A less-than-quiet transformation is happening to the public’s relationship to fatness, especially fat women. Generation Z, specifically, has been privy to a body positivity movement that seemed entirely unprecedented. With the 2010s came new levels of representation: Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson, Amy Schumer. “Sports Illustrated” featured plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover of their annual swimsuit issue. But it’s difficult to discern if any of the examples of body positivity that were set in the past decade have, in fact, been positive.
McCarthy’s character in “Bridesmaids” and Wilson’s in “Pitch Perfect” were grotesque caricatures of fat women. Every sexual encounter they had was presented as a gag — as if how they attracted these men was some mystery that even the movies’ writers couldn’t solve. Schumer’s comedy centered mainly around loving herself despite being fat, her gratitude for her partners loving her even though she was fat, and hating herself for being fat. But not only is Schumer not fat, but volunteering your body for representation and then publicly hating that body cannot possibly be considered positivity. Graham’s cover shoot was a monumental step for representation, but it also reiterated what many already knew: fat women would only be publicly appreciated if they conformed to the rest of traditional beauty standards. Graham is classically beautiful, perfectly proportioned, and her cellulite and stretch marks (which she proudly features on her Instagram) were missing from the photo. There was no room to be weird or quirky as a fat woman.
So what happens when we take insults masquerading as compliments and call it body positivity?
At 12 years old, I watched McCarthy and Wilson in the theaters and crossed my arms over my stomach as my friends laughed at Fat Amy’s inability to exercise. At 15, I bought Schumer’s memoir in a desperate attempt for tips on how to love my body, and found a role model in self-deprecation instead. At 17, I heard that a plus-size model had landed the cover of the swimsuit issue, only to find that the woman on the cover didn’t look like the Ashley Graham I knew from Instagram.
Weight Watchers’ stock price has risen exponentially since hiring Oprah Winfrey as a spokesperson, and they’ve begun offering free memberships to children. Suicide rates linked to struggles with body image have doubled in the past decade. Fat women who are victims of sexual assault are less likely to be believed; the perpetrator often cites the victim’s weight as proof of his innocence.
This isn’t to say that massive strides toward body positivity haven’t already been made, especially recently. Hulu’s “Shrill,” for example, depicted the complexities of maneuvering social interactions while struggling with body image. “Shrill” was praised, specifically, for depicting a fat woman as a protagonist who was shown both having sex onscreen and with a happy ending. However, “Shrill” was largely a story of discomfort and insecurity, which was unfortunately why it hit so close to home for so many women. Fat women may have finally gotten representation, but it seemed like a dead end — would fat woman characters ever be happy?
Twenty-four days after “Shrill’s” premiere, Lizzo released her soon-to-be hit single “Juice.” Quickly declared a contender for song of the summer, “Juice” launched Lizzo into the spotlight, and the entertainment industry — and the general public — soon had to reckon with the star’s brand of unrelenting self-love.
Lizzo leaves the discomfort and insecurity behind; her lyrics bring unbridled positivity and confidence. “Shrill” was marketed as an honest look at what it’s like to live as a fat woman, but the experience depicted was bleak. Lizzo offers her own honest look at what it’s like to live as a fat woman, and the life she presents is full of love from both herself and others. This life had not been offered to fat women before.
Lizzo is fat, but she almost never addresses this as either a pro or con — it’s stated as fact, only when relevant, then left alone. On “Tempo,” she explains that she “can’t move all of this” to a slower song; on “Water Me,” she thanks God that she’s “getting thicker,” because it makes for better sex. Everything is presented precisely and objectively — she only discusses her weight when it’s necessary, and it rarely is.
Lizzo has sex, and she wants you to know. Her lyrics bring to the spotlight what has been kept offscreen for years. She about about chasing men, about men chasing her, about the pain at the end of a relationship and about the butterflies at the beginning of a new one. She is always the protagonist, never the best friend and never sidelined. Lizzo loves herself, and she doesn’t love herself despite being fat — she loves herself because she has every reason to. Lizzo is weird — she doesn’t conform to one genre, let alone the entertainment industry’s expectations for a fat woman. She carries a flute in one hand and a platinum single in the other. Her vulnerability lends her power, and her confidence comes unchallenged.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d heard Lizzo’s music at 12 years old. But when I listened to “Juice” for the first time, I felt my younger self, buried somewhere deep inside me, uncross her arms and dance. Lizzo’s sudden rise to superstardom and the public’s warm embrace of her and her music suggest that a new age of body positivity is on the horizon — one that is actually positive, and one that gives fat women not only happy endings, but happiness, full stop.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 6, 2019, print edition. Email Abby Hofstetter at [email protected]