A new film programme challenges perceptions of fat bodies

Curated by Grace Barber-Plentie, Reframing the Fat Body allows plus size people to exist without judgement or limitation.

Words and interview

Hannah Strong


When I was growing up in the late 1990s and early ’00s, fat people were always the butt of the joke. Pop culture presented the likes of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin as rotund buffoons, lazy and food-obsessed, while rom-coms like Shallow Hal made a whole song and dance out of how hilarious it was that an obese version of Gwyneth Paltrow should be worthy of love. Shows in which fat people were berated by dieticians until they consumed a bit of broccoli and a diet shake were all the rage, and I was taught that my body was a source of shame, to be covered up and reviled at all costs.

Thankfully, perceptions are starting to change, and fat characters aren’t relegated to the role of comic relief or villain anymore (though Ursula remains an icon of fat representation, regardless of Disney’s intention). In 2019, fat megastar Lizzo appeared in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, putting to bed once and for all any claim you can’t be fat and hot as hell. As part of the Barbican’s Emerging Film Curators’ Lab, programmer Grace Barber-Plentie is championing fat bodies on screen with a special event taking place this Saturday (5 December) which seeks to show lived experience of being fat in a world where we are taught big isn’t beautiful.

Through a series of seven shorts, Reframing the Fat Body celebrates the diversity of fat lives, whether it’s plus size pole dancers or a young woman struggling through weight loss camp. The Fat Feeling, model and activist Talia A Darling invites models to a photoshoot where they discuss their experiences of being fat in the UK, while Aquaporko! is the story of Australia’s first fat femme synchronised swimming team.

Barber-Plentie, who also runs the Instagram project Fat in Film, has put a lot of thought and care into planning the event, which also features a virtual pole dance performance from Roz Mays. The event is now sold out, but you can read up on the films on the Barbican website, and here’s more from Grace on why she decided to spotlight fat bodies.

LWLies: What was the motivation for programming this season?

Barber-Plentie: The brief for the Emerging Curators lab at Barbican was ‘Inside Out’, and I knew straight away that looking at fatness would fit in with this. I wanted to look at what it’s like to both inhabit a fat body [inside] and how fat bodies are perceived in the world [out], so it was all a very happy coincidence!

But, aside from that, I’ve been thinking about fatness and film for a while now – both what film is like in terms of fat representation, and what it’s like to work in/attend cinematic spaces as a fat person. I went to an amazing event that Fringe! Festival hosted last year, a screening of Kelli Jean Drinkwater’s Nothing to Lose with shorts and a panel. It felt like a genuinely inclusive space in every way and I wanted to help encourage more spaces like that in film.

How easy did you find it to select a broad range of films that deal with fatness?

I actually applied for another programming opportunity last year looking at the same themes, but on a much larger scale. So I initially went back to a list I prepared for that, which included a lot of mainstream films like anything with Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson in, down to some really interesting shorts I managed to read about online. From there, I basically did a lot of googling. I think I have now used every possible combination of words to find films about fatness.

It feels like something mainstream cinema is still very reluctant to show. Do you recall the first time you saw fatness portrayed on screen in a positive light?

The key film for me was the 2007 remake of Hairspray. I was a musical theatre kid and my mum’s friend used to bring me back bootleg CDs of soundtracks to Broadway shows when I was 11 or so. I learned all the words to the Hairspray soundtrack and was already obsessed with it by the time I saw it as a kid. But it was still such a pleasant surprise to see Tracy Turnblad as a character who likes the way she looks from the beginning of the film. There’s no journey of self-discovery for her, her goal is to be a dancer and the film is about her getting it.

It feels like short films are leading the way in terms of representing fat bodies.

Short films definitely offer more variety. For example, every film in this programme offers a real different range of experiences and identities. I initially wanted this programme to focus solely on fat femme bodies, but I realised that it felt much more exciting to open up that focus to show how well short films are doing the work when it comes to fatness.

Was there anything that surprised you while researching and selecting the films for this season?

I wasn’t surprised so much as I was frustrated when looking at lists of ‘The Best Fat Films’ and ‘Top Fat Actors’ – the same names and films kept coming up time and time again. I know it’s easy to put Hairspray and Bridesmaids on a list because they’re hugely popular films, but it doesn’t take long to research a film that’s a bit less well-known, like Dee Rees’ Bessie which features Queen Latifah and Monique as fully-realised fat black queer women. I think we definitely need to work on diversity within fat representation, but hopefully once we start seeing the representation itself, that will get easier.

What are your hopes for the future of fat representation in cinema?

I want us to properly archive the past and the history of fatness in cinema. I am by no means a historian, but I’m trying to do that with my Instagram page dedicated to fatness in film and I hope that more research can be done into this subject. And I hope that the fat stars we currently have will keep working, and have long and rich careers in a variety of roles. Let’s just get Brian Tyree Henry into every single film so I can stop annoying everyone on social media by going on about him all the time!

Reframing the Fat Body takes place at the Barbican on Saturday 5 December.

Published 3 Dec 2020

Tags: Barbican Grace Barber-Plentie Reframing the Fat Body

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