The first thing we watched on the 1980s Trinitron someone had given my boyfriend was Friends. It was a giant, heavy, wood-effect thing, and when we got it we were amazed by the massive picture, after years of watching on the portable telly I had taken from my childhood bedroom. “Whoa,” I said, marvelling at the 32-inch screen, “come and see what the Friends titles look like on this.”
I was 22 when Friends began. In 1992 I was, essentially, the age of the Friends. But I wasn’t like any of them. I was fat, and all the Friends were rail-thin and played by thin actors who, in the cases of the women – and to some extent Matthew Perry – became thinner and thinner as the show became more and more successful.
And then – but then – halfway through the second season, Friends aired the first of its flashback episodes, and there was Fat Monica.
There. She. Was.
Monica – Monica played by the Hollywood-slender Courteney Cox – used to be fat. And, oh, I loved Fat Monica.
I've always been fat. I was a fat toddler (the one time of life it is OK to be fat), a fat child and a fat teen. For fat twentysomething me, Friends was just another TV show, where no one looked like I did. There were no fat young women on TV who looked like me – certainly not young, attractive, smart, heroic ones. In fact, none of my heroes were fat. Not Press Gang’s Lynda Day, not Buffy Summers, nor Nyssa of Traken. I knew I could never grow up to be like them unless I lost weight.
And as a fat kid, losing weight was something I tried and failed continually to do through my teens and twenties. Once, the school nurse explained to me how much harder it would be for me to lose weight when I was older, and suggested I swap my after-school snack of a chocolate biscuit for a Ryvita with cheese.
I tried all the diets, and I failed at all the diets. Tried, even though I knew dieting was impossible, even as I drank Slim-Fast in the garden of my student house with my similarly fat sister. I knew all the mantras: almost everyone regains the weight, the game is rigged from the start. But I also knew this was a basic physics problem, right? Everyone is wholly in charge of the size of their body and that is based on a simple equation: weight of cake eaten minus number of stairs climbed equals a less ample arse. Also known as calories in, calories out.
So it was simple, but it was also impossible. And so of course I failed at it, and my failure meant I was stupid. It made me sad. Constantly failing to accomplish the one thing you are convinced will make life bearable, will make you an acceptable human, like the awesome women on TV, makes a person sad.
But I loved Fat Monica. OK, I was also terribly conflicted about Fat Monica. I didn’t want to like her. Not at all. I knew Fat Monica was a joke at my expense. I knew Fat Monica existed to mock me and bodies like mine. A joke fatty to laugh at, played by a thin actor in a fatsuit. Not a real fat person, but a gross mockery of one whose only purpose on the show was cheap laughs and to humiliate uptight present-day Thin Monica.
When fatsuited Courteney Cox danced as Fat Monica, her enthusiastic padded body gyrating prompted gales of laughter from the audience. The joke was that Fat Monica should know she shouldn’t dance this way. She was fat. Had no one told her she had no business moving her body around and drawing attention to it in public?
I complained: No fat person would dance like that, with such a lack of self-consciousness, I said. You could tell Fat Monica was really a thin person covered in foam and latex, and not a real fat person. But then I realised that part of the brilliance of Fat Monica was that she was precisely that. She was not that fat person who has a thin person inside, she was simply a person whose body happened to be a different shape.
Fat Monica laughed, and Fat Monica desired. Oh, the lust of Fat Monica! Yes, she ate all the time, but on the other hand, SHE ATE ALL THE TIME. Her opinions on low-fat mayonnaise were well known: “It’s not mayonnaise!” Fat Monica ate publicly and unashamedly because she wanted to, and food is delicious. Having fun at a college party, she ordered herself a pizza and yelled out excitedly to claim it when it was delivered. I was amazed. Seeing a fat person order some food she wanted and claim it unabashed in a room full of people! Were we allowed to do that? Didn’t we have to keep still and quiet, and certainly not be seen eating anything, ever – all in the vain hope that maybe, if we tried really hard, people around us might somehow not notice that we’re fat?
But Fat Monica didn’t care. Fat Monica kept on dancing with a slice of pizza in her hand.
The joke of Fat Monica was that she didn’t even seem to realise how "grotesque" she was (most of the time). We weren't just supposed to be laughing at her fatness, we were laughing at how clueless she was about it. But then I spotted a loophole this "cluelessness" offered up: an interpretation in which Monica was fine with her fatness.
I’d never heard of such a thing. The idea of being fine about being fat was revolutionary to me. I had been led to believe that unless I could stop being fat, all I could do was be ashamed of it. And unlike losing weight, being ashamed of being fat was something I could do, something I have been training for all my life. But Fat Monica wasn’t ashamed.
And Fat Monica did know she was fat. The jokes that she was clueless about it weren't the truth. The people around Fat Monica often did shame her for being fat, and usually she would cheerily dismiss it. But when she overheard her crush, Chandler, call her fat, she broke down in tears. These were not the tears of someone who's just found out that they are fat; they were the tears of a young fat girl who knows she’s fat, and knows she can’t “fix” it, and knows some boys will always reject her because of it. So she tries to live her life without being weighed down by the shame other people think she should feel.
There was another, less triumphant, aspect of my love for the character. Fat Monica was the past self of present-day Thin Monica, and that was a part of the appeal. The fact that she eventually became thin undoubtedly made it easier for me to love her. Being fat was still wrong and shameful to me, but loving Fat Monica in all her joyful, lasagna-loving glory was safe. Fat acceptance is difficult when you’ve spent your whole life waiting to be thin. The idea of accepting the truth of the situation – that fatness may be the way your body is going to be forever – can be plain horrifying because being fat can be hard and sometimes the idea it is not a permanent state is the only thing you’ve got.
It’s been 40 years and I’m still fat and I’ll probably never know what it is like to not be fat. But back when I was watching Fat Monica, I was a long way from accepting that.
So while it’s maybe not as exciting or positive about fatness to say that one of the reasons I loved Fat Monica was that she was only temporarily fat, it was one of the reasons I could allow myself to love her at all.
Fat Monica turned out to have cleverer, subtler things to say about losing weight than I first realised. She was a consummate takedown of the Fantasy of Being Thin – the idea that, if you lose that weight you desperately want to lose, every part of your life will improve. Since our teen days spent drinking Slim-Fast in the garden, my fat sister had lost weight. The fantasy of being thin is all about imagining the life your thin self would led, but I didn’t need to imagine it. My sister was a thin version of me, and her life was just as normal.
The character of Monica may have slyly suggested that losing weight is just a matter of willpower – as easy as shedding a studio fatsuit – but truly, looking at the two Monicas, who’d really choose the fastidious, controlled life of neat-freak Thin Monica over Fat Monica’s lust for life, pizza, and young Chandler Bing? It was even confirmed to us explicitly in the parallel universe episode: If Monica had never lost weight she’d still have found love with Chandler. Weight loss may be something you can do, but essentially, there is no point to it. You can still have everything you want while fat. Being unashamed is an option.
Fat Monica started as a problematic joke in the absence of anything better, but she became a role model for me – one of the most radical fat role models ever seen on TV.
Fat Monica wasn’t just Courteney Cox in a fatsuit. She was my truth.