Paltrow: Glenn Watson
November 27, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Fat jokes are offensive, says Allison Anders

EW.com senior writer Liane Bonin recently wrote an article which asked ”Does ‘Shallow Hal’ poke fun at heavy women?” Director Allison Anders (”Things Behind the Sun,” ”Mi Vida Loca”) thinks the answer to that question is yes. She wrote to share her thoughts with EW.com; what follows is an excerpt from her email.

Understand upfront — I am not generally offended by ”Shallow Hal,” or the Farrelly Brothers, or the fine actors involved (Jack Black is not only a brilliant actor and as cool as Gram Parsons, he’s as sexy too!) But I am offended by the increasing use in movies of prosthetic blubber. This practice of skinny actresses donning fat suits is essentially the new and acceptable blackface in Hollywood.

Furthermore, I cannot get over how much worse Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts before her, make the problem with their comments to the press about what it was like to sport the fat suit for the day (while, let us not forget for a second, getting paid millions to do it). Remarks by these two otherwise intelligent actresses seem absolutely outrageous if you substitute racial words for all the references to weight. For instance, substitute ”Latina” for ”overweight” in the following:

Gwyneth Paltrow to Entertainment Tonight: ”I got a real sense of what it would be like to be that overweight, and every pretty girl should be forced to do that.”

Or substitute ”blackface” for ”fat suit” in this one:

”We all have days [when] we do not look our best or we don’t feel comfortable in our own skin. But you have no idea until you get into a 350-pound fat suit what it’s like…”

And let’s not let ”America’s Sweetheart” off the hook:

Julia Roberts to Oprah on the process of getting into the fat suit (it took so long that the make-up artists offered to let her take a nap): ”If I go to sleep and wake up 60 pounds heavier, I may never sleep again.”

Now try substituting the words gay, Asian, Native American, Jewish, mentally ill, etc. for all the references to weight. I mean honestly — can you imagine anyone in the industry getting by with saying something like that in the press about a racial or ethnic group, or gays or lesbians, or the disabled?

While Paltrow contends that ”Shallow Hal” is about uncovering a woman’s inner beauty — that concept is in itself insulting to women who have never shared her teensy dress size. Do we have to be rail thin to possess ”outer beauty” and sex appeal and to be capable of attracting lovers? (Honey, I KNOW, as a girl who has rarely been smaller than size 12, that this is definitely not the case!) But again if you changed the issue from fat to black or Latino or Asian — to infer that a person of color could not possess physical beauty but could (patronizingly) possess inner beauty would be an insanely offensive remark to make, and she’d be run outta town for saying such a thing!

Like Sally E. Smith says in EW’s piece, overeating is seldom the reason why people are overweight. Sometimes it’s because of genetics and inherited metabolism that is ancient in our cells. Sometimes it’s a result of binge dieting by trying to meet the unrealistic ideals set up by the glorification of movie stars and models. Sometimes it’s because of trauma and abuse, including rape, childhood molestation, and incest where we form a wall around us to keep us safe, long after it’s necessary. And sometimes it’s economic, a result of poverty, a childhood diet where food was scarce or unpredictable and a cycle of starvation and famine was followed by normal eating; sadly, the cells in our bodies may not know we are no longer starving. While we can work hard at improving our health, size is no more in our control than the color of our skin, our ethnicity, or our sexual preference.

I feel for Paltrow in that by trying to talk about her experience making this movie, she became an apologist who dug herself deeper and deeper into a hole. At best, her comments treat all plus size women as noble savages (with inner beauty, of course) who are hilarious when they bust a chair on a date or create tidal waves by jumping in a pool. But at the end of the day, after she sheds her blubber in the makeup trailer, she still gets to be Gwyneth Paltrow; slim, famous, clad in designer clothes, and much richer because of this project, while the girls and women she’s supposed to embody in the film (including her body double) have to live with the painful stereotypes she has helped perpetrate.

I hope the next actress offered millions to play the ”fat girl for the day” stops to think about this before she signs the contract — even if just to ask, like any professional actress would in any other situation, ”Why does she weigh 350 pounds? And why me for the part?” If the director can’t answer these questions, don’t do the movie.

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