Google “fat movies” and the result is a list of films that throw a thin, big-name actor into a fat suit, play the body type for jokes, and then reveal later that getting skinny is awesome. But with 69.2 percent of Americans overweight, and a full 35.9 percent of this country’s adult population classified as obese, movies that actually positively represent heavy people—or present them as people at all—are so valuable.
1. Tracy Turnblad, Hairspray (1988, 2007)
Take, for example, John Waters’ Hairspray. In both its 1988 and 2007 iterations, lead character Tracy Turnblad is a pleasantly plump hair hopper who’s been ostracized from society for being a little bit big. She finds confidence when she gets a regular spot on The Corny Collins Show, lands the cutest guy in town, and even gets an endorsement deal for plus-size clothing boutique The Hefty Hideaway before becoming Miss Auto Show 1963. While all this hokey terminology could be looked at as sort of a backhand farce, Waters’ equivocation of fat and comical, Turnblad is never anything but sweet and confident in either film. She’s a fat kid who can’t help who she is, so she’s going to be all she can. It’s a good message for a young person with weight issues—especially if they can dance.
2. Grace Hart, Babycakes (1989)
Ricki Lake stars as Grace Hart in Babycakes, a Lifetime TV movie from the late ’80s that ran randomly on the network well into the ’90s. While Hart’s life isn’t great—she’s a mortuary cosmetician whose family and friends don’t believe she can get a date—she ultimately lands the perfect guy: subway conductor and amateur figure skater Rob, who leaves his cruel but perfect-looking girlfriend, Olivia, after she demeans Grace. While the message of the movie is a little heavy-handed (it is Lifetime, after all), it’s a good one: As the tagline goes, “Love doesn’t come in sizes.”
3. Nicki Fifer, The Drew Carey Show (1997)
Never shy about making its star the butt of a fat joke, The Drew Carey Show was usually as insightful about weight as Friends was about finding an affordable apartment in Manhattan. At least once, however, the ’90s sitcom played obesity not for laughs, but for disarming drama. In season three, Drew begins dating a realtor named Nicki, played by a young Kate Walsh. He later learns that his new girlfriend used to have an eating problem not unlike his own; in subsequent episodes, Nicki begins to backslide into bad behavior, with Walsh donning prosthetics to portray the newly overweight character. Despite the employment of a fat suit, the show’s treatment of the way lovers can act as enablers, feeding each other’s unhealthy habits, was surprisingly sensitive and authentic. Certainly, there was nothing phony about the culmination of this story arc: a stone-faced Drew watching his relationship crumble on videotape, as Nicki calls off their engagement during an ill-fated attempt to make a sex tape together. It was as heavy as the show ever got, no pun intended.
4. Hannah Horvath, Girls (2012—)
Of all the characters on this list, perhaps none have had their weight so intensely scrutinized by the viewing public than Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath. This is odd, because she’s barely overweight—but Dunham underscores her character’s anxiety about body image by playing up Horvath’s nudity, which just makes the contrast between most naked women in film and television and Dunham’s unapologetically atypical body more obvious. Without getting into the slog of what Dunham’s weight means and whether Hannah Horvath matters, one scene from the first-season episode “She Did” indicates—without pouring it on too thick—just how much Horvath’s insecurity about her weight has seeped into the rest of her life. Her hesitation over living with Adam turns into a screaming fight in the middle of the street, and it culminates in Adam yelling to Hannah, “What, you think because you’re 11 pounds overweight, you know struggle?” Hannah screams back: “I’m 13 pounds overweight, and it has been awful for me my whole life!” The specificity of the numbers and the raw delivery of Dunham’s performance underscore the reality of her experience, and makes this moment a fitting segue into one of the series’ most memorable scenes, when Horvath wakes up at Coney Island and eats her cake on the beach.
5. Fat Amy, Pitch Perfect (2012)
Offering her talents to the leaders of the university’s all-female a cappella team, Rebel Wilson’s character in Pitch Perfect explains that she calls herself Fat Amy in order to get the jump on “twig bitches like you.” The line only hints at what Fat Amy has gone through in the past, before she decided to take the twig bitches’ insults and wear them as a badge of honor. (Having warmed up to her teammates, she tells them, “Even though some of you are pretty thin, I think that you all have fat hearts.”) A talented (and sexy) pleasure seeker who never asks for sympathy, and who doesn’t need it—she can wield a put-down like a switchblade—Fat Amy combines the likability of Tracy Turnblad with the mean-girl charms of her arch-nemesis, Amber Von Tussle, becoming the best of both worlds.
6. Dom, Fatso (1980)
Amid a career of playing the funny fat guy, often in movies by Mel Brooks, Dom DeLuise played the crying-on-the-inside kind for Fatso. The film—the sole writing and directing credit of Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft—is mostly a comedy in name only, steeped as it is in the often-dark psychological reasons behind overeating. DeLuise stars as “Dom,” a portly product of both nature and nurture, born to a family predisposed to obesity and a mother who encourages him to stuff his feelings with food. After his similarly rotund cousin dies young of a heart attack, Dom resolves to avoid a similar fate, and his struggle to stay on top of the Weight Watchers-like program “Chubby Checkers” is interrupted by spirals into sad, shameful binging. Meanwhile, Dom’s self-consciousness about his appearance complicates his pursuit of the woman he adores, and—in a feedbag feedback loop—his fear of rejection spurs him to pig out whenever he feels spurned. Fatso is ultimately an uplifting story about self-acceptance, but its depiction of the yo-yo cycle of dieting shows how depressingly difficult it can be to get there, once the damage has been done.
7. Camp Hope residents, Heavyweights (1995)
Nineteen years after its theatrical debut, the schlubbier, anarchic edges of the fat-camp comedy Heavyweights point toward the future output of co-writer Judd Apatow. In light of the awkward, lopsided final product, however, it’s safe to assume Disney viewed the film as an extension of the past rather than a trail to Tomorrowland—specifically the parts of the past that involved the box-office success of The Mighty Ducks, the breakthrough hit for Apatow’s Heavyweights collaborator, Steven Brill. Ironic, considering the film’s messages about staying true to yourself: Heavyweights is set at Camp Hope, where self-esteem and fun are prioritized over Biggest Loser-style transformation. That all comes to an end when fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller, playing an embryonic version of Dodgeball’s White Goodman) purchases Camp Hope, but the gulag-like conditions and extreme workout regimen prompt an insurrection by campers and counselors alike. Their ultimate victory comes with sacrifice, but there are tougher lessons to learn than “you probably shouldn’t carry Pez dispensers in your socks.” The lovable losers get one over the pretty people, making incremental improvements to their lives without fundamentally changing what makes them unique—a hallmark of Apatow films to come that’s a decent fit for a family movie.
8. Victor Modino, Heavy (1995)
Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the hero of James Mangold’s Heavy, is a 30ish cook who works in his mother’s roadside diner. A stranger (David Patrick Kelly) he meets in a hospital sums Vince’s problems up when he sympathetically observes that he’s “big as an ox, but nobody sees you.” Lonely and uncommunicative, Vince is so self-conscious about his size that he just wants to disappear unnoticed into the background, until he can take consolation in his next meal. He only begins to consider the possibility that his life may not have ended before it began when a pretty young woman (Liv Tyler) takes a job at the diner and encourages him to broaden his horizons by going to cooking school. The film is a quiet character study that asks audiences to consider that those whose body shapes take them out of the “conventionally attractive” category may have hidden qualities. Insufficiently impressed by this message, the marketing department promoted the movie with an ad campaign focused mostly on images of Liv Tyler’s face.
9. Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Vincent D’Onofrio famously gained 70 pounds to play the role of Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket, a transformation that heavily informed his portrayal of the inept private who’s a favorite target of R. Lee Ermey’s sadistic drill sergeant, who refers to him exclusively as “Private Pyle.” Pyle’s weight substantially hinders him during basic training, when he can’t do a single pull-up or surmount obstacles (injuring D’Onofrio’s knee so badly in real life that it required surgery). When Matthew Modine’s Private Joker takes him under his wing, Pyle improves, but continues to struggle with his weight. In one heartbreaking scene, the drill sergeant discovers a jelly donut in Pyle’s footlocker. “Are you allowed to eat jelly donuts, Private Pyle?” he says. “Sir, no sir!” “And why not, Private Pyle?” “Sir, because I’m too heavy, sir!” “Because you are a disgusting fat-body, Pyle!” Unable to tame his appetite and impulses, Pyle is forced to eat the donut while the rest of the platoon does push-ups.
10. Muriel Heslop, Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Toni Collette wasn’t fat in Muriel’s Wedding—her breakout role—but she reportedly had to gain about 40 pounds for the role. That weight made Collette plumply believable as Muriel Heslop, an awkward, overweight woman from Porpoise Spit, Australia, who just wants to become fabulous and fulfill her dreams. While the way Heslop goes about achieving her dreams is pretty suspect—a forged check, a marriage of convenience to a dreamy but assholish swimmer who needs a passport—the fact that she has those dreams and will do anything to achieve them, is fairly realistic. While viewers might watch Muriel’s Wedding and malign Heslop’s lack of self-love, that kind of battle with low self-esteem isn’t uncommon in overweight people, especially in overweight women. Ultimately, Heslop realizes what’s important to her and ditches her ridiculous fantasies, but not before letting things get far too out of hand.
11. Angus Bethune, Angus (1995)
Though his weight makes him a ringer on the football field, Angus’ Angus Bethune isn’t exactly lighting things up socially in his high school. Bethune is routinely harassed by James Van Der Beek’s Rick Sandford and his friends, and decides to transfer to a science magnet school to avoid his bullies. Following a disastrous underwear-related incident, Bethune opts to take the advice of his recently deceased grandfather and face his bullies, standing up to Rick despite the jock’s abject humiliation of Angus at the high school dance. Though Angus’ perseverance is a little extreme—as is to be expected in a teen drama—it’s a good reminder that not only is bullying sometimes cruel and unrelenting, but that it’s also not an absolute social death sentence for life—unless you let it be.
12. Bonnie Grape, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
As the title character of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Johnny Depp is living in his dilapidated family house, stuck in a dead-end job in a small Iowa town; he has to care for his mentally handicapped younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio) because his mother has become so depressed since her husband killed himself that she has essentially resigned her parental duties and withdrawn from the world. When DiCaprio gets in trouble with the law and she has to go to the police station, it’s the first time she’s left the house in seven years, and she’s so big that the sight of her draws a crowd. Depression can feel like a heavy weight that’s holding a person down, and the mother’s obesity is like a physical manifestation of her crippling psychological state, which only makes it that much harder for her to heal. Darlene Cates, who played the role, had never acted before; the screenwriter, Peter Hedges, had seen her on a daytime talk show, discussing her own experiences as a shut-in. (Cates, who once topped the scales at almost 550 pounds, was bedridden for two years and housebound for five.)
13. Randy Newman, “Davy The Fat Boy” (1968)
The closing number from Randy Newman’s self-titled debut album, “Davy The Fat Boy” is a classic example of the singer-songwriter’s knack for songs that cruelly subvert listeners’ expectations while satirizing the characters who are singing them. In the case of “Fat Boy,” the singer begins by telling of his lifelong friendship with the orphaned Davy, and how he made a deathbed promise to Davy’s parents that he would always take care of him, since “you may be the only friend he’ll ever have.” It turns out to be the preamble to a carny barker’s pitch, inviting audiences to step up and gawk at the freak: “I think I can persuade him to do the famous fat boy dance for you,” the singer promises. “Just give me half a chance. I know you’ll like my fat boy’s dance!”
14. Mrs. Joyboy, The Loved One (1965)
The Loved One, loosely adapted by the British director Tony Richardson from Evelyn Waugh’s novel about Los Angeles, dates from a period when it was fashionable for moviemakers to depict America, and the city that American movies came from in particular, as one big, gross sick joke. Much of the movie’s satire was stale the day it opened, but one sequence retains the power to shock: The plump, fey embalmer Joyboy (Rod Steiger) brings his proper fiancée (Anjanette Comer) home to meet Richardson’s idea of the American mother. Mama Joyboy (Ayllene Gibbons) is bedridden, Jabba-sized, and appears to have whittled life down to her two passions: eating and watching television. She has, in fact, combined them, planning her TV schedule around her favorite commercials for various foods, whose images bring her to climax. She’s grotesque, all right, but she’s more robustly alive than the thin young Englishwoman who recoils from the sight of her, and she seems to be the only person in the City of Angels who’s capable of enjoying herself.
15. Sara Goldfarb, Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Requiem For A Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel about the different forms that addiction can take, features Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb, a lonely widow whose son (Jared Leto) is a dedicated junkie. With nothing else in her life, Sara fantasizes about appearing on a TV game show and, desperate to regain her svelte, youthful appearance so she can look her best on the tube, begins a crash-diet regimen that includes generous doses of prescription amphetamines. Eventually, hunger and drugs leave her so addled that she is incarcerated in a mental ward after experiencing a nightmare hallucination of being attacked by her monster refrigerator.
16. Gloria Matthews, Waiting To Exhale (1995)
Gloria Matthews, the single mother played by Loretta Devine in Waiting To Exhale, isn’t exactly fat, but she’s not wafer-thin, and for a regular, full-bodied woman, she has a special problem: Her best friends are played by Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Lela Rochon. When a good-looking widower (Gregory Hines) moves in across the street, Gloria puts out a line for him by inviting him to dinner and bragging about all the delicious foods she’s prepared to make for him, though in the same breath she feels the need to assert that “I have no business eating it myself, big as I am.” Things start looking up when Hines replies that his late wife “was a big woman. I like a woman with a little meat on her bones.”