Why are Hollywood fat suits back in fashion?

From left: Renée Zellweger in ‘The Thing About Pam’, Brendan Fraser in ‘The Whale’ and Courteney Cox in ‘Friends' (NBC, A24, Warner Bros)
From left: Renée Zellweger in ‘The Thing About Pam’, Brendan Fraser in ‘The Whale’ and Courteney Cox in ‘Friends' (NBC, A24, Warner Bros)

Remember “Fat Monica”? Every now and again, in Friends, there’d be a flashback scene. Encased in a fat suit and holding a doughnut, Courteney Cox would dance, while the laugh track whooped and shrieked. That laughter confirmed that the flashback character was created for one purpose only: to be a big joke. As the ultimate embodiment of the “before” to older Monica’s stick-thin “after”, “Fat Monica” imprinted onto the minds of millennials everywhere the idea that attractiveness relied on extreme weight loss. But Cox was far from the only one donning a fat suit in the Noughties. There was Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, Mike Myers in Austin Powers, Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends, and both Elizabeth Moss and January Jones in Mad Men. And don’t forget the cross-dressing fat suit “comedies”. Eddie Murphy as foul-mouthed bully Rasputia in Norbit; John Travolta as agoraphobic Edna Turnblad in Hairspray – a character who supposedly hasn’t left her house since she was a size 10. In the fatphobic Noughties, fat suits were in fashion.

From the lofty vantage point of the 2020s, it seems fairly obvious that the Noughties was an era awash with fatphobia. Weight Watchers reigned supreme. Channel 4 pumped out Supersized Vs Superskinny, You Are What You Eat, and Fat Families. Sex and the City made jokes about Miranda’s “fat ass” and dedicated an entire plotline to Samantha putting on 15 pounds (enough weight, apparently, to warrant an intervention). In the years since, however, there seems to have been a widespread assumption that times had changed. Many cultural staples of the millennial era were widely agreed to have “aged badly”, the implication being that their reliance on fatphobic, racist and sexist tropes wouldn’t fly today. Fat suits in particular were held up as relics of a less enlightened time. So why have they made a comeback?

Along with other long-derided Y2K paraphernalia, like Ugg boots and low-rise jeans, it seems prosthetic padding is back in trend. The first inkling of this came in 2021, when Jared Leto – former prince of dramatic body transformations, alleged cult leader, and all-round creepy dude – was made up to be unrecognisable in House of Gucci. Leto described his metamorphosis in typically method actor “I’m a bit mad, me” terms, declaring he “climbed into that creative cave and came out through the bowels and intestines into the oesophagus of the one and only Paolo Gucci”, but many filmgoers were less taken by the fact he wore a fat suit – especially as Paolo himself was not overweight. One notable critic was Patrizia Gucci, Paolo’s daughter, who publicly derided Leto’s get-up as “horrible, horrible”.

But these criticisms certainly didn’t stop the trend for casting slim celebrity actors, only to prosthetically fatten them up. Last year alone, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Renee Zellweger and Emma Thompson all donned fat suits for their roles in Elvis, The Batman, The Thing About Pam, and Matilda. And now, in a UK cinema near you, there is The Whale – A24’s adaptation of Samuel D Hunter’s play of the same name. With Darren Aronofsky at the directorial helm, Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive English teacher who, in the words of Google’s knowledge panel, “hides out in his flat and eats his way to death”. What this meant in practice was Fraser wearing a 100-pound fat suit on each day of filming, which apparently took four hours to put on. He has said he will “never” refer to his heavy prosthetic costume as a “fat suit”, and repeatedly attempted to explain that it was intentionally designed to emulate what carrying weight felt like, rather than for comedic purposes. “To be a person that size, you really have to be very strong, physically and emotionally,” Fraser said in a recent interview. “And I grew to appreciate that by having played this part.”

Yet, while The Whale’s fat suit isn’t being used for laughs, it is utilised for something potentially more insidious and devastating: pity. Fraser has been nominated for an Oscar for the role, but many critics have been quick to decry the film as fatphobic “trauma porn”. So, does this all suggest that fatphobia is once again on the rise? While we might have left the likes of Austin Powers and Norbit behind, the fact that fat suits have been used in genres as diverse as psychological thrillers, superhero blockbusters, biopics, true crime series and kids musicals, should perhaps force us to realise fatphobia on film may even be more pervasive and cruel now than it was 20 years ago.

In a recent essay for Mashable, Gina Tonic argued that The Whale’s “combination of up-close shots of Fraser’s fat suit moving around a small apartment, the people in his life’s beratement of his physique and a lack of empathy towards Fraser’s character” made it “not only one of the most fatphobic films of the year, but probably of all time”.

Tonic, who is a writer, editor of Polyester, and founder of The Fat Zine, certainly believes the sudden renewed prevalence of fat suits on film indicates fatphobia is getting worse across the board. “There have been multiple instances of increased fatphobia in recent years,” she says, “from government guidelines explicitly trying to demonise fat people for a poorly funded NHS, to ‘heroin chic’ returning to the catwalks.” She believes that in the UK, the government’s handling of the pandemic is partly to blame. “The public are looking for someone to blame and turn against,” she argues, and “pointing the finger at fat people is all too easy”, particularly when they are “already embroiled in being hated for ‘health’ concerns”.

With this as the cultural backdrop, Tonic suggests that seeing fatphobia reflected in popular media is, sadly, unsurprising. “There’s an issue of a lack of fatness being portrayed in storylines where they could easily be slotted in,” Tonic declares, “where the stories aren’t about fatness but about people in general, and it doubles down on the fact films only want to highlight fatness if it is to demonise it or laugh at it. Or both!”

“Darren Aronofsky really held back the curtain on this when he said he couldn’t find an actor fat enough to be in The Whale,” Tonic argues. “There are so many issues with this – firstly, there are definitely actors fat enough out there to portray this character. Secondly, why is Darren Aronofsky telling this story? And finally, farcical and extreme trauma porn stories that paint the fat experience as being worse than death, and even the cause of death, shouldn’t even be being told, let alone by someone who has not had the lived experience of being in that body.”

Brendan Fraser has been Oscar-nominated for his performance in ‘The Whale’ (AP)
Brendan Fraser has been Oscar-nominated for his performance in ‘The Whale’ (AP)

The current batch of Hollywood fat suits certainly seems to signal an ongoing reluctance to cast anyone who deviates from a thin body ideal. “It’s also very pointed that few people would want to gain weight for these roles,” Tonic says. She strongly believes that if a fat actor isn’t cast, this should be the only other option. “It’s the norm for so many actors to bulk up or lose vast amounts of weight for roles, but for fat ones the preference is to wear a fat prosthetic? It just hammers home the point that being or appearing fat is something people want to do for the shortest amount of time possible.” Which, Tonic stresses, is “an awful message to put forward”.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Renee Zellweger described the fat suit she wore for crime drama The Thing About Pam as a “really important” part of constructing her character. “If you don’t recognise an actor or an actress in a performance, that’s a great compliment,” she said. “You’re not trying to tell your own story.” Yet, Tonic seems to think this kind of attitude is dismissive and naive. She says it should be obvious that “allowing actors to wear fat prosthetics to tell these stories is alienating fat actors, actresses and other fat media professionals” from even considering entering the TV and film industry. She also rails against any idea that fat suits and appearance-altering prosthetics can be justified as cinematic “realism”, emphasising that “there is nothing realistic about these fat suits. They are still used for shock factor, but through a dramatic lens over a comedic one.” To her mind, “both are terrible, voyeuristic and cruel.”

It certainly seems like contemporary cinema is stuck in a vicious cycle – justifying a reluctance to cast fat actors by proclaiming they are hard to find, and then creating portrayals that only serve to further alienate fat people from the industry. It also appears that casting directors are reluctant to talk openly about this process. For this feature, only one casting director responded to questions, and she made it clear that while she had a background in TV production she now mainly worked in casting for commercials. While they can’t be taken as representative of the industry as a whole, her responses were undoubtedly illuminating. “I think fat suits are being used as actors don’t want to put on the weight, as it’s so hard to shift and damaging to vital organs.” She suggested it was this “risk” that explained why actors are “not willing to go method for a part any more”, and questioned why anyone “would compromise [their] health, life [and] future work for a part” when “prosthetics have come such a long way”. In a brief follow-up email, she also argued that “finding morbidly obese actors in Hollywood is a rarity”. And she added one final thought: “Fat is funny – always has been.”

Monica dancing in ‘Friends’ (Warner Bros)
Monica dancing in ‘Friends’ (Warner Bros)

Clearly, there is a whole heap of problems with this line of thinking. Even aside from that last kicker straight out of 2002, the general attitude in these comments certainly indicates a pervasive belief that fatness is inherently unhealthier than extreme dieting or bulking (two method techniques that many actors are clearly still willing to undertake). This is a notion that writers and activists like Tonic fight against as simplistic, flawed and rooted in fatphobia. Yes, obesity does often carry a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, or arthritis. But many medical studies have now shown that these risks cannot be judged by weight alone. A US study published in European Heart Journal, for example, shows fitness is the key marker for health amongst obese people – as long as they are metabolically fit, they are at no greater risk of developing heart disease or cancer, compared to non-obese people. On the other hand, a US government health survey found that more than 30 per cent of so-called “normal-weight” Americans were metabolically unhealthy.

Going by the moniker of “The Fierce Fat Feminist”, Lindsay McGlone is an activist, public speaker and producer, and thinks that using fat suits is inherently wrong. “There’s so much inherent negative belief around what it means to be fat, that we aren’t even cast to represent our own bodies,” McGlone says. “Imagine feeling you weren’t worthy enough to portray your own self?” Hammering home the point that there needs to be greater diversity in casting when it comes to size, McGlone says relying on prosthetics just reveals “laziness from those casting, as they can’t be bothered to portray real bodies”. Like Tonic, she believes the answer is simple. “If you want fat people in your film, book a fat actor – it isn’t that difficult but we’re made to believe it is.” Ultimately, then, perhaps fat suits are only the tip of the iceberg in an industry that is still riddled with fatphobic attitudes and assumptions. “Fatness isn’t funny,” McGlone stresses. “We aren’t a joke, get better story lines.”

‘The Whale’ is out now in cinemas