The Thick and Thin of It

 Is fat funny? In this world today, when one group of people complains, “You can’t say anything anymore,” and another group says, “Hey, when you say this it feels hurtful to me,” it’s easy to see how some people may find themselves smushed in between the two disparate camps.

     Recently, I was watching a re-run of the sitcom Friends, and come on, who doesn’t love that show? I still howl with laughter when I see the Chandler in the Box episode. This particular episode had Courtney Cox as younger Monica in a fat suit, as we all know Monica spent her youth overweight and only post-high school did she emerge as the slim swan who resided in NYC with her equally svelte friends.

Chubby Monica dancing with a donut.

     So what was fat Monica like? She wore an ugly, outdated sweatsuit. She was jolly and full of effervescence. A right little bubble of a personality to resemble her bubble of a body. She didn’t come off as particularly smart and she was constantly shoving food in her mouth in an uncivilized way because after all, isn’t that what every fat person you know does?

     The studio audience howled with laughter at her antics, but I was conflicted. And I felt similarly when I first saw the episode back in the 90’s. 

     You see, I was a chubby kid. I wasn’t always fat, but in my later elementary years the weight started to pack on, despite the fact that I was really active. In my youth, I played softball, basketball, and soccer, but my favorite physical activity was always dance. (Fun fact, I still get my groove on in a Wednesday evening jazz class!) In addition to all those hobbies, I was a straight-A student, won the lead role in a couple of musical productions, and was a good friend to many people.

     But here’s the thing: despite the fact that I did well at all these activities and enjoyed myself, I was always made to feel like there was something wrong with me simply because I was fat. It was as if there was a little recording that played on a loop, “Yes Jenny, you are talented, kind, and you work hard, but you have to change this one aspect about yourself and then you will be accepted.”

     These messages, both explicitly and implicitly stated, never failed to let me know that I was not good enough just as I was. If I truly wanted recognition and praise I had to lose weight in order to get it. And believe me, I really wanted recognition and praise. What human being doesn’t want to be seen? 

       So when I see fat people being made fun of, written off as unworthy, or shown in a derogatory way, I have to pause and question it. Why is it so funny?

     “Oh Jen,” I’ve often been told, “you have to learn how to laugh at yourself!”

      But why? Why do I have to learn to laugh at the shape of my body? Is it really that funny? Why can’t we just change the narrative instead? It’s just a shape and quite frankly, it’s not such a terrible shape. 

       Now, bear with me. I just put little horns atop my head and got my red cape. I need to play devil’s advocate here because I must admit that I too have laughed at some fat jokes. Let’s recall Chris Farley’s little ditty in the movie Tommy Boy…”Fat guy in a little coat.” Now come on, sway and twirl just like he did as you sing with me this time, “Fat guy in a little coat.” It was funny.

     But I wonder. It probably would have been just as funny if he was a skinny guy in a big coat. It was the way he said it, how danced, and the fact that he was poking fun at himself with a ridiculous expression and an even more ridiculous personality.  

    Comedians often say it is through comedy that we push boundaries, make people feel uncomfortable, and get them thinking. This is true. I will also admit that sometimes it is fun to be in a place where taboo things can be said. I will often chuckle at something really irreverent simply because, well, it’s irreverent. 

     But the bottom line is, we can push past limits, poke fun, and incite discomfort when there’s a greater meaning to be gleaned, and not just to be mean. There’s a boundary for everything, though I think there are moments we all struggle to find where that boundary might fall.

     I also believe PC doesn’t always have to mean politically correct. Maybe it can mean people-centered. We can stop bellyaching about not being able to freely make the comments we used to because people are “too damn sensitive,” and we can take a moment to think about whether or not the comment really is funny, as we consider the stereotypes and hurts we may be perpetuating. Let’s listen to each other.

A candid shot but we can see she is beautiful and respectfully portrayed, as every person should be.

     So as I snuggled up with my daughter the other night to watch an episode of Gilmore Girls, I felt much better seeing Sookie, played by Melissa McCarthy, in the spotlight. Sookie, is a character who is beautiful, cooly-dressed, successful, smart, and skilled. Period. Nary a fat joke in sight. We make fun of her because she is clumsy and obsessed with being good at what she does. Oh darn! Now I’ve just pissed off the awkward people and high achievers of the world. Sheesh, you can’t say anything anymore…

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