Does It 'Suck To Be A Fat Girl'?

A recent episode of FX show Louie raised some controversial questions about women, weight and body image. Did the episode miss the mark? Our panel of writers and bloggers weigh in.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. So let's finish up the program today talking about something a lot of people have been talking about because of a recent episode of comedian Louis C.K.'s show "Louie." The episode called "So Did The Fat Lady" took on the issue of weight and appearance and the double standard that I think most people believe does exist between how men and women are viewed.

The setup is that Louis, who plays a character very much like himself - a not necessarily movie star handsome comedian who does stand up in clubs - finally agrees to go on a date with a funny, charming waitress who's been asking him out for a while. And he's been rebuffing her because she's heavy. And she finally calls him out. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")

SARAH BAKER: (As Vanessa) On behalf of all the fat girls, I'm making you represent all the guys. Why do you hate us so much? What is it about the basics of human happiness, you know, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us that's just not in the cards for us? Nope. Not for us.

MARTIN: There have been many responses to this episode. Some people have been singing its praises saying it's tackling a tough, but ignored, issue for plus sized women. Other people feel it misses the mark. So we wanted to gather a number of points of view about this. With us now, Lisa Lee - she's the co-founder of "Thick Dumpling Skin." That's a blog that looks at body image issues and eating disorders in the Asian-American community. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

LISA LEE: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Libby Hill is a writer and contributor to the A.V. Club where she wrote about this episode. Libby, welcome to you. Thank you for coming.

LIBBY HILL: Thank you, Michelle.

MARTIN: Cece Olisa blogs at plussizeprincess.com. She also wrote about this episode. Cece, glad to have you with us as well.

CECE OLISA: Hi, great to be here.

MARTIN: And we hope that Danielle Henderson will be able to join us. She's a pop culture writer for The Guardian and vulture.com. We're still trying to get connected with her.

So let's just start with, you know, just - I just want to hear what you all have to say about this. We just heard a clip from the episode. And for people who didn't get a chance to watch it, the actress there is Sarah Baker. And I do have to apologize a little in advance for some of the language because there's some phrases that, you know, some parents would prefer that their kids not use. But the basic premise is that being a fat girl sucks. OK? So Cece, why don't you start? What was your reaction to it?

OLISA: When I first saw it, I was delighted to see it on camera for everyone to see kind of the inner monologue of a plus size girl who is dating. I date a lot. And I think that sometimes that's a novel idea for people - that big girls do go on dates, and we get courted and things like that.

I think the interesting thing to me was that what she was saying was really more about his insecurity than hers. If you watch the full episode, she asks him out which takes a lot of confidence. But it was his insecurity that kind of made the whole situation awkward which is kind of fascinating to me.

MARTIN: You said that that's how you felt at first. Did you change your mind?

OLISA: When I watched it?

MARTIN: Yeah.

OLISA: At first I was like, oh gosh, are we going to go down this rabbit hole again of, like, the big girl who's cute but not cute enough? But when she kind of empowered herself and spoke her mind, I thought that was a great moment for everybody. And I think that's why so many plus size girls were cheering 'cause even if we haven't been able to vocalize it, we've been there.

MARTIN: Danielle, I hear that you're with us now. Are you there?

DANIELLE HENDERSON: Hello.

MARTIN: Hello.

HENDERSON: Nice to talk to you.

MARTIN: So glad we were able to get connected. What was your reaction?

HENDERSON: I am - I kind of railed against the - well, I liked seeing it. I agree with CeCe that it was nice to see it on the TV. It was nice to see people talking about this topic. But I really railed against the idea that being fat just sucks automatically. And it sounded to me more like Louis talking through women about himself. And I don't know that those two things are always the same thing 'cause it's a very gendered thing being overweight in America.

MARTIN: Well, that was part of the point - right? - which is that what? When - explain what you mean by that for people who don't normally use that kind of phrasing. What do you mean it's a gendered thing being overweight?

HENDERSON: When I wrote about it for Vulture I said that the experience of being overweight when you are a man usually equates to the fact that you are allowed to take up space - that you're physically allowed to have some space. But when you're overweight and you're a woman, it rails against femininity in some way. So you're an affront to femininity when you're an overweight woman.

So the fact that he was saying oh being an overweight woman sucks, it didn't really seem to me the narrative of most my friends who are overweight or myself who is overweight immediately go to. There's a lot of working to have some confidence and a lot of work that you have to take - that it takes to have some confidence around being overweight and being a woman.

MARTIN: Libby Hill, what do you think?

HILL: I was absolutely torn by the episode. I was of completely two minds. I - my first impulse when it started, like CeCe, was oh no. How is this happening, I thought? You don't know me. You don't know what it's like to be me. And no matter how much I respect Louis C.K., like, I just didn't think there was any way he could understand what this point of view was - what it was to be a fat woman and especially in America. And I balked at it, honestly.

But as I sat with it, and as I watched Sarah Baker's monologue, as I let the episode cogitate a little bit, I realized that this, more than anything, was an opportunity - if only because we are talking about it right now. We are having an open discussion about what it is to be an overweight woman in America. And I don't know that that would've happened without this episode. So I thought that what was really important, what was more important, maybe, then who was the mouthpiece - i.e. Louis C.K. - for this conversation, it was providing an important pedestal for it.

MARTIN: Lisa Lee, what about you?

LEE: I think what's interesting - and obviously, you know, I'm Asian-American. I'm Chinese. And I'm, you know, thinking about this from that lens. And I think what's so interesting is we are often times told how to feel about ourselves through what is going on in media. And that's I think is particularly true for people of color. And in this particular case, like the others have mentioned, it's, you know, we are being told that being fat is terrible. And that I think is dangerous because it teaches people who are overweight to think about themselves in a certain manner. So they might not - I mean I know a lot of people who are overweight, but are very confident, very happy about themselves. They love themselves. But I think society always sort of brings us back to this point of, like, you know, this is how you're supposed to feel about yourself. And I feel like that's - I don't know. I don't feel like that's anything revolutionary or interesting to me.

MARTIN: You know, you were telling us earlier that, you know, culturally you're saying - at least with a lot of the families that you know - weight is something that's not taboo. And that people are very - can be very blunt about other people's weight. And, in fact, feel that they are entitled to - particularly within the family - say, you know, commenting on people's weight in a way that perhaps other people would not feel is OK to do or impolite. Do you feel like there's a lot of pressure on Asian-American women to be thin, to be super thin? And if you're not, then you're supposed to be ashamed about that? I mean I know there's a lot of different feelings about how different ethnic groups sometimes have different feelings about it. What do you think, Lisa?

LEE: Right, yeah. Absolutely. You know, I definitely - I understand I think that body image issues is something that a lot, a lot of women experience and a lot of men too. But I definitely feel that the issue affects people of color a little bit differently. And in my specific case, I'm thinking about, you know, East Asians, like Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Japanese-Americans. You know, I think there are two issues. One is just I think there's - the lack of representation and misrepresentation of Asian-Americans in media - right? - that informs us how we should behave and think about ourselves. And unfortunately because we are not seeing a lot of ourselves on media, we kind of go to the depicted stereotypes to again inform us about how we should think about ourselves and of course our bodies. And a lot of the stereotypes out there are that, you know, Asian women are fragile. They're demure. They're wall flowers. They're pushovers. And that's a very real stereotype that I think is then internalized.

And I think from, like, the cultural and familial standpoint, as well, I think just, you know, throughout history we've been taught, you know, what is the accepted sort of westernized beauty that we should desire? And I think that goes, you know, even beyond body size. I think that has a lot to do with, like, skin color, the way that we, you know, want our hair to be a certain way. So I think there are issues kind of, you know, internally, you know, within the culture as well as what is projected onto the culture.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting 'cause there's a new sitcom coming down the road. And we - that occasion - stars an Asian-American family. It's the first time since Margaret Cho's sitcom, "All-American Girl." And she's written, subsequently, after the show went off the air about how much pressure she was under to stay a certain size and to be thin. And she talked about just how this kind of messed with her psyche for years, you know, afterwards. I think she's been very open, you know, about that.

But, you know, Cece, I'm interested because a lot of people have this idea that African-Americans are more tolerant of different sizes and body sizes and more accepting and even appreciative of the larger sized women. But you've been talking - one of the things you wrote about in your piece was how that isn't necessarily so, especially in the dating world. You used the phrase which I thought was hilarious called you were in a mixed weight relationship. And that being the larger - being a bigger bodied person dating somebody who is of smaller frame - how people kind of gave you the message that maybe you shouldn't be with this person or that he was - that you were just so lucky that he dated with you. Do you want to talk about that?

OLISA: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that there is kind of a myth that black women kind of get a pass for being bigger - that black women are kind of celebrated for having, you know, bigger bone structure and curves and all that. And I think one of the things that people kind of forget is that it's a little bit nuanced - that sometimes it's about being fat, but being fat in the right places. There's difference between having boobs and a butt and having a gut. You know what I mean?

LEE: I agree.

OLISA: And sometimes - I think that goes across all cultures, right? But yeah, I think that even in the black community, there's definitely a pressure to have a body of a certain type - whatever that may be, whatever that ideal is kind of decided on. And I think even though we can all be plus size and confident and big and still understand that we're beautiful, somehow it always comes back down to dating. Sometimes - it's always that warning of, like, don't get too big, a man's not going to want you, and things like that.

MARTIN: People say that to you?

OLISA: Oh my goodness, it's either implicitly or implied. It's - but the message comes across. You know sometimes, you know, people will come at you with the health thing of course, but it's often times about being desired and kind of eliminating the idea, like, what if I think I'm pretty? What if I think I'm OK? If a man doesn't think you're OK, then it's a problem. And it needs to be addressed right away which can be really confusing when in every other aspect of your life, you are confident.

MARTIN: Danielle, what do you think about the fact that - I know Libby was saying that, you know, her piece was "Fat Women Talking: Louis Starts A Necessary Conversation." But can I ask, how do you feel about the fact that it's - he's an artist. I mean he's allowed to say what he wants to say, and we can react to it however we react to it. But the actress, you know, Sarah Baker, I don't know how you feel, but I thought she was delightful. But I mean she comes across as everything that was kind of the whole point. She's funny. She's charming. She's fun to be with. But she still feels like he's not appreciating her because she's big. Would it have felt differently if a woman comedian had raised this instead of a man comedian saying this? I mean I don't know. What do you think about that? Do you care?

HILL: I do care. I do. I think that it would be different because I don't know that it would get on air. I think there's also this thing that's happening where we have to acknowledge the idea or the fact that Louis C.K. is who he is. And he's given a lot of leeway, and he's given a lot of forgiveness for a lot of topics that are culturally taboo. And I think that there's kind of this implicit understanding of him as a genius that kind of gives people a little bit more - they approach it differently I think than they would if, say, Jerry Seinfeld had approached the subject or Kevin Hart. So yeah, I think that if it comes through the lens of a female comedian, I do think it would have been a different conversation. I don't think it would've started with, you know, you suck for not recognizing how hard this is for me. I think he's - it's great that he broached that subject. I really do appreciate that he brought it up, but I think that it would've been different 'cause it's experientially different for women.

MARTIN: You're saying that what Louis gets right and wrong about weight and women, so tell me - so even with the appreciation for, you know, bringing it up and trying to be bold and all that about it, so what's he getting wrong?

HILL: I think he really dismissed - he missed the point of taking this previously confident character that he created - I mean she - Sarah Baker is phenomenal in the show. And I do - I really loved her. I really loved her in this episode.

I think he takes this idea that she could be confident and wonderful in every other aspect of her life and then using him as this totem for all men. That's where he really lost me is where she started saying - when she launched into her monologue and said, you know, I'm going to use you as a stand in for all men as if overweight women just walk around with this cross to bear looking for someone to unload on all day long. That seemed off to me. It seemed kind of wrong. I understood what he was doing from the point of dramatizing the show, but it just didn't seem fair. It seemed as though it kind of simultaneously wanted to venerate and vilify overweight women.

MARTIN: Does anybody think - I mean maybe, Lisa, this is for you - do you feel that this kind of event changes anything? Do think it makes people, you know, walk taller or think a little deeper about their own stuff? I mean I have no idea who, you know, Louis C.K. is dating in real life. You know, I have no idea, you know? I mean he's - a lot of part of his comedy is, you know, he's a divorced dad and talks a lot about family and trying to stay connected to this kids and kind of his foibles as a parent, but I have no who he's dating in real life. I mean I know that the producer actor Kelsey Grammer has said that Hollywood is about the richest guy with the hottest girl. I mean that's all it's about. So I don't know - Lisa, you talked a little bit about media. So we have about a minute and a half left. What - do you think something like this changes anything?

LEE: Unfortunately, you know, I don't think so. I think my personal feeling is that what we need to see in media to really change the status quo is how do we put content out there that is creative and showcases women just being? Right? And I think, you know, we're seeing a little bit of this in "The Mindy Show," for example - of Mindy just being like - I mean I know she definitely raises issues around weight and body size as well. But I feel like the majority of the show is just her being awesome and confident and funny and I feel like that's kind of the content that we should see out there where it just normalizes women, you know, in whatever size.

MARTIN: Do people want to watch people being awesome whether they're men or women? Is awesome funny? Are awesome, confident people funny? I mean was Seinfeld awesome and confident? Was he funny?

LEE: I mean I think we all have our different...

MARTIN: I mean isn't funny sort of rooted and broken in a little bit or messed up or something? No?

LEE: Yeah. I mean, absolutely, like, I think, you know, we all have our flaws right? But I think this sort of explicit call out around, you know, body size is just - I don't know. To me, that's not creative. I feel like we need to find a different way of turning the discussion of weight kind of upside down and kind of get beyond, you know, these sort of, like, explicit monologues. I don't know. I feel like that's kind of my view. I think it's - these are issues that needs to be addressed, but I just - I'm yearning as a viewer for something different.

MARTIN: It's tired. OK. Well, thanks. We have to leave it there for now. We just started it off. So thanks for starting it off with us. Lisa Lee is the cofounder of "Thick Dumpling Skin." She joined us from San Francisco, California. Libby Hill is a writer and contributor to the A.V. Club. She joined us from NPR West which is in Culver City, California. Cece Olisa blogs at plussizeprincess.com. She joined us from our bureau in New York. And Daniel Henderson is a pop culture writer for The Guardian and vulture.com. She was with us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Thank you all so much.

I need to take one minute to say that, as you may have heard, NPR announced Tuesday that production of TELL ME MORE will end in August. The program is going away - not until August - so stick with us until then. I will still be here. Many of my colleagues will still be... (Loss of audio).

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