CONTENT NOTICE: Childhood fatness, isolation, eating disorders, bingeing, dieting, fatphobia, bariatric surgery, death, etc. Also spoilers.
The other day I decided to watch the NBC show This is Us to see what all the talk was about.
Here’s what I knew about the show before I watched it:
- That it was about people who share a birthday whose lives intertwine
- That there was a fat character (Kate) played by Chrissy Metz
- That Chrissy Metz had signed a contract that obligated her to lose weight along with Kate’s storyline
That’s it. I knew nothing else about what to expect.
When I mentioned on social media that I was considering watching the show, several of my friends said they liked the show, but they wanted to give me a heads up that I might not, due to the way Kate’s character was written. Several other friends told me that they had chosen not to watch the show for that same reason, or had stopped watching the show for that same reason. A few said that they loved the show and they found Kate’s character to hit extremely close to home and therefore appreciated the way it was written. A few said they had chosen not to watch the show because of Metz’s contract to lose weight. A few told me (some via private message) that they would be curious what my thoughts were, once I watched the show.
Anyway, I watched the show, and I actually have a lot of thoughts that I want to share. I know for a fact, both from friends’ comments and articles I have read, that I don’t speak on behalf of all fat women here….so I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind with this post. I’m simply sharing my own reactions and what is true for me. I’m also not in the habit of writing entertainment reviews. Take me with a giant grain of salt if you must. (Also, while I do have an opinion about the fact that Metz is contractually obligated to lose weight, I’m not gonna weigh in on that in this post.)
For me, the way Kate’s character is written hits extremely close to home. I see a lot of my childhood and young adulthood in her.
When Kate threw a cake in the trash, I was reminded of being nine or ten years old and throwing evidence of binges in the trash.
When Kate meets Toby at their fat person’s support group, he asks her if she wants “to be fat friends.” In response, she tells him “sure. But I’m going to lose the weight.” Toby responds that he is probably not going to “lose the weight.” And Kate tells him “I can’t fall for a fat person right now. ”
I was exasperated and angry with Kate for saying this to Toby. And then I suddenly realized: what Kate said out loud, I had thought, too.
When I was in college, I was “overweight”, and started to fall for a fat man, and at first it terrified me. I had already internalized the fatphobia taught in my home, my school, the media, my life. I resisted my attraction to him at first because I feared what people would think, and because I myself thought bad things about fat people.
We eventually did end up dating….for over four years. We lived together after college. I moved to a new city with him when he was accepted into a prestigious graduate program. I’m thinking we were probably would have gotten engaged and married if we had stayed together much longer.
And he came down the dieting rabbit hole with me. We both lost weight, even though he was more okay with being fat than I was. But since our form of dieting took the form of limiting food groups rather than restricting calories, it also came with a lot of other questionable science and beliefs, including beliefs that medications were toxic and therefore to be avoided.
He was on several medications for a mental health diagnosis he had gotten before he met me. Based on our lifestyle and the fact that his symptoms were dormant, he decided to work with a doctor to taper off his medications.
Once he tapered off his medications, he said he felt more “himself” than he felt in a long time. But that person was a stranger to me, and I was scared. We split up.
Less than a year later, he had a severe mental breakdown while we were on the phone. God, it was terrifying.
One of my biggest regrets in life is taking him down the diet / disordered eating rabbit hole with me. I know he was severely harmed by the results. We are no longer in touch, but I am hoping and praying he got the help he needed. I know he is married and has a child now, so I’m guessing he did, which is small consolation.
When I met my now-husband, he adopted a lot of my dietary preferences at home and when he was around me, much like Toby does for Kate in the show. I was still vegan and still had a lot of food hang-ups. When we moved in together, he agreed to eat vegan at home.
I don’t think it was beneficial for him. He was already thin, and he developed some symptoms of thyroid problems on the vegan diet. He also internalized some of the “medications are toxic” belief system and decided to stop taking a medication he had taken since childhood for a seizure disorder.
Except unlike my previous boyfriend, he didn’t do it under the supervision of a doctor. He didn’t tell anyone. Not even me, even though we were married by then.
11 months later, the morning after we got in a fight, I heard a crash in the kitchen. He had dropped a glass and was having a seizure.
It was the first time I had ever seen a seizure. I called 911. When the paramedics arrived, I showed them the bottle he still had of the medication he took. “He takes this medication,” I told them. I took it with me to the emergency room.
In the emergency room, he was conscious again and answering questions, albeit processing a bit slowly. When the nurse asked him if he took any medications, he told her that he had stopped taking his medication last summer.
I chimed in and said that no, he must still be a bit out of it; he takes this medication. I showed her the bottle.
He kept insisting that, no, he had stopped taking that medication; he wasn’t confused.
For a long time, I was mad at him for not telling anyone he had stopped taking his medication. I told him that I completely respected that taking (or not taking) medication was a personal choice, but he needed to tell me these things so I knew how to to help him if something happened to him. It could have been dangerous because I had been telling the doctors inaccurate information that I believed to be true.
Anyway, it was a rocky month for my husband. He tried going on a different anti-seizure medication because he was worried about the liver toxicity issue (something that is routinely monitored on the drug he was initially taking). It did not control his seizures. Finally he went back on the drug that had controlled his seizures since childhood, so he could do things like work and drive and not have seizures.
With both of those men in my life, I didn’t force them to adopt my diet…..but like Kate does in This is Us, I expressed fear about having men around who didn’t eat in a similar way. I know that my fear harmed them both. I know that my husband forgives me. I’m not sure about my ex-boyfriend.
So, seeing Toby start dieting to please Kate….well, it’s hard for me to watch. I don’t like her for it. I want to smack some sense into her. But that was me, and so I look at her with compassion and not anger.
Throughout the show, we see some glimpses of Kate’s childhood – how her mother treated her differently from her brothers by forcing her to diet. How her father was sympathetic and sneaks her food behind her mom’s back. It is very similar to my own childhood. When Kate sees people laughing around her and clearly worries that they are laughing at her and staring at her, I know viscerally what that feels like. I remember having fun dancing at the age of 12, and having some giggling girl run up to me and say “do you know you are making a total fool of yourself” before running back to her friends.
I used to have a neighbor who lived in the unit next door to mine, whose name was also Kate. I didn’t know a lot about my neighbor Kate, as I was busy with a baby soon after we moved in, and she didn’t seem to be home much. She was single and lived alone. I assumed she was older than I was but didn’t know her exact age.
I was in her unit a few times for HOA meetings she hosted. One time when I was there, I saw things in her kitchen that were similar to what we see on the show in the character Kate’s house….calorie counts labeled on food, portion charts, diet recipes hung up on the fridge.
One day, I saw her in the parking lot and commented that I really liked her outfit. “You always look so nice,” I told her.
She broke into a broad smile and thanked me and told me that she had lost a lot of weight after having gastric bypass surgery and was really having fun shopping for clothes now. She gave a lot of info about her post surgery lifestyle even though I did not ask for it. She seemed happy.
She started bringing a boyfriend home. I don’t think I ever saw him but I did hear them together (nudge nudge, wink wink).
Then one day I saw a police officer at her door. The officers asked me if I knew anything about a dog in the house. I told him that I knew she had been caring for her parents’ dog while they were on vacation, but I hadn’t heard the dog bark in a few days, so I didn’t know if it was still there. “Is everything okay?” The officer didn’t answer me, furrowed his brow, peered in the window, and then left.
Later that week, I learned that Kate had been in a fatal car crash over the weekend. I learned that she was only a year older than I was.
When her family came to go through her belongings and get her unit ready for sale, I spoke with them a bit. Kate’s boyfriend had told them that when she was in the crash, she was on her way home from donating some of her larger sized clothing. They had found the donation receipt in the car.
I think about my neighbor’s family and wonder if they are watching This is Us, or if it is too painful for them. Or maybe they are happy that someone like their daughter is finally seen. I don’t know.
In the show, there is a scene where Kate goes to Toby’s house unannounced. He is reluctant to let her come in, and has a look on his face like he is hiding something. The look you usually see on TV characters when they are about to be caught having an affair.
He reluctantly agrees to let Kate come into his house, and when she does, she sees the evidence of a binge.
This hits very close to home for me. One time, my then-boyfriend, now-husband showed up at my door unannounced when I was in the middle of a binge….as a grand gesture to propose, of all things. I was caught completely off guard. Unfortunately for him, what stands out most for me when I remember his proposal was not the grand romantic gesture, but how rattled I was and how I was not in a place to hear and receive it.
As many people have said, Kate is not the fat-positive role model a lot of us were hoping to see on TV. She isn’t always particularly likeable. But to me, she is not an overused sad fatty trope. I see so much of my younger self in her, and I deeply appreciate the way it is being portrayed on the show….not as comedy, but with her pain showing through. Pain that I know is very real. Before I knew that she was based on the sister of the show’s creator, I assumed that her character was written by someone who knew someone like her…someone like my neighbor….someone like me very well.
So I am not angry with this is Us for making the fat character not be fat-positive. Not by a long shot. I so appreciate that part of my life being represented respectfully on TV. Because being able to relate to TV characters can be therapeutic and healing, and I haven’t yet had that kind of representation.
But we all know that providing stories that are easy to relate to is not the only way art and entertainment can help us. Art and entertainment can also be helpful by providing us with role models. And that’s what we marginalized folks were so hoping for in Kate’s character. We want to be seen as normal people with interests and lives beyond our size, and we have yet to have many characters on TV that represent that side of us.
For me….Kate is not that role model. She is definitely flawed. But she is very much like a younger version of me. And I know she is definitely hurting. My history is very accurately represented on in this show. Not my aspirations nor my present, but an important part of me nonetheless. It’s not complete, but I’ll take it.
At the same time….if TV writers would take time to represent a broader range of fat characters, maybe it would do it’s part to make sure the Kates of the world, and the Bethanys of the world, would have a different kind of childhood, going forward. Maybe they would know that they have options other than fixating on their weight above all other things in their lives.
So while I am not angry at This is Us, and I deeply appreciate what they are doing here, I am still waiting. Waiting for representation for the new side of me as a body positive fat person. Waiting for fat positive role models on television. But just because I am waiting for fat positive role models doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Kate for who she is. To deny her and refuse to watch her would be to deny myself, and I refuse to do that. My past self needed unconditional love and to be seen, more than anything. Knowing that and watching Kate through that lens feels very therapeutic to me.
And the show has some stories that have nothing to do with Kate that are riveting and touching and deep. It has some amazing writing. One of the best shows I have ever seen.
So I will keep watching. And waiting. And at the same time, appreciating the show for what it is.
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