Big as life

Nov 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

When a film addresses not just issues of beauty but the even touchier subject of weight, it touches a raw nerve. And what could be more offensive than one of Hollywood’s reigning stick figures, Gwyneth Paltrow, donning a fat suit in Shallow Hal, a comedy by gross-out kings the Farrelly brothers?

Despite People magazine’s declaration earlier this year that “healthy bodies are back,” Hollywood’s rail-thin actresses are not about to gain back the weight that would make them look like the average American woman. So why should this matter at all? Because they represent the standards of beauty, the barometer other females use when they look in the mirror and count the ways they don’t measure up (that’s a primal relationship, between a woman and her image of herself).

“I, obviously, as a woman, have physical things that I’m insecure about, things that I would change,” says Paltrow, “because that’s sort of how it is in our society. We’re constantly bombarded by these images of 12-year-old girls with makeup and we think we’re supposed to look like that. So I had the seed with which to germinate that feeling of ‘I don’t feel so good about myself.’ But then I spoke to women who were overweight and I just tried to ask some good questions.”

This said, how does Paltrow feel about being held up as a model for women who are never going to look like her?

“I’m never going to look like me, either,” she declares, “the way they airbrush the pictures and all that. I mean, I don’t look like that.”

A staple of the fashion industry (she’s Golden Gwyneth on the cover of W), Paltrow says she’s wary of its narrow ideas of beauty.

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry and it’s very tied to a certain image of women,” she explains. “Until that changes organically, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. We can try to alter people’s perceptions, but it does seem that we are at the whim of the people who make the images in our country.”

So Paltrow, who acknowledges that movie roles would have been harder to come by if she’d been heavier, approached the character of Rosemary in Shallow Hal not as a form of slumming, but as a way to explore the prejudices she didn’t have to face. The way obese people are treated became clear to Paltrow during her first public tryouts of that fat suit (which makes her appear to weigh 300 pounds), and she was disheartened to find that the people she encountered wouldn’t even make eye contact.

“I mean, who decided somebody who was thin was more appealing than somebody who was not thin?” she asks. “That’s what I like in the film, when Tony Robbins says, ‘We’re all hypnotized to have this image of what beauty should be’.”

In Shallow Hal, Rosemary’s weight is part of the comic equation, but she isn’t the butt of the jokes. That distinction belongs to Jack Black’s Hal, who after an encounter with motivational guru Robbins only sees women’s inner beauty, and perceives Rosemary as thin.

“It’s not that I would have ever looked at someone who was overweight and think a negative thought about them,” Paltrow explains of her pre-Shallow Hal perceptions. “I would have been fatist in that I would have recognized a difference between somebody who was extremely corpulent and somebody who wasn’t, and I think there’s no need to make that distinction.”

But that distinction is alive and well, and there are some performers, like the outspoken Mo’Nique, one of the raucous Queens of Comedy, who sees nothing wrong with big women being larger than life. In fact, the role she played in the romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game (out on video and DVD Dec. 26) was originally scheduled to go to model Tyra Banks.

“I love the fact that they put a big glamour girl in with those teeny-weeny women,” says Mo’Nique. “I love the fact that Diedre said what she felt, she felt what she said and didn’t care. And she was OK with herself. She loved who she was. She loved her man. She wasn’t afraid to talk about sex. She wasn’t afraid to talk about anything.

“In everything that I do,” she continues, “I will not be the stereotypical fat black girl. I will not wear muumuus. I will not be with no makeup and have my hair pulled back and be the unattractive one. Because I’m pretty and I want to be glamorous. Mo’Nique is a very sexy 200-pound woman. I will not be anything other than that.”

If Shallow Hal’s Rosemary can’t quite believe the sincerity of Hal’s affections, Two Can Play That Game’s Diedre takes her attractiveness for granted. Much of that bold confidence comes from Mo’Nique herself, who didn’t see the fashion industry servicing her particular needs, and started her own clothing line: Mo’Nique’s Big Beautiful and Loving It, available online at and in retail outlets in 2002.

“I want big women to know, it’s OK, you can be sexy,” she explains.

“The average-size woman, white and black, is a size 14. I’m a size 22/24. It was unfortunate that it took so many years for retailers to jump on, to realize size 2s aren’t really selling that much anymore. Traditionally, black women are big women. So, yes, it frustrates me when I came to Hollywood and I saw all my sisters like, ‘I’m eating carrots.’ ‘What? Why are you doing that?’ I mean, be healthy, but damn, a piece of chicken won’t kill you.”

While providing advice for all the Rosemarys wounded by insults and derision, Mo’Nique articulates a bold, positivist, fat girl philosophy.

“If I love me, you can’t help but to love me, and that’s for a size 2 or a 22,” she declares. “There’s not one thing anyone can say that’s going to pull my spirit. What I say to people like that is, ‘What are you trying to hide, baby, that you’ve got to put it on me?’”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]