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 Monday, September 15, 2014 | 20 Dhu al-Qidah 1435
Weights and figures
Universalizing beauty: Inching towards fat acceptance
Last summer, I went to see a local production of Rent here in Toronto. The characters in this rock musical include an exotic dancer, Mimi Marquez, normally played by slender women of Afrocentric heritage (such as Rosario Dawson, who plays Marquez in the film adaptation of the musical). In the performance I saw however, Mimi was played by a Caucasian, heavyset, curvy performer. Mind you, these features hardly kept her from doing justice to the role.

Her high-heeled boots, thigh-high fishnets, dazzling eye makeup, boundless energy, and magnificent voice made her interpretation of the character an unforgettable one.

It is not uncommon to see an unapologetic embrace of this body type in the small, independent, creative circles here in Toronto. Extra pounds are worn as proudly as tattoos, piercings, and dyed mohawks.

When such a confidence in a heavy body type becomes more mainstream, however, we may be embarking on a more meaningful change. According to the recent New York Times feature “Female Stars Step off the Scales”:

Self-acceptance has become a new form of defiance on television, especially among younger female comedians. Partly that’s because it’s refreshingly unusual. There’s little comic shock value left in profanity, obscenity or intolerance, but it’s still quite rare and surprising to see a woman not obsess about her waistline.

As I noted in my review for “The Mindy Project,” Kaling’s body type adds to the show’s refreshing originality, expanding notions of what successful women look like. On the other hand, Christina Hendricks’ character Joan Harris on “Mad Men” reminds us of a time when women’s beauty was defined by their more generous proportions: in one episode, the men in her office wistfully compare her form to Marilyn Monroe’s. Lena Dunham’s character Hannah on the HBO show “Girls” is both self-deprecating about and dismissive of her fat. “Please avert your eyes,” she says to her friends, pulling her fitted T-shirt down over her belly. In another scene, she easily fends her boyfriend’s snarky remarks about her weight, saying that she made a decision not to make that her primary concern in life.

All of this begs the question however: do the emergence of these stars signify a meaningful step towards refining conceptions of beauty, or just a way to whet the audience’s endless appetite for novelty? Does it just so happen that female quirkiness seems to be in, and that in this case it happens takes the form of personal fat acceptance? Or are we seeing a more serious, enduring shift that is here to stay?

I hope it’s the latter. I hope this is how we start to internalize more sustainable, more inclusive definitions of female beauty which encourage women to focus on other aspects of themselves. I hope we will be seeing lead characters to whom weight is even more of a non-issue, whose narratives normalize the lived experiences of women with all body types.

So I think back to seeing Rent, the performance of a woman who was beautiful not in spite of her weight, but because of it. I would want my daughter to have that same confidence, undeterred by any conception of what a certain role, a certain character, a certain woman, should look like.

Sarah Farrukh is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She blogs about faith and books at A Muslimah Writes. (Photo Credit: Facebook: Primetime Emmys)


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