Aliyah Cherrisse is a plus size model based in New York and believes a new movement of beauty is on the rise. (Courtesy of Aliyah Cherrisse)
When I was six years old, I noticed that my body was different from all of the other students’ in my grade.
I was aware that I was taller than most of the other first graders, but at the time, I didn’t see trouble with my weight. Children in the first grade weren’t focused on how big I was. Everyone (including me) was more concerned with who had better school supplies and who would play with each other during recess. Size was not a problem.
But as time progressed, I slowly saw the shift of my classmates’ reactions to my weight. It wasn’t until the third grade that I heard my first “fat” slur. That was when the journey of my body image began.
As I progressed into adolescence, I was constantly reminded that my body needed to be changed. I had family, classmates and the media showing me that my body wasn’t acceptable. Movies, television shows and ads had me insecure about my appearance. I was infatuated with movies and TV shows. I often imagined myself on-screen one day acting—until I realized it would be difficult.
Most television shows and movies characterize plus-size women as one or all of the following: gluttonous eaters; aggressive, overtly funny, bullies; the reassuring best friend; or sloppy dressers. Sadly, those stereotypes still exist.
When I was younger, my mind was constantly filled with the stereotypes portrayed on TV and movies. It got to the point to where going to social events was awkward for me, because I was scared of being labeled as the insignificant big friend. I was fully aware of the influence media had on the stereotypes about overweight people. So it monopolized the way I approached social interactions. I have always had moments of mental discomfort and quite frankly, I still do. I could only imagine how many other women felt the same way that I did.
It wasn’t until I reached college that I realized I’ve never seen plus-size women play sensual love interests in popular movies. There has been a shift in television and retail ads with plus-size women over the years, but there’s still a lack of positive leading roles for them in films.
The film industry rarely casts full-figured women in lead roles and if they do, she serves as comedic relief or is hidden among a group of Hollywood’s list of beautiful women, like Melissa McCarthy in the 2011 movie “Bridesmaids” and Rebel Wilson in “Pitch Perfect” (2012). We also see them frequently portrayed as the “ugly duckling,” who encounters obstacles because of her weight, but eventually gets the man in the end, like in movies “Hairspray” (2007) and “Just Wright” (2010). Rarely do we see films featuring a plus-size woman whose weight isn’t the source of her lack of confidence, depression or undesirability. Why can’t we see more plus-size leading roles? Is it shaping what society believes?
It cannot be denied that the media does affect the way society is made to think. Our media is now our society. The trends, social media and advertisements we see daily drive us. People gain inspiration and mindsets from what they see on TV and in movies. Roles on the big screen for plus-size women seem to be marginalized for a cookie-cutter personality that Hollywood has determined. These are the same roles we’ve all seen overplayed.
Conversely, the modeling industry has seen a progressive growth of the importance of plus-size women. The average American woman wears a size 14 or larger, and according to Business Insider, those labeled as plus-size account for 67 percent of the apparel-purchasing population. This increase has promoted an industry once ostracized by the high-fashion world. Now, more than ever, plus-size designers are popping up with labels that cater to the lifestyle of a full-figured woman. This has created a need for more models who capture the essence of the plus-size revolution. Over the past ten years, there has been a gradual shift toward sensuality in plus-size modeling and ads.
Plus-size model Aliyah Cherrisse of New York’s True Model Management believes that the shift in image is appreciated among full-figured women.
“I believe that when a woman of the plus-size arena sees another woman that resembles her in a magazine, on a red carpet or a retail website modeling clothes, it makes her feel a sense of empowerment,” Cherrisse told me in an interview.
As progressive as the modeling world has become for plus-size women, the shift in the movie industry is a little bit slower. “There is an abundance of loud-mouth, overbearing, obnoxious slim girls in real life. Yet, the full-figured woman has to display that role as being the outcast in our society. It’s disgusting that in our world, there is an outcast like that,” said Cherrisse.
Contrary to what society thinks, plus-size women are the opposite of what the media conveys. “Little does society know, curvy girls workout. We sweat hard, eat healthy, and actually really do care about our well-being and appearance. In the plus industry, we like to call it healthy curves. We’re a beautiful and bright mass of women who deserve the same opportunity as the next woman,” Cherrisse said.
Alex Reid lost over 80 pounds on season 14 of “The Biggest Loser.”(photo NBC)
Contestant on season 14 of NBC’s “Biggest Loser” Alexandra Reid knows all about the conflicting images given to plus-size women in media. Reid lost over 80 pounds, going from 240 down to 156. Her lifestyle change allowed her to see both ends of body image.
“Although I have lost a lot of weight, I am still skeptical about where I stand as a woman. I’m not a size two nor am I a 14/16. So, I am stuck in the middle thinking, what does society view me as? Do they see me as a former fatty or do they now accept me as a changed woman who has turned her life around?” Reid said.
Battling weight and image issues on national TV was a big thing for Reid. She had to deal with new-found views of her body image. “People always complimented me before by saying, ‘Oh you have such a pretty face,’ but now that I have lost all this weight, people tell me how beautiful I am. I’ve gone from just a pretty face to overall gorgeous all because of my size.”
People have continuously proclaimed that the acceptance of plus-size women would encourage unhealthy lifestyles and promote obesity. Dr. Marjorie Yong, owner of Yong at Heart Health and Wellness in Los Angeles, believes that society needs to change their perception of health.
“A big misconception is that overweight or plus-size people are unhealthy. That is not true. I see a lot of healthy overweight and plus-size people everyday who are in better health than someone who is a size two. Not every person who is overweight should be categorized as unhealthy,” Yong said.
She believes that people need to focus on what needs to be done to help ensure a healthy body image.
“Don’t get me wrong, obesity is an issue. But people in Hollywood have to realize that a healthy woman is not stick thin. There are women out there who are fit and don’t fit skinny mold.”
From her experience, Reid knows that the movie industry has a skewed conception of what the average plus-size women really is. People subconsciously and consciously live by the principles spewed out by the media.
“A lot of women like myself want to venture out and do things that we wish to do, but because we have these societal limitations, we are afraid to do them. We are constantly fed the message that if we lose weight we can be those women in the leading roles that are viewed as beautiful. The media basically dictates how we think about ourselves. They tell us what looks good, how to live our lives and that everyone should be a size two,” Reid said.
Being overweight hinders the success of women in media because society does not view overweight people as sexy. Obesity to a lot of people falls in line with being undesirable. This may be true for some, but Cherrisse believes those views should not dictate what plus-size women are capable of.
“We have to learn to accept who we are and work with it. Stop pondering on the acceptance from people who are of this world. We’re not fat, we’re pleasantly plump so if, society and the media can’t understand that, then they’re the ones who are confused,” Cherisse said.
The lack of thoughtful plus-size-centered movies is an oversight of filmmaking and television; but it is also a reflection of society’s view that a particular group of women are unimportant. Plus-size women are important and should not be generalized by the works of Hollywood.
To enforce more positive images, plus-size women should tell their own stories in movies and television series to challenge controlling images given to the full-figured community. This could help change the direction of Hollywood’s leading female role. Just like “skinny” women, we also have amazing lives and careers, and experience compelling love. The future of film and television should heavily rely on the reflection of reality. Plus-size women embody the very hues of womanhood and should be appreciated.