Renee Zellweger is starring in the new series The Truth About Pam, now streaming on Amazon Prime. For the role of convicted murderer Pamela Hupp, Zellweger is wearing a fat suit.
Of the costume, she says: “It was pretty much head to toe. It was prosthetics, it was a [padded] suit, it was the choice of clothing, it was the briskness in her step-step-step, her gait.”
I have a question. Why was a thin woman cast in this role in the first place? Fat suits are offensive and outdated – they need consigning to the dustbin of film and TV history. They’re not funny, although they’re most often played for laughs – see “Fat Monica” in Friends, who audiences were supposed to find hilarious for simply… dancing while fat, or flirting with Chandler while fat.
More than this, fat suits send the message that there aren’t talented plus-size actors available to fulfil roles that require someone with a larger body. This is absolutely not the case, and it comes mere months after Stranger Things star Shannon Purser, who played Barb (who absolutely deserved better), spoke out about the lack of body diversity in Hollywood.
On Twitter, Purser wrote: “They’re not hiring fat actors for iconic fat characters because they want a big-name star. There are almost no fat big-name stars because fat actors aren’t allowed upward mobility. We aren’t allowed upward mobility because the industry sees us as two-dimensional set pieces.”
Casting Zellweger and costuming her in a fat suit absolutely proves Purser’s point – it’s regressive fatphobia. Body diversity, although it has perhaps improved fractionally, is still woefully lacking in Hollywood. Leading roles are almost invariably handed out to people with thin, athletic body types. And when they’re not, actors are forced to deal with disgusting levels of body shaming – both on set, and on social media – as in the case of Yellowjackets star Melanie Lynskey.
Zellweger responded to criticism in a new interview, saying: “Look, you want to be respectful and responsible. There’s always a limit to how much you can establish an authentic approximation without being distracting.”
Well, the most respectful course of action here would’ve been to cast an actor with a body shape that more closely aligns with the character – not putting a thin woman in a padded suit.
This is not to say that Zellweger isn’t a good actor, but the fat suit negates the talent of those who could’ve risen to the challenge of this role, without needing to wear full body padding, or fatness as a costume.
People with larger bodies still face discrimination, from employers and health professionals – which is incredibly dangerous – in educational settings, gyms and relationships. Negative bias against fat bodies is perpetuated through stereotyping (people who are heavier are “lazy” or “greedy” or “lack self-control”) and weight stigma can prevent people from accessing life-saving medical treatment.
In 2018, research from the British Liver Trust found that weight discrimination is the most common form of discrimination in the UK. It’s even referred to as a “socially acceptable injustice”, due to the widespread and deeply rooted nature of this bias.
The media, including film and TV, has a part to play here. If roles that require larger bodies are given to thin actors in padded suits, it taps into the belief that plus-size actors are unworthy of being hired.
This is exclusion and discrimination in action. It sends a clear message that anyone who’s bigger than the problematic Hollywood “standard” of privileged thinness – particularly in terms of female actors – is not worthy of professional respect, or the chance to excel in leading roles.
This isn’t the narrow-minded 1990s or early 2000s – all bodies are valid. Cast fat actors in leading roles. And leave the padded suits in the past, where they belong.