. Words critics use to describe women of larger sizes tend to focus on their appearance, unless the character’s personality appeals to them in particular; this, at least somewhat, reveals what viewers and consumers find to be most important, or at least most noticeable, about women in film. This can potentially be reversed, as the Whyte article notes, by normalizing the appearance of plus-sized women in film, but for now, the most plus-sized women can do for film is to keep pushing forward to break the mold.

Note: While each example of a plus-sized actress I mention in this story happens to be white, I write about Danielle MacDonald, Amy Schumer, and Rebel Wilson solely because they share an experience that I, as a plus-sized white woman, experience as well. This is not out of a desire to exclude; in contrast, I heavily encourage plus-sized Women of Color to share their experiences and spread awareness through their own, intersectional perspectives.

Written by

Communication and Digital Studies/Studio Art student, Lead Writing Consultant, Rocky Horror enthusiast, fashion lover, daughter, sister, and girlfriend.

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