Body Image and Positivity in Comics & Movies
Fat-bodied individuals are woefully underrepresented in media, and seeing them positively showcased is even rarer. As lighting rods for vicious stereotypes, this has profoundly negative effects on how fat people, and fans as a whole, relate to media. Let’s dig a bit deeper, into insidious effects on self worth, and positive steps for the future.
Many of us have a disconnect with our bodies. We are so consumed with how we should look that we forget what “heathy” truly is. Every year, New Year’s resolutions revolve around losing weight. We care more about how we look than how we feel. And we as a society shame people who aren’t “perfect” to the point they actively starve themselves. There are so many young people living with eating disorders because of the ideals we are pushing in the media we consume [ 1 ].
When we are shown a narrow selection of characters, whether it be in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender, or body type, we form a disconnect from the media we consume. This causes a rift between content creators and fans of that content. People like to see themselves reflected in media. Fat people are not exempt from this. Fatter characters are just as important as thinner ones, and we should be praising body diversity in popular culture. The real world is diverse, filled with people of all shapes, sizes, races, and identities, and our popular media should mirror that.
How are Overweight Characters Portrayed?
Often, when there is an overweight character, they are depicted as villainous. They are deceitful and gluttonous. In fact, while looking for sources while writing this article, I found a list of the top 10 fat supervillains who should stop eating and go to the gym [ 2 ]. These are the kind of narratives that are counterproductive to establishing positive self-worth in fat people. Each entry in the list ends with, “This villain is fat and should ashamed of being fat and go to the gym.” This does two things: One, it sends a very clear message that fat is synonymous with bad; and two, it ignores body diversity and the various looks of health.
This site’s list of fat superheroes is more of the same: “Go to the gym, fatty, you are gross.” This attitude toward fat people is harmful for everyone, large or thin, because it places too much importance on the physical and little importance on the spiritual, cognitive parts of a person. Also, this kind of negativity discourages young readers from picking up comics featuring these characters, which in turn tells publishers “Fat characters don’t sell.” In reality, it is good characters, not necessarily thin ones, that sell.
As a fat woman, I don’t see myself often reflected in media. There are so few large women; when they are present, they are shown as lazy or sloppy, or treated as the butt of jokes. We don’t get strong, courageous fat women who own themselves and their ambitions. It’s only been in the last few years that we have seen positive portrayals of curvy women. We have Patty Tolan and Abby Yates in the 2016 Ghostbusters film [ 3 ], Olivia and Denise from The Walking Dead [ 4 ], and most celebrated, Faith Herbert/Zephyr from Faith [ 5 ]. These women are diverse, strong, funny, compassionate, and kind. These women, some of whom are hilarious, never make being fat the joke.
Patty and Abby’s jokes work, and it’s not because it’s a fat joke—it’s genuinely funny. Olivia and Denise were strong characters killed off way before their times. They were strong and determined women who stood up for themselves. They brought a very different look to The Walking Dead and it was crucial for fans to see them as they were; more than just large women. Meanwhile, Faith in particular was a huge eye opener for me. I hadn’t seen a plus-size superhero before. In particular, I hadn’t seen a plus-size superhero who was kind, respected, and so sure of herself. She is funny and so smart. I see a lot of myself in Faith. She is a nerd, a D&D player, and a writer.
Faith was originally introduced in the 1990s Harbinger comics. It was a short run at only 41 issues, and it would be years before Valiant brought back the series in any way. Then, in 2016, Valiant announced they would be introducing a new series starring Faith Herbert, who was by then a longtime fan favorite.
There have been comparisons made between Faith and DC’s Wonder Woman, and they aren’t unwarranted. Both Faith and Diana are driven by compassion and kindness. They both put their friends above themselves and are fiercely loyal. And, possibly the most important, neither is the “ideal” body shape. Wonder Woman is muscular, lean, and athletic—far from the willowy or voluptuous ideal espoused as feminine beauty in Western culture. Faith is large and round; simply put, she’s fat—and that’s okay. She is shaped like me. That kind of representation matters. We have spent too long staring at the same kinds of heroes and villains. It’s time for real change.
It goes beyond just fat representation, of course. Diversity in representation is of the utmost importance, and there are major issues with how many minorities are represented. Whether it be the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, people with physical or mental disabilities, or any other minority population, these individuals are often either portrayed in a negative light or not portrayed at all. However, the scope of this article will focus almost exclusively on fat women and how they are represented in media, as we are quite overlooked and we have, arguably, some of the fewest role models in fiction.
There are a few variant covers for the first issue of Faith [ 6 ]. On one we see Faith sitting on telephone wires, laptop open and a smile on her face. In another she is bursting through the clouds, the sun in the background surrounding her like a halo, and she is laughing. In all the variants she is smiling and happy. She is a positive, kind superhero in an age where brooding, dark, sad heroes are drowning in their own toxic masculinity. There is no hope or happiness in those books. This mirrors the current social climate in reality. So few people have hope for the future and many people have a grim outlook.
Here comes Faith Herbert and her happy, optimistic outlook and her geekiness set to 11. She is a gift, a breath of fresh air after all the doom and gloom. Happiness is her way of dealing with even the most stressful situations and that is something to look up to. Faith has the potential to be an amazing role model for young, fat girls everywhere. Faith Herbert is fat, but she isn’t JUST fat. She is a fully realized, complex character that just also happens to be fat. It’s just one facet of her characterization—not the only notable aspect of it.
Why is this Important?
Why does this Faith’s depiction as a fully-developed character matter? What’s so important and wonderful about fat and body positivity in comics and movies?
We are products of the media we consume and our own unique experiences in the world. No two people are ever going to be the same. They may have similar habits and enjoy similar things, but their life experiences are going to be different. If a fat person sees nothing but shame and misery connected with being fat, they are not going to have a positive body image.
People like to refute claims that we are shaped by media, but that simply isn’t true. There are plenty of studies that examine how children view themselves in comparison to the media they watch. Children that watch a diverse range of characters from different races and have different body types are more likely to be empathetic to others [ 7 ].
Body image is the first sense of self we have. We see it reflected in media and if all we see are the same bodies, we begin to see ourselves as “other” or “not as good.” If all we see are fat people being lazy and dumb, we will associate fat with negative traits. But when we see characters like Faith or Denise, we begin to see fat people as people with positive traits like bravery and kindness.
The media spends so much time dehumanizing fat people that it is actually surprising to see them being portrayed as real, multidimensional human beings. When you and people like you are constantly seen as jokes, you begin to believe you are a joke. Faith is a fun and charming character. The things that make her funny have nothing to do with her weight, just her inner monologue while fighting the baddies. She is brave, but still has the normal thoughts of “Oh god! Why am I doing this?”
We fat people are important, strong, and worthy of love and respect. My fatness is not a reflection of my morals or values. Seeing dehumanizing portrayals at every turn, in every magazine and movie, is demoralizing to the point where these negative stereotypes are all people see of larger people. Media and popular culture tell us fat people aren’t desirable or lovable. Plus-size people aren’t sexy or sensual, either. Fat doesn’t mean lazy, sloppy, or stupid. Fat is a state of being for a person’s body and it is no one else’s place to police another body. You are responsible for your own body and to shame or dictate the way a person looks is morally disgraceful. A fat body isn’t intrinsically gross.
Body politics are damaging to all people, no matter their weight. When we attach the value of person to the way their body looks, we tell them nothing else is important and they should be ashamed if they don’t achieve a narrow view of perfection. It’s not difficult to mind your own business about someone else’s body. Having a character like Faith be a representation of fat in media today is revolutionary. She isn’t defined by her body. It is simply her body. She lives in it, and it works for her. Despite her weight being higher than what is considered socially acceptable in mainstream Western society, Faith is unfazed—she remains positive and happy.
We are socialized from a young age to believe that fat is bad and skinny is good. Even when a fat character is depicted as funny, they are funny because they are fat and lazy and sloppy, not because they are genuinely funny and happen to be fat. People laugh at fat people, not with fat people. Being fat becomes the joke and fat people are taken less seriously as a whole. However, there is an emerging community that places emphasis on empowering fat people, especially fat women [ 8 ].
This movement is, of course, under nearly constant fire from detractors and denigrators. When the argument is not a strictly aesthetic one that connotes fat with undesirability, the most common tactic is to instead attack the fat acceptance movement as potentially unhealthy as if it somehow encourages fat people to not otherwise live healthy lives. Nowhere in the fat acceptance movement will you find anyone advocating for drinking or smoking to excess, not taking medications for physical or mental illnesses, or any other such nonsense. However, the movement is still nearly constantly under attack, simply for its temerity in proclaiming that fat people are indeed people, despite their weight.
Let us be clear: this movement is not meant to tear down or denigrate skinny people. Such an attempt would be ludicrous. Instead, by emphasizing the beauty, power, and acceptance of fat people, the fat acceptance movement gives people the personal confidence to live their lives with boldness. This, in turn, leads to healthier, happier lives. In fact, studies have shown that being supportive of fat people, rather than shaming them, promotes healthy changes in their lives. In other words, shaming them makes them feel worse and praising them makes them feel better [ 9 ]. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp.
Positive portrayals of fat people in media aids this, as well. When you see yourself reflected favorably, you feel better about yourself and will be more motivated to express yourself in healthy ways. This also leads in more positive energy and healthy choices. The key ingredient in healthy lifestyles is acceptance, support, and positive depictions of like characters.
- “2021’s Thunder Force with Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer showcased self-acceptance and body-positivity. While still one-foot in the realm of comedy, it pushed the waterline forward for representation of all body types in superhero fandom.” Falcone, Ben, director. Thunder Force, Netflix, 2021, https://www.netflix.com/title/81079259. Accessed 2021.
- “Faith, another example of positive representation, has been making waves over at Valiant.” https://valiantentertainment.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/FAITH_001_COVER-B_SAUVAGE.jpg Houser, Jody, et al. Faith. Vol. 1, Valiant Entertainment LLC, 2016.
Courtney is a writer, editor and videographer for Steam-Funk Studios. Passionate for fashion design with nerdy flair, her family has always nurtured her love for speculative fiction and creativity. Joining the firm as a writer, Courtney’s distinguished herself as editorial staff and as a production assistant for The Living Multiverse’s photography shoots. She has also participated in and acted as assistant troupe manager for our performers and panelists, at shows like C.O.G.S. Expo and PhilCon.
- “Get Informed at ANAD.” ANAD, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, anad.org/get-informed/. Accessed 19 May 2021.
- Johnson, Scott. “Top 10 Fat Supervillains.” ViacomCBS, Comicbook, 7 Sept. 2017, comicbook.com/news/top-10-fat-supervillains.
- “Ghostbusters (2016).” IMDb.com, 2016, imdb.com/title/tt1289401 Accessed 19 May 2021.
- “The Walking Dead.” AMC Networks Inc, AMC, amc.com/twdu/the-walking-dead Accessed 19 May 2021.
- Dodson, P. Claire. “How Comic Fans Got Their Faith Back.” The Atlantic Monthly Group LLC, The Atlantic, 15 Apr. 2016, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/04/faith/478386
- “Faith.” Valiant Entertainment, Valient Entertainment, valiantentertainment.com/comics/faith-ongoing/faith-ongoing-1 Accessed 19 May 2021.
- Kennelly, Stacey. “Educating for Empathy.” Greater Good Science Center, Greater Good Magazine, 18 July 2012, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/educating_for_empathy.
- “NAAFA: About Us.” Naafa, Naafa, naafa.org/aboutus. Accessed 19 May 2021.
- Hunton, Abbey. “Fat Shaming Linked to Greater Health Risks.” The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine, 26 Jan. 2017, pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2017/january/fat-shaming-linked-to-greater-health-risks.