We need more fat characters on TV: fat characters who are complex and dynamic, who have characteristics beyond being fat, who express goals that aren’t just losing weight, and who remind viewers that there is nothing wrong with fat bodies and that “fat” is not a bad word. That’s a tall order, given the dearth of fat people on television — when they do show up, it’s often as a punchline.
I’ll admit that I was instantly smitten by Kate on This Is Us. It helped, of course, that Chrissy Metz is a talented and charismatic actor. Watching the pilot, I was worried that she might fall into the tropes of fat representation — her character felt a little one-dimensional. She did things like put “Do not dare eat this” Post-it Notes on cake and made grand statements like “I ate my dream life away.” But I was willing to keep watching and let the writers continue to flesh her out.
Kate certainly did develop and reveal more depth throughout the season, but her arc returned time and again to her weight loss. That was reinforced when Metz revealed that she was contractually obligated to lose weight, an assertion she later walked back. Whatever the details, her character’s arc was built around weight loss from its inception.
Meanwhile, Chris Sullivan, who plays Kate’s fiancé Toby, wears a fat suit, indicative of his character’s eventual weight loss — despite his initial resistance. Is it realistic that someone Kate’s size would think about her weight often? Sure. But it would be a whole lot more powerful for fat fans of This Is Us if they were allowed to experience fat positivity through her, if her journey could be one of learning to love her body as it is, instead of the relentless focus on how fatness is holding Kate back.
I realize that’s asking a lot for network television, given, again, the lack of fat characters on TV. It’s refreshing that This Is Us decided to tell Kate’s story and to cast an actual fat actor instead of (as with Sullivan’s Toby) an actor wearing a fat suit. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge the representation and ask for more: It’s easy to fall back on the familiar narrative of weight loss, but it’s also lazy for any viewer, and especially disappointing for viewers who are fat. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with losing weight, or that there aren’t stories to be mined from it: It’s that the show could do plenty with the character while also empowering viewers who rarely get to see themselves onscreen. Metz is clearly up to the challenge. Let’s hope Season 2 continues that trend and ditches the Post-Its for good. —Louis Peitzman