Growing up in the United States made me accustomed to the Westernized standard of feminine beauty: thin, tall, of fair skin and straight hair. It never once occurred to me that my body type, skin tone and even hair could be considered the epitome of beauty someplace else. That surprise came when I traveled to Jamaica, W.I. back in 2013 for a conference.
Ironically, my workshop dealt with being single and I had started by telling the women stories of my unsuccessful dating life. One of the mature ladies at one point asked why my last relationship didn’t work out and I responded by saying that the young man had a particular type and I didn’t fit it due to my weight. I followed that by explaining that the unfortunate reality is that most of the men I am/have been attracted to just aren’t interested in women that look like me. At saying that the entire group of 60 women fell silent.
Once the workshop was over I was approached by two of the ladies (who were thin, curvy and model-status beautiful) said that I should not be so hung out for not being “the perfect size 8” because on the island men preferred women that looked like me over them. I was stunned. Of course the idea that beauty standards were not the same around the world was something that had been suggested to me prior to this trip when I was a teenager back in 2006, via a film, but I figured it was just a fantasy created for the sole purpose of giving the story of a plus size protagonist a happy ending. That film of course was Phat Girlz.
The myth tends to be that women of color tend to be more secure in their body image and weight than women of other races. This simply isn’t true and this film does a great job of showing that, as the it presents one plus size woman who seems very comfortable in her body to the point that she designs, makes and wears her own clothing; and another woman who wants love but doesn’t step out into the dating scene because of her size.
Phat Girlz follows the journeys of these two plus size women as learn to love and accept themselves for who they are while on vacation at a California resort. During their stay at the resort the women meet with Nigerian doctors (Tunde and Akibo) that are instantly smitten with Jazmin and Stacey, leaving Mia, Jazmin’s thin cousin, to experience what Jazmin and Stacey usually do–body shame. Mo‘Nique’s character, Jazmin is flawed but authentic, as she is clearly body positive but still struggles with her weight and appearance. Throughout the film Jazmin can be heard saying that when she finally loses weight to become “the perfect size 5” that everything will fall into place. This is characteristic of the experience of many women, including myself.
As they spend more time with the doctors, they begin to change. Stacey, the more insecure of the two close friends, realizes that she has much more in common with her best friend Jazmin than she thought and begins to live passionately in moment even going so far as to have a very casual (and mostly sexual) relationship with her own love interest, Akibo. Jazmin, on the other hand, learns to let go of her anger and insecurity so she can accept how beautiful she is and let Tunde love her. In doing so she realizes that she deserves what she wants (to become a fashion designer) and becomes confident enough to fight for it.
Mia also changes her tone by the end of the film as she learns (in a rather humorous way) that fostering body hate can lead to very destructive behavior. By the end of the films she supports Jazmin’s fashion aspirations, becoming one of her biggest cheerleaders. And while we are on the subject of Jazmin’s Thick Madame clothing line, I must say that national launch runway show is possibly my favorite scene as it presents so much diversity in race, height, size and even body shape. I believe that this is the first and only time that such a thing has even been done (and with such great style, especially for the time) on the silver screen yet one expects nothing less from Mo‘Nique.
As much as I love this movie for all of its charms and positive representation, it does suffer with flaws. The film really enjoys clichés particularly when it come to the character of Stacey, who goes through the typical nerdy-to-beauty makeover (thankfully without a montage), shedding her “frumpy” outfits for more revealing clothes to help emphasize that she is more comfortable in her body. While I believe that people do change their mode of dress once becoming body positive, it’s never that dramatic and doesn’t happen so quickly. In addition, as someone who wears glasses I did find it insulting that one is only considered beautiful when they don’t wear them. Personally, I would have liked Stacey to have retained them if only to hint that she is still who she was, but with a body positive stance.
In addition, all of the skinny women are presented as being ditsy, mean and vindictive which obviously conveys the message of “plus size is better than straight size” instead of “beauty is size-less.” A clear example of this can be found in Mia, an aerobics instructor and devout follower of the American thin obsessed culture who constantly makes jabs at Jazmin for her size. She is never shown interacting with other thin women throughout the entire film suggesting that she hangs out with Jazmin and Stacey solely in an effort to make herself seem better by comparison. When her advances are rebuffed by Tunde she becomes upset and suggests that he really isn’t interested in Jazmin because he is clearly gay for not hitting on her. By the end of the film, Mia can be seen stuffing her face with food with the intention of gaining weight so that she can become a “Thick Madame” and land herself a rich Nigerian doctor. Sure this is at the very end of the film and is less than a minute long, but it screws around with the body positive stance, declaring that bigger bodies are better than those that are slim, and toned, when the truth is there isn’t one set perfect body type for women. Unlike Barbie, we come in various heights, (tall, average and petite) and sizes, (big, curvy and thin). Meaning that not one is more perfect than the other, even if society makes a point to disillusion us with that idea.
One of my biggest issues with the film is Jazmin’s personality, which is knee deep in the angry black woman trope as she insults and threatens physical harm to those who pick on her for her weight. Though this is treated as being a defense mechanism developed only after having been teased and bullied so much as a child, I believe that her character would have benefited from more complexity. I also have issues with Jazmin’s weakness for food which is implicitly linked to her weight, though in the beginning of the film she stresses how she has always been “big” meaning that there is something more to the story of how she became that size; after all eating habits is not the only factor that leads to weight gain. Being plus size doesn’t automatically make you a glutton and to show a plus size character pile up a tray of food (even for the sake of comedy) is ridiculous. It does nothing to help with the overall message, instead it reinforces the very fat stereotypes Mo’Niqe sought to break.
Though my sixteen year old self refused to accept the overall self love and acceptance message of the film when it was released back in 2006, now in my twenties I see that it really was a bold step forward. It is the first film that I can remember watching that included scenes with women that looked like me working out and wearing incredible fashion. Moreover, having the charavters of Jazmin and Tunde together romantically definitely breaks the stereotype that bigger women are not seen as attractive by thinner men. Even better is that Tunde is not simply a love interest, but one who presents Jazmin with some hard truths, pointing out that standards of beauty (especially American standards) are fleeting and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
It is interesting to note that in the years following the release of this film changes began to take place in plus size fashion to include trends and silhouettes usually reserved for straight sizes. I would be reaching if I were to say that these changes were a direct response to this film, yet I do believe that it did influence some the changes, if only in the body positive moment as it demonstrates that though we may not fit America’s standard of beauty, we can create and embrace our own and that’s all that matters.
Have you watched Phat Girlz? What do you think about how the film challenged fat phobia and body positivity?
Which should be reviewed next for my +Size Matters blog series?
- Hairspray (1980s vs. 2006 versions)
- Vintage Ads
- Other (make a recommendation in the comments!)
ABOUT THE SERIES: Whether or not we are conscious of it, what we consume as entertainment has a great impact on our personal growth and identity. In many cases media literacy has been dismissed to be unnecessary, yet the truth remains that media influences social ideals and constructs of such concepts as gender, race and body ideals. Disregarding the significance of media in turn promotes the continuation of stereotypes and fosters a negative self-image especially in girls and women. Critical media consumption aids the fight against the over-sexualization, and under-representation of women, that can lead to the creation of works that aid female empowerment. It all starts with us. With that in mind, “+ Size Matters” will analyze past and present plus size representation in media as doing so sheds light on the beauty/body standards and stereotypes that still need to be broken.