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The Sunday Age

Sunday February 27, 2011

Melinda Houston.

Television is still fixated with women's weight, writes Melinda Houston. Have you ever seen an actual Size Zero dress? That's the size aspired to by America's most fashionable women, including its TV stars. And it's frightening. If you were, say, four-foot-ten, sure. But for a woman of average height? You'd need to be seriously wasted.Which is to say, most of the female actors we see on TV, both Australian and American, must be constantly teetering on the cusp of hospitalisation. At the same time, we've never seen so many fat chicks on telly. And that kind of encapsulates the increasingly vexed relationship we have with body shape and size.More and more people are dangerously overweight. Most women think they're overweight, even if they're not. Some women think they're overweight even as they're starving themselves to death. And the Federal Government is apparently planning an ad blitz to make people who are overweight feel even worse about it than they already do.Meanwhile television continues to deify uber-skinny women while making hay with our fascination with weight loss and gain. Society may venerate thinness, but most people identify with those who fall short of physical perfection.Perhaps that's why so many skinny chicks on telly are drawn as neurotic and unfulfilled (Calista Flockhart has made a career of it) while the plus-sized ladies (with the notable exception of Roseanne Barr) seem uniformly jolly. No one really likes someone who seems to have it all.Oprah Winfrey's success her "relate-ability" is in part due to her own struggle with her weight. And we see that journey played out over and over in documentaries and reality television. From the ghastly Fat and Fatter that screened over summer on ABC2 to the slightly-less-ghastly Fat Family Diet (currently on Seven) to the not-at-all ghastly Biggest Loser, season six of which is now on Ten, there's something simultaneously hypnotic and repulsive about the redemptive journey from morbid obesity to something like normality.For the viewer, these stories are comforting ("I may be fat, but I'm not that fat"), they have that car-crash fascination ("Dear god, how could anyone let themselves get that fat?"), and they're inspiring ("If they can shed the fat, maybe I can too"). It's no wonder that true weight-loss stories have become such a television staple, especially in a society where the obesity epidemic is frequently on the front pages.What's new, though and fascinating is the appearance of the fat chick in fiction, and playing a central role. The chubby sidekick has been around for decades, but it's hard to think of a female lead again, with the exception of the remarkable Roseanne who has been anything other than dangerously underweight. Then suddenly last year we got Drop Dead Diva, starring the delightful Brooke Elliott as Jane Bingum: an airhead model who dies and comes back in the body of a decidedly plump lawyer.Now we have Mike & Molly, a sitcom that certainly dishes up its share of fat jokes but does so in a way that well and truly takes the sting out of them. Our two plus-plus-plus-sized protagonists are not just utterly loveable, it's clear they're smarter, funnier and in every way more decent than the skinnies who surround them. What's more, the whole premise of the show is that these two fatties fall in love. Fat people? Romance? Sex, even? Ten or even five years ago, such a set-up would have been unthinkable.All of which should be considered positive. Except that any show dealing with dangerously overweight people in a positive way is treading a difficult line. Mike & Molly gestures to the problem by having the couple meet at Overeaters Anonymous, but clearly we're supposed to love them just as they are. Yet both Mike (Billy Gardell) and Molly (Melissa McCarthy) are heading for some serious health problems if they stay the size they are. There's absolutely nothing healthy or even admirable about a full-grown adult weighing 45 kilograms. But there's also something not quite right about celebrating folk with a BMI of 50.All of which would be solved, of course, if television dared to represent people especially women as they actually are. But when it comes to the female shape, we're still dealing in extremes. Male actors are allowed to dissolve gracefully into middle-aged spread. Women are either rail-thin or dramatically obese. On some level, a woman's shape and size is constantly presented as a source of attention, anxiety, envy. And while giving fat chicks prime-time air space is at least mixing things up a bit, it'd be nice if one day women's bodies were as irrelevant as men's, rather than being a source of drama in their own right.THE REAL THINGThere are some wonderful women on telly shaped like actual human beings. Sadly, not nearly enough of them.Nicole LivingstoneSmart. Unassuming. Brunette. And utterly comfortable in her non-size-zero skin.Patricia ArquetteThe star of Medium plays a soccer mum (albeit a psychic one) and is perhaps the only woman on American prime-time drama who looks she might realistically have borne three children.Johanna Griggs"Goddess" is the word that springs to mind. Tall, gorgeous and totally curvaceous, she's no dummy either. We need to see 10 more like her every night on the telly.

© 2011 The Sunday Age

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