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I would rather shit out my own skeleton than read anymore Bridgerton body-positivity discourse, and I encourage you to shit out your own skeleton, too.

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It’s all over social media. Well, depending on which social media you choose, and what the algorithm shows you. But as someone who a) follows a lot of romance authors and b) does react videos of Bridgerton on YouTube, I’m currently inundated with Bridgerton content. And that’s fine, because I’m full-on trash for anything Shondaland, it seems. But with season three’s debut came a storm of weird opinions on actress Nicola Coughlan’s body and her character’s arc in the series. And almost all of those opinions make me want to eject my entire skeleton from my body via my anus so that it may run off to the woods to live amongst the Bone People.

A war is breaking out between two factions: mostly thin, cis women who think their hot takes on what is and is not realistic for a person who looks like Penelope Featherington to expect with regard to romance aren’t the result of their deeply poisoned self-esteem, and mostly upper-straight-sized and small-fat cis women screaming at them about the liberation of finally seeing fat representation in on-screen romance.

I want to load both sides into one of those padlocked carts from fantasy movies set in the nebulous middle ages and leave them in the forest to be plucked apart by the Bone People.

Travel with me, dear reader, back to the long-ago days of the 1990s. A time when Saturday Night Live lampooned all-star snitch Linda Tripp by casting John Goodman to portray her. Tripp wasn’t fat or plus-sized. She was tall, busty, jawless, and wore unfortunate shoulder pads. But to a world in which heroin-fueled starvation had recently become the mainstream weight loss goal, Tripp was so grotesque that she had to be depicted by a famously fat man constantly eating on screen.

There’s a whole lot to say about thinness, perceived femininity, and how violently racist and anti-trans our inability to view fat women as women is, but forgive me for not diving into that here.

I was a teenager during the 1990s. Every late night talk show host joked about Monica Lewinsky’s fatness. People marveled that the most powerful man in the world wanted to fuck a fat chick. I ask you now to take a moment and google a photo of Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s. Need I say more?

As a teenager desperately trying to fit the mold of femininity and constantly believing I was doing womanhood “wrong” (questioning one’s gender was not an option for Catholic school girls), I latched onto the one fat woman who wasn’t derided by the media. The one fat woman who was celebrated for her curves and her uncompromising stance on not dieting down to a size 00. Our beacon for fat representation…

Kate Winslet.

If you weren’t there when it was happening, I cannot impress upon you enough how totally fucked up the 1990s were with regards to weight. When Titanic premiered, director James Cameron had a lot to say in print media about how his first choices to play Rose were rail-thin actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Claire Danes. There were rumors that he gave Winslet the cruel on-set nickname “Kate Weighs-a-lot.” People debated whether Winslet’s unacceptable bulk was the reason poor Leo couldn’t fit on the door. Others praised the actress’s “bravery” for her famous nude scene, presumably because no one so hideously obese had ever before dared to impose such a gargantuan pile of disgusting fat onto audiences before.

And women were inundated with these takes because Titanic was, above all else, a romance. And it was a romance in which two handsome men fought over this heroine that the media and the director of the film insisted was a hippo barely squeezed into a corset via a complex and dangerous system of industrial machinery.

This is the part where I ask you to look up a picture of Kate Winslet in Titanic. It’s also the part where I implore the universe to make Kate Winslet look up a picture of herself in Titanic, since she once famously described herself as having a “fat ass” in the movie.

Every single girl I knew, regardless of body type, latched onto Kate Winslet as their emblem of beauty and self-confidence. After all, if someone so disturbingly, gruesomely fat could portray an object of desire to two Hollywood-beautiful men, there was hope for us.

This is exactly the fucking weird discourse that’s playing out on social media at the moment. Nicola Coughlan is rapidly becoming a fat representation icon, despite being fat by Hollywood standards only. Coughlan is short, busty, and has a chubby face. But she’s still a UK size ten, well below what the commercial fashion industry shunts into the realm of plus-sized. Beside her female Bridgerton co-stars she looks undeniably larger, but are we truly defining “anybody larger than Phoebe Dynevor” as plus-sized or fat now?

If that’s where we’re headed, fine. Living in the forest with the Bone People it is, then.

“She looks like me!” women who have never had nutrition pamphlets shoved into their hands in lieu of medical treatment are crowing. “If she, this woman who dares to have a round face and short neck and still appear in public, can find love, surely I can!” By leaning hard into the “Nicola Coughlan is fat” discourse, they feel better about themselves. And their empowerment, of course, is paramount.

Meanwhile, millions of people who are actually fat are seeing this play out and making jerk-off motions so rapid and with such fervor they will eventually require carpal tunnel surgery. Or, if they struggle with accepting their bodies, what they’re thinking is, “If Nicola Coughlan is fat enough that we’re debating whether or not it’s realistic for her to be loved, then I am irredeemable. If Penelope Featherington is the upper-limit of acceptability for love (and even that is in debate) then I deserve none.”

Even I, as cynical as I am, fell into this trap for a little while. Still bearing the neurological scars from the decade in which Jane Krakowski was cast as the inspirationally self-confident fat girl on Ally McBeal, I, too, was fooled into believing that Coughlan’s amazing rack and short stature somehow affirmed that I was not, in fact, failing at femininity by being fat, even years after I stopped lying to myself about being a cis woman. And once I realized that what I was experiencing was gender dysphoria, not empowerment, I saw clearly how many people have been duped into seeing Nicola Coughlan as a fat icon. And I remembered how destructive this narrative is, and how thoroughly it victimized young women for over a decade.

It’s very easy to ignore thin people and their discomfort with allegedly plus-sized bodies on screen. But it’s more difficult to block out the voices of those who are supposed to be “on your side.” So, when those thin voices are screaming that a person who isn’t fat by any real-world definition is too large to realistically receive love, the answer is not to scream back, “Fat people deserve love, too!” but, “Do you need to borrow my glasses? Would you like my therapist’s phone number? Can I interest you in shutting the fuck up at all?”

Coughlan has herself leaned into the notion that she’s providing body positive representation, and I can understand that. She would be considered a plus-sized actress even if she were taller; look at Christina Hendricks, Hannah Waddingham, and Gwendoline Christie, all of whom bear the horrible curse of having breasts. Anything over a b-cup seems to shunt you right onto the fat list, no matter how tiny your waist can be cinched for the red carpet. Round cheeks to boot? Ask Melanie Lynskey how that shakes out at a casting call. Coughlan’s comments make perfect sense to me, because they’re being made in the context of being filmed beside women who share at least forty-percent of their DNA with literal god damn swans.

So, while I can understand Coughlan’s perception of her body and how her intimate scenes in Bridgerton empowered her, I cannot accept the public perception that her body somehow empowers “plus-sized” women. It’s as absurd and harmful as the 2010s insistence on making Jennifer Lawrence a body-positive hero. It states unequivocally to anyone who can’t shop straight sizes that they are as disgusting and undeserving of love as they’re constantly told they are. And it drags us right back into a world where we allow visual media to dictate who qualifies as human and who becomes a joke, a world that I had, perhaps naively, thought was changing.

Meanwhile, in the middle of this discourse, South Park premiered the special The End of Obesity, which skewered the double standards of a healthcare system that views obesity as a disease, but the cure as a luxury. Throughout the episode, people who can’t afford Ozempic are prescribed “Lizzo” instead, poking fun at the very idea that simply seeing fat people represented in media will “cure” our cultural obsession with weight. At the end of the special, South Park takes aim at itself for contributing to the villainization of fat people and vows to change its ways.

We have reached an incredibly sad and frustrating day, indeed, when South Park of all franchises is doing fatness discourse correctly, but the “body positive” movement cannot. And maybe that’s because South Park doesn’t feel it owes a debt to its audience the way media packaged specifically for women does. The End of Obesity doesn’t try to convince its audience that they’re empowered by its message. It simply says, “We fucked up, and we see now that all of this is fucked up.”

And in the end, that’s the only proper response to anyone claiming Nicola Coughlan’s Penelope Featherington is giving fat representation: it’s fucked up. It’s episode 56,309 of a terrible show called As Long As Women Who Aren’t Fat But Don’t Think They’re Fuckable Feel Fuckable For A Couple Weeks Until It All Comes Crashing Down Again, All This Permanent Collateral Damage Is Worth It.

I would rather shit out my skeleton, thanks.

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8 Comments

  1. Fucking thank you. I’m still scarred from the Alicia Silverstone Batgirl discourse. That shit destroyed my self-esteem because if people thought someone as beautiful and thin as Alicia was fat, then I was a whale. I crash dieted so much as a teen and young adult that I ended up actually gaining a ton of weight. I look back at pictures of my teen self that thought I was fat and get so fucking mad at myself and the world because no, I was not fat. I just had big breasts. I’m learning not to care so much and I do actually like myself and my body now and exercise for mobility and flexibility more than anything but I really worry about young girls. I don’t want them to fall into the self hatred trap that I did.

    May 28, 2024
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  2. bewalsh7
    bewalsh7

    When I was watching Bridgerton the other night with my husband, I was thinking that Penelope really wasn’t fat. Yes, she has a chubby face and she’s obviously a little bigger than the other actresses, but considering how thin other actors tend to be, that’s not really a standard to judge fatness on.
    At first I was thinking “Why is Jenny upset? Any fat representation by a romantic lead is great!” Then I thought more about it and realized that we just get so little of it, that any hint of a “fat” person being on screen feels good. We shouldn’t be satisfied with scraps though. We should get better representation in media.

    May 29, 2024
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    • Anon for now
      Anon for now

      I think the reason for Nicola being physically small but still considered fat is that Nicola is so petite that it doesn’t take a lot of weight for her to appear fat, especially around actors who are all thin. She was the fattest one in the main group in Derry Girls as well.

      Clothing Sizes also just aren’t a very good marker of whether or not someone “looks” thin. Very tall people (and being flat chested also helps) might wear the same size and look proportionally thin compared to a shorter person.

      I’m not sure if there are people who wear plus sizes who appear thin but straight sizes go up to 16 or XXL and the dimensions of the clothing are huge. They’re not all made for tiny flat chested people for sure.

      My overall opinion is a lot of women look like Nicola/Penelope and find love so it shouldn’t be weird that there’s a show about a short chubby looking lady finding love. People just lose their minds because every other leading lady has a thin body type so it stands out when one is different.

      June 7, 2024
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  3. Stormy
    Stormy

    My residual 90s trauma is looking back at pictures of Jennifer Lopez (especially in her green Grammys dress from 2000) and remembering how people kept calling her ass huge. Like the Kate Winslet example but with an added layer of ~exotic spicy Latina~. Holy shit, the 90s and early 2000s were a cultural wasteland for women.

    May 29, 2024
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  4. Me
    Me

    I was 11 in 1997 when Titanic came out and I don’t remember any of the fat shaming geared towards Kate Winslet or Monica Lewinsky. I’ve also always been on the chubby side and would like to be fit, but have never twisted myself into a pretzel to achieve that. I’m comfortable in my skin, but in terms of aesthetics I’ll admit that I don’t care to be “represented”. I’m ok and prefer to see fit bodies. I’m actually a lot more bothered by the whole “glasses=ugly, no glasses=pretty” narratives. Maybe because I’m very near-sighted, but seeing characters so casually drop their glasses when they “glow-up” has always bothered me more than having a character lose weight, but that’s just me.

    June 3, 2024
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  5. Katie
    Katie

    I just watched Argyle and Bryce Dallas Howard looks like she put on weight from her time as a stick in Jurassic World. And she looks like an average sized woman in her 40s, but good god they dressed her in the most unflattering clothes like she’s too grotesque to be outside without a sack on. And I see this over and over again. Average sized actresses, who aren’t even close to fat, are dressed in unflattering clothes that make them look bigger than they are. And I’ve always felt attacked for being fat by it “remember, you can be likeable and fat, but you can’t look nice and be fat.”

    June 7, 2024
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  6. I find the conversations interesting! Many in the public are more aware and ready for resistance than I thought. Of course those of us who were pioneers in resisting weight obsession always tend to reject any perspective that does not align completely with our own. I have been an independent activist since 1981 and at this point, just as irritated with those in the movement as those outside it!

    June 21, 2024
    |Reply
  7. Sarah Baca
    Sarah Baca

    Thank you, this article is a perfect summary of my thoughts (written much better than I could do).

    June 21, 2024
    |Reply

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