When NBC's Primetime show "This is Us" premiered in 2016, I didn't begin watching it right away. But as I heard all of the acclaim surrounding it from audience and critics, I decided to sit down and give it a try. For some reasons, like its portrayal of mental health, racial issues and adoption, I'm glad I did. However, its portrayal of fat characters—something we hardly see in television and movies as it is, let alone in lead roles—was a huge let down for me.
Just as a fair warning, this article will include spoilers. So if you haven't seen the show yet and still plan to watch, come back to this once you have!
So I sit down in front of my laptop ready to watch what people have hailed as the best television show in years. And the show opens with Kate, the lead fat character, in front of a fridge full of food with post-it notes all over it: "Bad," "250 calories per spoonful," "DO NOT EAT THIS." Immediately the calorie scoreboard and disordered thoughts in my mind lit up. This introduction to the first leading fat character I'd seen in years was not promising. Strike One.
But, because of the amazing acting and writing in the other plotlines of the show, I decided to keep watching. Even though Kate attended regular weight-loss based meetings and made stereotypical comments about people with eating disorders, I stuck it out hoping we would get a sliver of a storyline that had to do with something other than her weight. But while other characters' storylines included complexity in every aspect of their lives, all we got about Kate was an obsession over food and weight. She breaks up with her fiancé to focus on dieting, attends a weight-loss camp, considers gastric-bypass surgery, and has to leave a celebrity's party early because she is so self-conscious. Strike Two.
The straw that broke the camel's back for me came in season three. We get a glimmer of hope as Kate finds the love of her life and is hoping to have children. However, because nothing good can happen to fat people on television, she loses the child and they attempt to use In Vitro Fertilization to try again. But all they can talk about through this process is how Kate's weight will not allow her to have children. Which leads into a conversation between Kate and her mother:
"And I should have done more when you really started gaining the weight."
"I was almost eighteen, I should have made better food choices."
After a flashback where a young Kate tells her mother she'd gained a significant amount of weight to which her mother told her not to be so hard on herself. While this was just a small plotline at the end of an episode, something about it really rubbed me the wrong way. Kate, as a teenager, was clearly struggling with binge-eating after her father died, and her mother just shrugged it off. Then, as an adult, it was framed as a problem of gaining weight rather than disordered eating. Strike Three.
In the last decade, representation in television and film has made amazing strides. We're beginning to see non-binary characters, trans characters of color, queer characters, immigrant characters, and so many other intersecting identities. So why can't we see a dynamic, complex, fat character without the storyline always being about her weight?
And to be clear, being fat IS, inevitably, an important part in fat people's lives. Sadly, weight stigma, diet culture, and fatphobia ensure that. But a person's size, weight or food choices are never the entirety of their character, and they shouldn't be portrayed as such in television or film.
NBC, do better.