Pop-Culture | Posted by Julie Z on 03/25/2011

Body Image in the Media: Glee Gets It Right, But Are We Ready?

Actress Ashley Fink

Actress Ashley Fink

Every once in a while, usually when 30 Rock is a re-run, I’ll flip over to the CW. And I kind of get the draw of the utterly escapist fantasies that shows like 90210 and Gossip Girl offer. Serena Van Der Woodsen / Blake Lively is like 14 feet tall with blonde hair that cascades over her shoulders as she effortlessly hails a cab on her way to a club – that just so happens to blithely serve the underage – in order to sabatoge another rich, white, tall, thin, personality-less girl in a plan that always seems to involve drugs or faked pregnancies or a trip to Geneva or something that probably could’ve been solved had she invited her nemesis to have a nice talk over Chai tea. But what do I know.

And for so long, this was all teens had. We turned on the TV and we were inundated with gorgeous creatures living our escapist fantasies. Were any of us represented in these shows? Did any of us recognize ourselves or our real problems in these shows? Unless there are more teens inexplicably blowing their trust funds on jaunts across Europe randomly in the middle of the school year than I thought, then the answer would be no. We ate it up because we wanted to be those characters, sure, but also because we didn’t have very many other options.

Then Glee came along.

At first, we thought Glee was just a show that glorified the inexplicable burst into a musical number in the middle of the school hall. Which is cool – I secretly have a dream that some 80′s hit will magically be broadcasted over my school’s PA system and that the entire student body will spontaneously break out into a perfectly choreographed dance, so I appreciated the show from the get go. But then they started to get real. They had a mission to spread the gospel of diversity, and they were not giving up.

There is absolutely no doubt that Glee has the widest range of characters of any show on the air right now – and they actually reflect real teens (WHAT A CONCEPT!). From race to ability to sexual orientation, Glee put it all out there. While we’d arguably been introduced to all of these character “types” before, they’d always been “special” episodes. You know – the whole “this is the episode where the main character meets a handicapable student and realizes it’s great to be different” – then the show goes back to “normal.” Glee introduced these characters as actual members of the cast, with well-rounded personalities and problems and everything! And my peers took it in stride – it was beautiful! Look, my generation gets diversity and we want to accept people! Progress!

Then they introduced the character of Lauren, played by actress Ashley Fink, an overweight, female wrestler, who joins Glee club as a “warm body” so that they have enough participants to compete.

And that’s when my peers began to lose their shit. It’s not just that this Lauren chick was fat – that was heresy enough. As I overheard somebody in my grade saying, “who wants to watch that on TV.” It’s that she was okay with being fat. You guys…she called herself beautiful. She’s secure, confident, and a complete badass despite the fact that her physical appearance does not meet societal standards. And not just societal standards, which are impossible enough to meet, but she’s nowhere near the standard for a female TV CHARACTER. I MEAN FOR GOD’S SAKE THAT IS NOT OKAY. And if that wasn’t hard enough to take, the gorgeous singing football player, Puck, fell in love with her. TOO. MUCH. TO. COMPUTE.

This is where I get really, really annoyed.

Lauren performing with the Glee Club

Lauren performing with the Glee Club

No girl wants to keep comparing herself to the Serena Van Der Woodsons of teen-oreinted T.V. That is the very kind of image that is driving us crazy. I personally know that despite the fact that my entire body is equal to the length of Serena’s impossibly long legs, I still wish I could be as tall as her, and it drives me insane. We really do want to see other representations of women. We want to see a full figured woman, or hell, just an average sized woman would be progress. Because when those images are in the media, it becomes okay. We can breathe a little bit – she’s on T.V. and she looks a little closer to my size, we think, maybe I don’t have to obsess over the fact that my thighs rub together, when her’s may not be 6 inches apart.

But, as Glee’s Lauren has indicated, that want for the representation of “real” women is apparently still on a less than conscious level for teens. Girls reject representations of women like Lauren not because they don’t want to see them, but because we’ve virtually never seen them before. I feel confident stating that we’ve never seen a female character either as large as Lauren, and the larger characters we have seen are constantly crying about their size or being teased, or something. It’s okay to be fat, the media tells us, as long as you’re trying to do something about it, as long as you want to “fix” it and try to achieve that image of perfection. When we see women like Lauren, the sad truth is that we don’t even know what to do with them, despite the fact that we desperately want, and arguably NEED to see them.

And what about when girls like Lauren get the guy like Puck? Well then we have to deal with the reasons WHY we idolize unattainable bodies in most TV shows, and why we use the escapism of replacing ourselves with perfect TV stars to be that girl and be in that relationship. Our whole relationship with hating our body gets called into question. Well she’s big, we start to realize, and she’s okay with it. And she’s with the “ideal” guy. Wait…why do I hate my body again? And then not having that reason why we must, must, must be skinny anymore becomes very unsettling. We’re left somewhere between still hating our bodies (those years of damage can’t be erased with one character on Glee) and getting a glimpse that it might actually be okay to not be…well, perfect.

What do we do with that?

Well, we hate Lauren.

Some might see this Lauren-hate phenomenon as an indication that girls reject images of larger women in the media, that we’re not ready for it or don’t want it. On the contrary, this reaction is evidence that we need more images of Lauren-like characters. Girls really, truly look to the media – especially T.V. – as a guide of sorts, and this backlash to Lauren only illuminates the sad truth that we don’t even know what a real woman looks like when she appears on our T.V. screen – even if we might be living with or best friends with somebody who looks exactly like her.

For the record, not all of us hate Lauren. A lot of us get that she’s awesome and that her character is super progressive. I personally LOVE her and think she’s the most empowered female character I’ve ever seen on T.V. And the more we see Lauren-esque characters, the more we will ALL learn to be okay with the way we look. We will learn that it’s’ not only a reality that our bodies are not going to look like Blake Lively’s, but that it’s possible to like, even love, ourselves for this very reason.

This post is part of the WAM! It Yourself Blogathon! WAM! It Yourself is a multi-city decentralized conference on gender and media run by Women, Action & the Media. Events are taking place in seven cities and online from March 20th to March 27th. Check out the full schedule of events here!

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  • jfcfanatic @ at 10:31 am, March 25th, 2011

    You really should check out the show Popular. It was on the WB back in 1999-2001. It’s on DVD and really was what you’re talking about. The characters were real, going through real life situations. It’s not often that you see an episode focused on a large man (i.e. a huge guy on the wrestling team) who has an eating disorder.

    Plus it’s got Sara Rue. How can you not love that?

  • KiaKaha18 @ at 12:01 pm, March 25th, 2011

    The best part of the Lauren character, for me, is the fact that Puck is panting after her and she is holding him at bay. She is not desperately and insecurely clinging to him as if he represents her track to popularity, an escape from her social isolation, or the one chance she will ever have to be with someone like him because she looks the way she does.

    She has AMAZING self esteem, and that should be celebrated. The people who get it, though, will be those who have been there and survived, and not those who are there now.

  • Allie @ at 12:43 pm, March 25th, 2011

    as a big girl my self who’s lost weight, 100 pounds, it is nice to see a girl who loves herself no matter what. but i can tell you, being that big is not healthy. i know i sound like a hater, and i’m not. i would like to see somebody like Lauren try to get healthier, maybe not smaller like one of the cheerleaders, but do something good for her health. i have missed a few episodes so i may be wrong, for give me if i am. but i want to see somebody like me who is trying to get healthier by eating right and exercising and not staying the size that she is, a size 22. its hard to be big, it really truly is, people seriously hate you they think you are a pig who eats anything and everything and does not exercise. even though i dance for an hour every day, thanks just dance 2, i still have another 100 pounds to go to get to a healthy size, size 10. i think she’s great and i love the diversity but i would love to see somebody like me so others don’t think all fat people are horrible lazy pigs!

  • Katherine C. @ at 12:47 pm, March 25th, 2011

    wonderfully written post! *applauds*

  • Cara @ at 12:58 pm, March 25th, 2011

    Popular was fantastic — I also highly recommend it.

    Aside from that, I just want to say that, as someone in her late 20s, I’m always really excited when I read posts on the f-bomb. It’s really awesome and inspiring to see teens who aren’t afraid to be feminists and who support and encourage other girls and women.

  • selects @ at 12:16 am, March 26th, 2011

    this was extremely well written and thought provoking, thank you!

  • Jenn_smithson @ at 12:50 am, March 26th, 2011

    Allie – no offense to you, but lower weight does not equal “healthy” for all or even most people. Does the show actually reveal that she is that size from poor nutrition and lack of exercise? From what I’ve seen of it, that’s not the case. So why the automatic assumption that she MUST be unhealthy because she is fat? This is part of the same fat hatred narrative that the above post so eloquently describes. I am only slightly smaller than the actress and have been this way for literally decades. I, too, was a wrestler, in choir, and my big butt was also rather light on my feet as I played volleyball too. Since then, I haven’t exercised as regularly as is recommended and I’ve grown a small bit larger but I am not unhealthy. I have no health problems and I never have. In fact, I’ve had to switch doctors several times because They could not accept that a woman my size could be healthy, much like yourself. This overwhelming desire to conflate health with thinness is what’s killing many women (and to a lesser extent some men) through eating disorders, diet crazes and assinine exercise routines. Some people are meant to be large. In fact, being in the overweight category generally mean you will lead a longer, healthier life than underweight and on-target folks. It is perfectly possible that like me, the actress eats nutritious foods, drinks plenty of water (in fact I only drink water and one glass of milk a night), and gets in 35 minutes of cardio 3 times a week and is STILL large.

    There is no such thing as the “perfect size” which is the statement that belies your feigned interest in health because you CAN be healthy at size 28, 18, 10, 8, and possibly even 0. You would do well to google fat acceptance and, like Lauren, love yourself just as you are. You’re not quite there yet.
    Best of luck!

  • the Constantly Dramatic One @ at 11:43 am, March 26th, 2011

    I don’t watch Glee cause it hurts my brain.

    This is a wonderfully written piece…however….

    I am a big girl myself. I wear a size 14/16 AU/UK and I have to admit that when I heard of the story line with a hot guy going after a “girl that looks like that”, I did raised my eyebrow.

    Thing is…stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life. Hot guys like that don’t go for girls like me or Lauren. It is a lovely form of escapism but yeah…that’s just not real.

    I’m not hatin, I’m just sayin.

  • RebJ @ at 11:08 pm, March 26th, 2011

    I really don’t like what glee did by introducing lauren. She’s basically fetishized for her fatness. I know so many people who didn’t even know what her name was in the show for the first several episodes with her–she’s just the token fat girl, and that’s all that really matters about her character in her show. I mean, I guess that’s what glee does with every character on the show–uses them as a vehicle to push a particular issue into their show (except for the white, normative characters, they can have depth and nuance, of course), but I feel like they took it to a whole new, unacceptable level with Lauren. Mercedes is a large girl too, why couldn’t they explore the topic of body image with her? Oh wait, she’s already the token angry black girl, there’s no room to add another dimension to her character.

  • Tessa @ at 11:54 am, March 27th, 2011

    I agree with RebJ. The only characters that we really get to know in depth are the straight white skinny characters. Kurt is the only exception to that rule. We barely know anything about Tina, Mercedes, Lauren, etc. I love Glee, but I hate the fact that we only get to know the “normative” characters really well.

  • Tash @ at 9:23 pm, March 27th, 2011

    As a big woman who was slim(ish) in my 20′s, am now BIG in my 30′s and has had a very happy, healthy & active dating life – I’d like to reassure you that is possible to get the hot guy. It’s everything to do with your own confidence – which in my teens I used to believe was rubbish! But it turned out to be true. Keep in mind also that the “hot guys” can often as not be mean or dumb, so why would you necessarily even want to get them? Dumb, smart, friendly, shy, mean, selfish, generous, skinny, fat, clear skin, ance prone, whatever – there truly is no straightforward equation for a combination that will equal who you will be attracted to and who will be attracted to you.
    This is a great article that you’ve written and I’m looking forward to, hopefully, Glee expanding the roles further.
    Cheers,
    Tash.

  • Halle @ at 9:33 pm, March 27th, 2011

    I love Lauren and all she represents, but I have to agree with Allie. Lauren should feel no less self confident, and on the show she is a wrestler so chances are she will have lots of muscle and just be bigger from wrestling, but the fact is that she is very overweight and its not healthy. I’m not saying she should be upset or feel bullied about her weight, and the show doesn’t need to make a big deal or even show her losing some of it, but being that size isn’t healthy on your heart. I appreciate everything Lauren is and stands for, and I’m not saying that this happens at all (quite the opposite) but we shouldn’t glorify girls that are very overweight OR girls that are super skinny. Personally I’d like to see athletic girls that may not have perfect bodies, but are somewhere inbetween the two extremes you always see on TV.

  • Halle @ at 9:36 pm, March 27th, 2011

    Jenn- I just read your comment and not to kill this but yes I agree that some people are meant to be larger, yes its in their genes, but being as large as Lauren IS NOT healthy. The fact that you needed to change doctors shows this. If you really are healthy then your weight WILL go closer to the normal range. Obesity is PROVEN to cause heart failure.

  • allie @ at 6:05 pm, March 29th, 2011

    @ Jenn_smithson
    i’m with Halle on this. i know what acceptance is but i am not advocating that being obese is alright. it may seem scary to lose the weight, it was for me at first, but i did it. i to at 380 pounds was light on my feet and somewhat active for somebody my size, and i ignored that i was unhealthy, until i looked at a picture of myself and realized i need to do something before i died. the human body is not meant to be close to 300 pounds, sorry its just not. i’m not trying to be hateful, i feel for people who are big, i understand their struggle, but i refuse to ignore the fact that there is a difference between loving yourself and wanting to improve your health and being in self denial because you are scared! i work out and eat pretty much vegetarian, no junk no fast food, and i get shit for my size and i hate it, that is unfair. but i feel if shows show larger people on TV who love themselves and want to do right, by exercising and eating right then maybe the stereotype will change.

  • allie @ at 6:06 pm, March 29th, 2011

    i’ve since lost 100 pounds i’m now 280, just to let you guys know!

  • allie @ at 6:06 pm, March 29th, 2011

    AND I’M PROUD OF THAT!

  • Five for Friday :: 1 April 2011 | Nourishing the Soul - A forum on body image and the effects of eating disorders @ at 6:02 am, April 1st, 2011

    [...] any piece that talks about Glee, feminism, media literacy, and size acceptance all in one post. Check it out over on [...]

  • Becky @ at 7:16 am, April 3rd, 2011

    In response to Halle and Allie, while the show is representing a large woman as confident and happy with herself, I do not think that that is promoting obesity. Do people turn on their TVs and say “Look at Lauren! She is so fat! ZOMG I WANT TO BE JUST LIKE HER!”? Evidently not. What Glee is doing is representing all different types of teenagers.
    On Gossip Girl, Blair, Serena and etc all drink copious amounts of alchohol casulally. Are we here talking about how unhealthy that is? No. AND people are much more likely to drink because a TV show casually represents drinkers than they are to become large because a TV represents a larger girl.

  • Renee @ at 3:40 pm, May 28th, 2011

    @Jen_smithson you say thiness is killing women well so is obesity and it is a damn harde disease to get rid of; it is so deeply embedded in our negative veiw of food that is killing our country and our children you look at an obese child who has to take insulin and then tell me to love it and “accept” it

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