+Size Matters : Fat Monica & the Reformed Fat Friend Trope

When I started my blog back in January of 2015 I did so with half of a notebook full of  potential post titles, and blog topics I wanted to cover. These topics included race, fashion, life in NYC, beauty routines and dating, however, even with all those note-filled pages only only one item was underlined, and highlighted under a section I had entitled “+Size Matters” — Fat Monica. It was a blog topic that I had been pushing back discussing because it is a problematic aspect of a popular character from a beloved 90’s sitcom. However, once 2018 started I decided to start the year with another entry to the +Size Matters series. Why? Well we are just finishing off the third week of January which traditionally is when the pressures of diet culture reaches its zenith due to the  weight loss resolutions pushed at the start of the new year. So its basically the perfect time to look at  the very damaging  trope that Fat Monica embodies, that  of the “reformed fat friend” which perpetuates diet culture and the “value” that is attached to thinness especially when it comes to women’s bodies.

To be clear, I know that this particular “Friends” character has pretty much been analyzed to death and for good reason. “Friends” was and still remains to be a popular series, even with its problematic lack of a diverse cast though set in New York City, but it is definitely gaining some strong criticisms  at the moment since it is now streaming on Netflix. People are doing a double take at the sexism, homophobia, stereotyping and fat-phobia/fat shaming that is present in almost every episode.Honestly I actually didn’t  watch an episode of the series until the end of my sophomore year in college in 2010. By that time I finally got cable at home and Nick at Nite gave me access to the sitcom’s reruns, out of order of course but I caught on to the premise quickly and became a faithful viewer. The fact that the 6 primary characters were in their mid-twenties got me hooked on the show because it provided me a look at what life after college and graduate school was like;  sans huge apartment in the city within walking distance to my friends of course. And more to it than that I found myself relating to the character of Monica Geller which in part had to do with how, like me,  she was the serious mother-hen of her circle of friends and her brother was in her immediate group of friends. Then  I found out that she was plus size as a teen and I got excited that a show had body inclusivity in its story line, that is until they finally showed Monica as her fat self.

Played by Courtney Cox in a fat suit, Monica’s weight, size and appetite were greatly exaggerated for the sake of humor.  Moreover, her weight and size dictated how attractive and desirable she was as well as how fashionable she could dress. She is almost childlike in personality, being incredibly naive and ironically she is shown to not be sexually active as a plus size woman even though she is actually the character with the most sexual partners in the series as her thin-self. The sad part is that even as a size 0-2* she is never allowed to forget her “former fatness” by her friends and family. Throughout the series her own brother, Ross along with the rest of the gang, pokes fun at her past weight issues to intentionally humiliate her. One could argue that it is a carefully crafted weapon used against Monica to keep her in check, shaming her so that she immediately reverts to feelings of shame that she once had leading to her being  consoled often times by her high school best friend, Rachael.

What a difference a year makes! * read sarcasm*

Add a hypercritical mother, who makes a point to criticize everything about Monica from her appearance to her career, in the mix and you have a person who would have some serious mental health and body image issues. Her binge eating habits, while the punchline of many jokes on the show, are truly indicative of an eating disorder in need of some sort of counseling to deal with the psychological motivators of the problem not laughter.  And yes, obviously a lot of the has to do with the fact that the some of the  situations and humor don’t translate well today. I mean the 90’s was a different time. I should know, I as born in 1990 and saw it all first hand. That was the decade of “heroin chic and the skeletal grunge aesthetic” with a new diet fad being introduced and promoted every week.

I rarely find that people even remember this version of the show’s opening song.

Yet even with the rise of the body positive movement in the last 10 years, the use of the “reformed fat friend” trope is still remains in common use in media, particularly on both television and film.  Films like “Get Smart” comes to mind, where the protagonist (played again by an actor in a fat suit) is shown to have been a former-fat who had to work off the weight in order to become the romantic lead. However, the major difference is that in the case of Fat Monica is that she gains respect and worth only after losing the weight. More so it is clear that her motivation for doing so is because someone she had a crush on, her future husband no less, shamed her for her size. I also attribute this trope and the revenge weight-loss narrative that is part of it  for being the reason why shows like “Revenge Body With Khloe Kardashian” have such a massive following.

In talking with my own friends that actually grew up watching the series I got to see the profound influence “Fat Monica” had on them. While they do admit to watching the show through a nostalgia lens now as adults, it wasn’t lost to them that the Monica’s character demonstrated that being thin was the way to go if they wanted to be considered beautiful and worthy of things like love. The repeated use of this trope not only in “Friends” but in other media they consumed at the time lead to some destructive behavior for some of them like avoiding eating in public, making sure to diet as much as possible and even self harm for not managing to meet the beauty standards they were consistently bombarded by.

For me these current discussions are a testament to how far we’ve come when it comes to rejecting diet culture and becoming intolerant of fat shaming though there is still much to do. I like to think that if this series was picked up for a reboot  featuring 6 millennials in NYC, not only would the cast be far more diverse than the original,  but Monica wouldn’t be a “reformed fat friend.” Instead her character could be given a body positive spin, a story line that doesn’t dwell on her size and hopefully a kick-ass closet that will provide a positive influence that will help kill the trope completely.

*Note: Its never clearly stated what her size is when she is then so I’ve always just assumed that she was either one of those sizes.

ABOUT THE +SIZE MATTERS 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.

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