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Feature films are notoriously underrepresentative of bigger women (except as punch lines), with only a handful of movie stars larger than a size 8. Meanwhile, 70 percent of American adults clock in as overweight. Even the fashion industry has been more responsive, with a plus-size U.S. market estimated at $30.7 billion in 2019, according to Coresight Research, and such designers and brands as Christian Siriano and luxury retailer 11 Honoré making an impact on the red carpet.
But television has started stepping up: In the past two years, shows like Hulu’s Shrill, HBO’s Insecure and Euphoria, NBC’s This Is Us and TNT’s Claws have been showcasing actors with varying body types. “It’s so limiting to be told, ‘This is how we see you,'” says Riverdale‘s Shannon Purser. “It’s so possible to be fat and happy, and people need to know that — fat girls can be sexy.”
Here, in separate interviews, five body-positive actresses reveal their experiences in Hollywood today.
When you read scripts, are they written specifically for plus-size women?
BARBIE FERREIRA, EUPHORIA I was getting auditions that were for smaller characters who didn’t have anything interesting other than being big-boned or plump or all these words that [mean] best friend. When I read Euphoria, I was like, “Oh my God, there are layers to this character.” Her body insecurity is an aspect of what she feels but not the entire story or motivation.
NATASHA ROTHWELL, INSECURE It’s hard to dissect whether it’s racial prejudice or sizeism. There are euphemistic descriptions like “jolly,” when [they] want to say fat and black. There’s never something egregious because everyone from casting directors to people tasked to write the descriptions think they’re super smart. I have not seen, “Give me a fat, black comedy person who is good at pratfalls.” If you have someone like me doing a story anyone else could do — like there’s a script you could cast Kristen Bell in and you put me in — it’s inherently subversive.
SHANNON PURSER, RIVERDALE It’s extremely rare for me to be cast in a role that hasn’t been written for a fat person, which is frustrating. A lot of the roles I get are incredibly stereotypical. I remember a script a few years ago that I loved, a dystopian Lord of the Flies story. The lead was written to be a plus-size character, and it was so badass.
They ended up casting a straight-sized actress. That was disheartening; it is rare to get good, complex roles written for fat women. I look at my career trajectory and at some of my actor friends’ who are straight sized, and the amount of auditions I get are significantly less. I’ve had some frank conversations with my team, like, “OK, we’re not getting as many auditions or a lot of these parts are dehumanizing, so what can we do?”
AIDY BRYANT, SHRILL AND SNL It’s almost 50-50. A lot of things I’ve been sent over the years were not written with a person’s body size in mind. I felt conscious of my body carrying connotations where I can’t help but be representative of a fat woman. Even though the role wasn’t written to be, “This fat woman hits her head and suddenly men are falling in love with her,” I am representative of that group, so suddenly it’s a fat woman who hits her head. But I was also sent stuff where it was an ugly girl. I’m like, “Well, I don’t think that’s true,” but thankfully I am in a position where I can pass.
How do you feel knowing that there are those body connotations?
BRYANT It was part of the intent of creating Shrill. I’ve probably exorcized some demons in writing it and performing it. We’re about to release the second season, and the exciting thing is, we’ve moved past some of the body stuff and get into her life beyond it. I don’t want to say there’s no body element to the story; that’s not true at all. But it’s definitely post-epiphany for her. She’s woken up to a different point of view on her body. It’s very fun this season to see her step up and do her own thing.
What’s your strategy for getting parts?
PURSER Sometimes I’ll go on an audition and they are not looking for a fat girl, but who cares? Maybe they’ll change their minds. It’s unfortunate that’s part of my job, proving that I deserve to be there. And creating my own stuff, writing my own material.
NIECY NASH, CLAWS There is value to submitting for roles that are not specifically called for plus-size. It’s inviting the industry to think a bit differently. Or if it’s nondescript. You don’t have to wait for them to ask for a specific body type. And sometimes [your team] may have to pick up the phone and encourage a casting director to think outside the box. When it came to [geriatric comedy series] Getting On, [my] character was written for a 60-year-old white woman. I auditioned for a different character, but because I was prepared, I said, “Can I also read for this?” They said, “No, we don’t see you as this character.” But I was so passionate about it, they allowed me to audition. After my audition, they booked me.
What types of roles do you want to do more of?
NASH It was challenging to get in to do drama because everybody put a label on me: “Oh, she’s the comedian. She’s the chubby girl, the sidekick for the ingenue.” Here I am, now playing a lead and a sex symbol who is having sex for her own pleasure on Claws. All different body types can be badass.
When have you encountered unconscious bias as an actress?
ROTHWELL Always? It’s not just as an actress. You’re moving through the world as someone who is not straight sized. That bias exists, and it could be from the really strong, intense belief from a costumer that “It’ll fit.” I love that face, that confidence. But reality met with that kind of optimism often is painful.
BRYANT Part of Saturday Night Live is a reflection of the culture. When we do scenes that are a bunch of impressions of people, it’s very unlikely that there’s a fat woman. It’s the sheer quantity of impressions that my castmates can do based on looking like these people that’s drastically different for me.
FERREIRA All the time. If I’m going in for a love interest, I am aware that someone might not see me that way and typecast me as not the “attractive” one.
Natasha, you said working with costume designers can be challenging. How so?
ROTHWELL One of the most intimate relationships on set is with the person who’s designing costumes. They are touching your body. I found success in articulating what I felt comfortable with. Those conversations have been met positively. The more disastrous moments have been when I haven’t had the courage to speak out about what I’m feeling good in or if something [doesn’t] fit.
NASH I always bring clothes just in case. But for the most part, that’s the department that gets it right because they buy multiples. If you say you wear an 8, they’ll have an 8, 10, 12. I just worked with Salvador Pérez on Mindy Kaling’s new show Never Have I Ever, and every single thing on that rack not only fit, but I loved the look. Our costumer Dolores Ybarra on Claws does an amazing job. We are not only different sizes, but I’m going to pull these air quotes from heaven and say “women of a certain age.” And we are still, as my grandmother would say, very fetching.
FERREIRA If the costumer is open to it, I send links and mood boards. I call stylists, costumers, and try to tell them how to find things that fit me that still look good or still look like the character. For Euphoria, I recommended Zana Bayne, who does all my leather harnesses because she makes them in her shop and she’s the same size as I am. I’ve recommended ASOS pants because pants are difficult. People assume that pants will fit, and they never do.
And a lot of the clothes are mine. I wore my Miu Miu glasses for the first few episodes. [Costume designer] Heidi [Bivens] is incredible. She went into my closet and picked out some stuff. With Euphoria, it’s so much based off us and then exaggerated. But a lot of it has the essence of who we are and how we dress. I had this Gaultier top that’s mine that I wore in one of the scenes.
What’s it been like with red carpet designers?
ROTHWELL We’re in a very special time where they make couture in sizes above 16. You have companies like 11 Honoré, where it’s like, “Oh, here’s something that these amazing runway designers have made with me in mind.” It’s being on a carpet and looking down, like, “Oh, the price tag of the thing I’m wearing is substantial,” and that makes my shoulders go back and have more excitement about walking down a carpet. And I work with one of a few plus-size stylists, Meaghan O’Connor, [where] there’s a shorthand. The sad note of it all is like, “Oh shit, skinny bitches be doing this forever.” They’ve just been having closetful of shit and having so many options. It’s nice to finally get to play dress-up.
BRYANT I’ve had weird experiences with stylists where they seem to be like, “There’s no way. I have two dresses, and that’s all I could find.” I just know that one, not to be true, and two, get creative. That’s your job.
PURSER Tadashi Shoji has dressed me a few times. Navabi makes some really beautiful clothes in plus sizes. I’m wearing stuff from Eloquii and ASOS. Christian [Siriano] makes the most beautiful clothes for everyone, any body type, any gender or identity. That’s really been a rarity. I was so lucky he made me a dress for my first awards show, but there are very few others willing to do that. I don’t really get offers to go to fashion shows. A lot of my peers were going to tons of them. I know it’s because they don’t have clothes that would fit me to dress me to come to their show.
NASH When you get nominated for something, one would think you have your pick of gowns. But no one is calling you because you’re not the body type they want to dress. Sometimes you have stylists who are not skilled at dressing a curvier girl because most of their clients are sample sizes. And there’s nothing more devastating than going to a photo shoot and you can’t fit [into] anything. Most of [the clothes] are cut only in a 2 or a 4.
Aidy, you decided to make your own clothing brand, called Pauline, with stylist Remy Pearce. Why?
BRYANT I definitely don’t have dreams of becoming the next Gap. It was more practical. I wasn’t finding a ton of options that I loved to wear to events and red carpets and meetings. So together with my stylists, we started making a lot more custom pieces. I was getting so much feedback from sweet young ladies being like, “Oh my God, where did you get that dress?” and I was like, “Ugh, you can’t get it.” I have access to all these tailors and stylists and fancy people and they’re helping me get these fun clothes. It was just like. “I see how we could easily give these patterns to a factory and churn out a couple of these.” And so that’s exactly what we did.
Do you ever meet plus-size executives?
PURSER Very rarely, which is another part of the conversation for sure.
Which executives or creatives have been supportive?
BRYANT Lorne [Michaels], number one, absolutely all-time. I always felt that Lorne met me right where I was, and that has been extremely empowering. I don’t know that every other exec in the world would do that. He really understands — it’s the reason he’s helped so many people achieve their dreams — being an individual is a good thing. I was getting ready to pitch Shrill, and basically said, “Look, I don’t want to leave SNL right now. I’d like to do both, and I think that I can, but I want to be clear, I want to write the show and produce it, and that’s going to mean splitting my time.” And he was like, “This is what you were meant to do.” I mean, I cried. It’s like somebody giving you the keys and saying, “Go.” It really meant everything to me. He said some stuff to me that I’ll take to the grave. It’s just so sweet. He was like, “This is how audiences are meant to see you,” like Shrill versus SNL. Because I’ve always loved working at SNL. But I always was like, “Oh, there’s a quieter side of myself that I can’t really always express at this show,” and I get to do that on Shrill.
What advice would you give fat women in any industry?
FERREIRA Realizing that there will be a lot of pain and insecurity before you really have your aha moment, where you’re like, “Oh this is other people’s perceptions of me and not what I think of myself.” Just listen and understand people’s struggles and don’t dismiss them.
Is there pressure to represent the plus-size community?
BRYANT I didn’t get into comedy to be a body-positive activist warrior. But pretty quickly, I realized my mere existence was like a little bit of an act of rebellion. It just felt, in a lot of ways, easier to take that on and help than trying to fight against and act like it wasn’t true.
PURSER It can be a lot of pressure because there are so few of us that I feel like I want to be a good role model. I want people to be able to feel represented or validated when they see my work. It can be a lot to put on myself at times. It is impossible and nobody should be held to that standard.
ROTHWELL Some days it might feel like pressure, but for the most part it’s a joy to have the privilege to be able to do exactly what I’ve been hoping for my whole career and to do my best to hold the door open for whoever is willing to walk through it, who looks like me in any way. I gladly carry the torch.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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