Fatter IRL Shows How The Art World Is Letting Fat Women Down

Photo by Shoog McDaniel

Chances are, we’re fatter in real life

The average American woman is a size 16. But she is also invisible. Our cultural sphere's continued erasure of bigger women is a huge problem, as is its insistence of only promoting what society deems conventionally attractive: white, heterosexual, cisgendered, and thin women. And it is exactly this problem that Brooklyn, New York art exhibit "Fatter IRL," which includes shrines to stalkers, unorthodox ethical feminist porn screenings, felt vaginas, and more all paying tribute to big, beautiful women, seeks to rectify.

Staged by artist and curator Annie Rose, "Fatter IRL" leaves the pretension that can be typical of the art world at the door. Though each piece is reflective of the struggles this diverse set of women and gender non-conforming artists have undergone throughout their lives, the hierarchal division between artist and viewer, creator and admirer is broken down through the humorous and relatable theme that runs through most of the exhibit—a tongue-in-cheek tone displayed in so much of the artwork and clearly intrinsic to the artists' identities. Humor aside, "Fatter IRL" also displays the tenderness of fat women that many non-fat artists, writers, and creatives often fail to identify. 

Photo by Rochelle Brock (Courtesy of Annie Rose)

Through this exhibition, Rose wants to remind the world that fat and beautiful are not separate identities. Being fat does not disengage agency, denote ugliness or stupidity, does not devalue talent or credibility. And while Rose aims to enlighten the viewer on the truth of fat existence, when it comes down to it, "Fatter IRL" is by and for fat women of the world. Through all the stigmas, immense stereotypes, and beyond, Rose encourages “fat people to celebrate fat people.”

Perhaps a surprise to some, the shiny pink bow that ties the whole exhibit together is its roots in advocacy and representation for sex workers and the very special relationship that exists between fatness and sex work. Rose, whose former ties in sex work allowed her to access a slew of artists from that field, says that sex work is one of the few arenas where fat women are celebrated. 

“I find that the sex work community is one of the only places that talks about fatness. When you are a sex worker, you can't ignore what you look like, and what your demographic is going to be,” Rose says. “I noticed that sex workers are the first people to be like, 'I'm fat! I'm BBW [Big Beautiful Women],' because our livelihood depends on it.”

This exhibit closes Saturday November 5, with an enticing party that’s open to all, but Rose and I sat down to discuss some of the resounding themes and feelings that have made "Fatter IRL" so groundbreaking.

Why is it important to make a show like "Fatter IRL"?
I feel like fat people are not celebrated outside of social media. People will like pictures of fat people, but they won't date them. I'll see people liking my photos or being like, "You're a badass!" But I don't see them having any fat friends or dating fat people ever. I'm not saying you have to date everybody to be an ethical person. I just don't ever see the worship of fat people that's not in a sex work context, with men who seek BBW being the worshippers. I wanted fat people to celebrate fat people.

Were there any difficulties in putting "Fatter IRL" together?
It's a really hard thing to organize because fat people are very used to shrinking, not wanting to call attention to the fact that you are fat. Which I think is part of why it's so big on the internet; it's kind of what the title of the show is, it's a play on that—"Fatter IRL"—and we always feel like we have to tailor our image and try and shrink ourselves down as much as possible, but chances are we are fatter in real life. 

How did you pick the artists to feature?
It's a lot of people who had a big social media following but who don't get recognition as artists because they are fat. I noticed that in the art world, the people that get the most representation, even if it's queer or feminist art, are still conventionally attractive, thin white people. I think beauty politics plays itself out very much in the art world. People who are deemed more attractive get more attention, and I also think that there is this hierarchy of what is and isn't high art. I really just wanted to get together all these different mediums that kind of have the same feel, they all have the same aesthetic going on, very personal, very feminine.

How do you feel this exhibit helps to break down the negative stereotypes of fatness?
A lot of people find fat bodies, on the surface, as disgusting, but who knows what people really feel? BBW porn is one of the most watched categories. Big Beautiful Women. The most watched are the most hated people: BBW, trans women and black women, and Asian women are the most watched.

Because we've set up these standards and repressed the ability and allowance to be attracted to these different people and different body types.
Exactly! It becomes a fetish; it becomes subversive for people when they are attracted to fat people. Really, you're just attracted to a person. And then people make it a part of their identity that they are attracted to fat people because it's such a subversive thing. The idea that people could actively desire and prefer fat people is shocking. It's always uncomfortable for people to realize that they could be attracted to a fat person. This show is uncomfortable for people because it's hard for people to see fat people thriving and flourishing because we put so much self-hate into people in our culture that there is the emphasize on the necessity to exercising and how it all leads to success, and the people who aren’t doing so are thus failing. When people see fat people being fat and having others love them, even though they are fat, I think people get really angry and upset because it's like what was it all for? All those years of making sure they don't look like that, and here are these fat people doing their thing and doing it well. 

Artwork by Chuck Charlotte/Image by Cassidy Dawn Graves (Courtesy of Annie Rose)

In a sense, "Fatter IRL" is not only the curation of artwork, but the curation of space, specifically generating an environment of acceptance, love, and freedom. How has that affected the people who have come to see the show?
People felt really comfortable around the work, around work that represents them. When an art gallery is only showing work by skinny white people, why would people come out for something they don't feel welcome at? You don't ever represent them. We had all different kinds of people here because we had all different kinds of artists. Geographically, racially diverse, sexually diverse artists. People were touched to see people like them, represented in a beautiful way. 

How does "Fatter IRL" change the stigma of being fat, particularly in the art world?
Being a fat person, you see these images, and it's so eye opening. I spent so many years hating myself, but I am awesome! There's a running stereotype that you can't take beautiful images of fat people. But I think it's that people don't know how to do it, they don't know how to dress them. Yesterday, I was thinking about shoots where they take these skinny models and put them in these industrial spaces to photograph them. I was thinking about fat people in that space, and I realized I wouldn't put a fat body in a hard, cold industrial space because I am fat and I know how to make fat people look good. I would put a fat person in an environment that reflects the softness, somewhere that truly emphasizes the beauty. People just don't know how to do that. And they're also lazy and just don't want to do it!

A male point of view seems to be missing from this show. Was that intentional?
I asked fat men to be in the show, but no one answered me. I think fat men consider it less a part of their identity because men are allowed to take up space. The one time I want them, they don't show up. The one time we want you to be around! There are people of all genders in this show, I didn't discriminate based on gender—it was only if you are fat. It just so happened that women and gender non-conforming people are the ones who followed through. 

Why do you think the negative stigma of fatness affects men differently than it affects women and gender-nonconforming people?
I honestly believe that most of it is rooted in misogyny and women not being able to take up space. I think for fat men, it's a type. People like big cuddly teddy bear men. It's very different.

What was the overall goal of "Fatter IRL"?
I always say visibility is a great thing because people feel validated seeing themselves represented. But for fat people especially, visibility can be really tricky because fat people are hyper-visible, people who are marginalized and oppressed are hyper-visible, people of color and visibly queer people are hyper-visible. So that opens people up to harassment and just maliciousness. It’s a very double-edged sword, so I really wanted to create a space that was made by a fat person, and mediated visibility, an environment where the artists are celebrated and loved automatically. People come because they think this is a great thing and they want to see it.


Photo by Jacqueline Mary (Courtesy of Annie Rose).

Why is removing the negative stigma behind fatness so important to you?
Fat acceptance is literally beneficial for everyone. If one group of people isn't living freely, then none of us are. If everyone is always comparing themselves to fat people on this bizarre standard of body hierarchies, you are never going to be happy with your own body either. You're always going to be worried that you look like that, or you're always going to think that you're better because you don't look like that. To accept fat people for how they are is beneficial for every person, because then people can't prey on our insecurities. Consumerist, capitalist culture can't play on our insecurities if we don't let them. The diet industry is huge because they make sure people hate themselves. Eliminating racism, eliminating homophobia and misogyny is beneficial for literally everyone. It's the same with fat acceptance.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.