This isn’t a new trope; one of my favorite romantic comedies ever, The Last Holiday From 2006, stars the legendary Queen Latifah as a shy department store saleswoman and aspiring chef who is mistakenly diagnosed with brain tumors and told she’ll only live a few more weeks. This jump-starts her dream life: she quits her job and spends her savings on a trip to a five-star resort in the Czech Republic. She spurges on spa treatments, extravagant clothing, ski lessons, and food prepared by a famous chef she idolizes. Like the others, she also learns how to be confident in herself and eventually lands the guy (LL Cool J) when he turns up to inform her that her diagnosis was incorrect all along.
Even when plus-size women in romance movies aren’t being magically transported to the land where they’re desirable, the stories of their romances still tend to revolve around their weight or negative self-images that result from their weight. Netflix’s Dumplin’ (another favorite of mine) is a story about a fat teenage girl played by Danielle Macdonald who enters a beauty pageant as an ironic act of protest, only to discover that she was worthy of the title “beauty queen” all along. Throughout the movie, she consistently pushes her tall, lanky love interest — a coworker at a local fast food joint — away out of disbelief when he makes sincere attempts to date her.
Somewhat similarly, Phat Girlz, released in 2006, stars Mo’Nique as an aspiring fashion designer who struggles to find love in herself and with others due to society’s unrealistically thin beauty standards. On vacation, she meets her dream man in a handsome Nigerian doctor who finds both her body and personality sexy as all hell. Their relationship waves throughout the movie because she is convinced someone as conventionally attractive as he could never genuinely want her.
Most of these stories would make just as much sense with a straight-size lead. In this strangely specific genre of romance, self-loathing is normally the key obstacle in a character’s journey to find love. Not to mention that lack of self-confidence is rarely, if ever, a source of conflict in comedies starring thinner actors. Think of the most iconic romantic movies you’ve seen in your lifetime and the issues around which their plots revolve: 10 Things I Hate About You (secrets, rage), 13 Going on 30 (adulthood disenchantment), Princess Bride (class warfare), Clueless (being attracted to your ex-step-brother).
Now, fatness is not mutually exclusive with lack of confidence or self-respect, but the very intentional casting of fat versus thin actors in these romance movies sure does suggest as such. They definitely did to me, and the impact that’s had on my body image still surfaces in my mind every time I go on a date or harbor a new crush.
Don’t get me wrong; I adore most of these movies, and many of them are wildly relatable to those of us who happen to have battled with negative body image or fatphobic treatment while trying to find love. Still, they all insist that fat women can love themselves or be loved by another despite Their appearances, not because they are truly beautiful or simply have a connection with another character. I have a hunch that this is why more women than ever are turning into romance novels and fan fiction. Those are two of the only places where fat women are written as traditional romantic leads without a hint of irony or internally fatphobic rhetoric — and where romantic leads are described vaguely enough that anyone with any body type can picture themselves in the role.