I talked with a new campaign pushing for body diversity in "The Bachelor."
It’s no secret that I care an inordinate amount about The Bachelor franchise. I wrote an entire book satirizing it, after all, and you don’t spend that much time obsessing over a topic unless you love it on some level. That’s why some of the franchise’s biggest fans are also its most vocal critics.
Case in point: The Roses for Every Body campaign for fat inclusion, launched on July 11, is run by people who are incredibly well-versed in the history of the show and its spin-offs. They know The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise inside and out. They want the franchise to feature bodies of every type, shape, and size precisely because they want it to be better and connect with more people.
Out of the thousand-plus contestants who have appeared on the franchise’s programs, only two have identified as being plus-size, according to Roses for Every Body. That situation doesn’t happen by accident; it’s a result of conscious casting decisions and by now, it’s created a vicious cycle: When fat people see that only thin people get cast on dating shows, they get the message that they need not apply.
Below, I talked with Roses for Every Body about everything from their new campaign to Kate Stayman-London’s One to Watch. I learned a lot from this conversation, and I hope you do, too.
(Oh, and after you read the Q+A, be sure to go sign their petition to show that there’s demand for body diversity on TV. As of this writing, they’ve cracked the 5,000 mark and I’d love to watch that number climb higher.)
There have only been two Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants who identified as being plus-size out of over 1,100 contestants, which is a staggering statistic. How does that compare to the diversity of sizes we see among, say, American women?
The people we’ve seen featured on the show are not at all representative of the actual population. Sixty-seven percent of American women wear a size 16 or above; that's the majority of women in the US. As for men, it’s estimated that 70% of American men are considered “overweight” or larger, by the BMI’s standard. Bodies are diverse — except on The Bachelor.
(BMI is junk science, but it’s the only metric the medical system uses, so it’s what we have to work with regarding stats. And we don’t have stats on men who specifically wear plus sizes, because men’s fashion is categorized differently than women’s.)
What message does it send when the people on the show don’t really look like the people who watch the show?
It sends the message that thinness is a prerequisite for a chance at love. Imagine you’ve been watching this show since its first season, 2002, and every season you hear the lead say some version of “it’s not about looks, it’s about who they are as a person”. Yet, you never see a person who looks like you being desired or loved. The show is communicating that thin people are the only ones good or interesting enough to be given this chance at love.
I only ask this question because I think the mindset still, sadly, needs debunking: What would you say to those who argue that, because the show is presenting a fantasy version of romance, it makes sense that it also showcases what are, for many of us, unattainably thin bodies?
Why is thinness the fantasy? It’s certainly not everyone’s fantasy; just ask any fat woman about their DMs. And this is not to say that the fetishization of fat people is preferred to exclusion; both are dehumanizing and reduce us to our bodies. However, we’ve had leads who’ve publicly stated that they are interested in people of all body types, and yet their contestant pools did not reflect this.
In his first interview as the new Bachelor, Matt James hoped for diversity in the contestant pool. Matt mentioned on Good Morning Americathat his ideal partner would have qualities found in women of all shapes and sizes. Another example is former Bachelorette, Katie Thurston, who recently revealed on Instagramthat she had specifically asked for “teddy-bear bods” in her group of men. Neither had any of these types of contestants on their seasons. If the show’s ultimate goal is to help their leads find love, then they would cast people the leads want, even if that includes fat people. The fact that they haven’t means that they are not prioritizing their leads’ wants, and are instead casting people they believe the audience will enjoy looking at.
“The show is communicating that thin people are the only ones good or interesting enough to be given this chance at love.”
How does your campaign dovetail with other efforts to increase the diversity of the contestant pool?
Anti-fatness is inextricably linked to anti-Blackness; we would not have the fatphobia of today without racism and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. When Europeans began enslaving Black Africans, they justified their brutality by pretending that Black Africans were not as human as white Europeans. They differentiated themselves from Black people through skin color, as well as body size, because a handful of the Black folks that they came in contact with were fat. This is where fatness became linked to Blackness, and modern versions of these ideas persist to this day. For this reason, we cannot fight anti-fatness without also fighting anti-Blackness. This is why we’re demanding diverse fat people, diverse in size and body type, but also diverse in race. Including only fat white people would not be meeting our demands.
“We’re not asking for perfection, we’re asking for progress.”
I have to ask if you’ve read Kate Stayman-London’s One to Watch, and what you think about its depiction of a fat lead on a Bachelor-style show?
We did and frankly while we loved the Bachelor-specific humor and love story, we also loved its honesty. It’s hard to know exactly what it would look like if the show suddenly cast a fat lead, as the book’s plot outlines, but the way Kate explored the realistic bullying and challenges the lead would face felt refreshing to us. Was it painful to imagine the rejection and humiliation described in this fiction? Yes. But the way Bea stands up for herself and doesn’t settle was empowering to read. It also lays out many ways in which The Bachelor could fail and succeed in being supportive of a fat lead. Examples being: casting a villain that is outwardly fatphobic to make Bea the hero (Boo!) But the way the fictional show hired a plus-size fashion stylist to dress Bea? Chef’s kiss!
I’ve asked a version of this question before, but why is it important for The Bachelor to change when its already so far behind other media in terms of diversity? Should we just let it become irrelevant?
Reality TV is accessible to so many, and The Bachelor’s audience is a lot more diverse than its contestants. The Bachelor is the most viewed show on Monday nights in the U.S., makes incredible amounts of money for ABC, and remains, whether we like it or not, a relevant piece of media that impacts our culture. Thus far, that impact has been to reinforce the anti-fat status quo of our culture. The Bachelor doesn’t have to continue doing that; they can commit to start casting fat people for next season. If done correctly this would have a hugely positive impact. We’re not asking for perfection, we’re asking for progress.
Some might say that The Bachelor is simply reflecting the fatphobia that’s already so prevalent in society writ large, but media has a responsibility when it comes to representation, right? And it seems like we’ve gone beyond mere “reflection” toward actively perpetrating damaging attitudes about fatness…
Absolutely, culture influences media, but their relationship is reciprocal; media also influences culture. The Bachelor doesn’t exist in a vacuum; their decision to exclude fat people for the last 20 years is deliberate and it is rooted in the systemic anti-fatness in our culture. Because of the accessibility of reality TV, shows like The Bachelor have a chance to be at the forefront of this change. Instead, they’ve continuously chosen to be a megaphone for this fatphobic culture.
I’ve always noticed, as a trans woman just shy of what the fashion industry, at least, would consider “plus-size,” that the consumption of food is always portrayed in a weird way on this franchise, often to make contestants seem foolish or comedic. I like to eat! I enjoy eating! And this has always bugged me. Have you noticed that?
This is such a great observation. Food is often used in comedy as a shorthand for fatness, and therefore foolishness, laziness, stupidity, someone who is unserious and undesirable. That is what the show is trying to communicate to the audience in that “comedy”. The birth of current anti-fatness comes from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the growth of Protestant Christianity, which happened around the same time. Christianity separated the white Europeans from the “savage” Black Africans. Phrenologists said Black African’s skulls were designed to eat and not think. Eating for pleasure was seen as indulgent, something “savage” people did. Good puritan Protestants were expected to “overcome” their most base impulses of the flesh, and this included eating for any reason other than sustenance.
We can still see this type of thinking in the way people talk about food today; the idea that abstaining from decadent food is some moral good. This is why we interpret the Christian sin of gluttony as food-related, and not just general overconsumption or greed. All of this history comes out to play when The Bachelor treats eating on the show like a transgression and something to be mocked.
(This is actually a really old phenomena, we can see food being used this way in arts and media as far back as the early Renaissance. If you’re curious about an example, check out The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, a 1559 painting by Pieter Brueghel. It depicts Carnivale, which was a Mardi Gras style festival celebrated by Christians, as a fat man eating food with a foolish grin. In opposition to this man is the holy and godly Lent, depicted as a thin woman. It’s also in Shakespeare’s work; you’ll start noticing it everywhere!)
What are your hopes for this campaign beyond the numeric goals you outline in the petition? What do you want to see change in the conversation around the show?
We hope for a time when asking to include fat people in our media isn’t radical. We can’t solve the oppression of fat people through media alone; however, representation can create cultural shifts that allow for people to learn, to empathize, and to grow.
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