On That Project Runway Reunion Special

[Content Note: Fat hatred; emotional auditing; bullying; spoilers for the last season of Project Runway.]

This season of Project Runway had a first: A fat woman doing plus-size designing, who won the season with a plus-size runway show.

It also had a whole lot of fat hating along the way.

Project Runway is no stranger to fat hatred. Virtually every season, there is a "real woman" runway challenge, during which at least one designer gets "stuck" with a fat woman and bitterly complains about how they don't know how to design for a fat female body.

This season, the winner, Ashley Nell Tipton, was subjected to overt fat hatred, with some of the runners-up (and many fans of the other finalists) suggesting that the only reason she won was because the show wanted to be "politically correct"; fat hatred masquerading as solidarity, in the form of compliments about how "brave" Ashley was for doing plus-size fashion; and fat hatred that the vast majority of thin people will Occam's Big Paisley Tie into anything else, but fat women recognize as the unique form of bullying to which we're subjected every day of our lives.

Ashley was consistently underestimated, right until the final moments of the season, though she started out the season winning two challenges out of the gate. That in itself is recognizable to a lot of fat women. We are received as less competent, less capable, less smart than our thin counterparts. As I have previously noted:
Fat people are stupid. This is a narrative that gets transmitted all the time. We are too stupid to understand our own bodies. We are too stupid to be engaged in our own healthcare. We are too stupid to make "good choices." We are too stupid to understand how weight loss works. There is a website called "You Are Fat Because You're Stupid." If we are content in our bodies, we are too stupid to realize we should be embarrassed of ourselves and filled with self-loathing. Multiple studies have been funded purporting to find a link between "obesity and stupidity." Surveys have found there is job discrimination based on employers' assumption that fat applicants aren't as smart. If a filmmaker or showrunner wants to indicate that a character is soooooo stupid, there's a pretty good chance that character will be fat. The caricature of the Stupid Middle-American is always fat. Adorably daft animated characters in children's stories are usually fat. If there's a good-hearted but simple-minded (male) character in a fantasy series, odds are on fat.

"Fat and stupid" go together like a fat horse and a stupid carriage.

This particular prejudice has played out in my life over and over. If I deal with someone (who isn't a rank misogynist) about, say, a problem with a utility bill on the phone, I'm treated like a capable and intelligent person. If I deal with someone in person, I am more likely than not going to be treated like I am immensely stupid, right down to a slow, condescending speech pattern reflective of a presumption I cannot understand any words with more than two syllables.
Because of this presumption of stupidity, fat women (in particular) are reflexively viewed by many thin people as lacking talent, lacking skill, unthreatening. And thus, we are underestimated.

But, like I said, Ashley quickly won two challenges, providing some evidence she might be a threat, despite being fat. And so it was that a group challenge had Ashley chosen dead last, despite the fact that she was leading the field in wins.

Host Heidi Klum called out how absurd it was that she'd been picked last. Ashley was clearly upset by it. The team on which she ended up, an all-female team, were immediately hostile toward her. Not only was she a threat, and upending their expectations of a fat girl being an easy defeat, but they'd been called out on their prejudice, though as obliquely as possible.

During the challenge, the one woman on the team who was not treating Ashley like shit—Laurie, a black woman—tipped Ashley, who is Latina, that the rest of the women on the team, all of them thin and white, were plotting to throw her under the bus on the runway. And that is exactly what happened. Every last one of them, when asked who should go home, named Ashley.

On the runway, guest judge Kelly Osbourne called them out, telling them it seemed like a "bitchfest." In the holding room, where the designers waited while the judges deliberated, a gay male contestant told the women they were behaving like "mean girls," while Ashley quietly cried.

Ashley did not go home. Because she did not have the worst design.

There were smaller incidents throughout the season, right up to and including the finale, when one of the thin white women, Kelly, who was the eventual runner-up, was disproportionately suspicious of Ashley who was helping her get a stain out of her garment. I watched Ashley do the Helpful Fat Girl thing, the thing I have done so many times in my life, helping out someone who wouldn't give us the time of fucking day, because being nice and being useful is how we petition for acceptance, and then watched as that someone regarded her with distrust and was so nasty about it she had to admit to Ashley that she had been wrong about her motives.

Which brings us to the reunion special, which aired last night and [video autoplays at link] included a segment in which Tim Gunn moderated, with hopeless cowardice, a conversation about the aforementioned "mean girls" challenge.

And it was an absolutely perfect and terrible encapsulation of the dynamic that has defined every situation in which I am the only fat woman in a group of women among whom there is some competition, either real or imagined.

The thin white women, who had ganged up on Ashley, had all the Totally Reasonable explanations for why they'd ganged up on her. In fact, they hadn't even ganged up on her! They each had their own reasons. They weren't acting as a group, despite the fact that Laurie had heard them plotting to throw Ashley under the bus. It's not that they hate Ashley; it's just that Ashley was the worst, in all of their individual and totally not coordinated nor compromised by fat hatred opinions!

(And despite the fact that the judges disagreed.)

And not only that, but anyone who says otherwise is a huge jerk! The man who came to Ashley's defense and called them mean girls is a jerk! But you know who the biggest jerk is? ASHLEY! For failing to defend them.

Laurie then shouts at them to imagine how she was feeling after they'd all just tried to get her eliminated, to underscore the manifest absurdity of their contention that she should have been defending them in that moment.

To which Kelly replies that if someone had called Ashley a bully (what a neat example!), she would have defended her. Imagine, she shot back, how she felt having been called a mean girl.

I need thin women who want to be effective allies to fat women to watch this scene. I need you to understand that this is what thin women do to fat women over and over and over, and how the issue of fatness is never addressed, not explicitly. It's just a fat woman being bullied, then being called a bully when she fails to defend the thin women who harmed her.

I also need thin women who want to be effective allies to fat women to understand that the theme running throughout this segment, and the entirety of the reunion special, about how Ashley is "emotional" and how she was always crying, is a thing used routinely against fat women, too.

Because there are a lot of fat women who do cry easily. There are a lot of women of any size, and a lot of men, who cry easily, too. But their reasons are not necessarily the same as many or most of the fat women who cry easily.

On the reunion special, one of the thin white women observes that, even though all of them were overwhelmed and emotional, Ashley was the only one who was crying. As if that's an individual character flaw, and as if it's a coincidence.

The thing is, by the time a fat Latina woman gets to a point in her day where she may be experiencing the same level of overwhelmed emotionality as her colleagues, she's not only navigated all the same misogynist bullshit that any other woman has, and all the same racist bullshit that any other person of color has, she's also navigated an extraordinary level of fat hatred.

These are the things a fat woman must navigate every day, dozens of which she may encounter before she gets to the point where she is faced with the same demanding tasks as her colleagues. She has expended eleventy metric fucktons of emotional energy just navigating a world that hates her, and maybe she doesn't have as much left over as a thin person who hasn't had to navigate any of it.

So maybe she cries.

Maybe she cries because that's what she needs to do in order to keep her shit together enough to keep working, to work twice as hard as the thin women who don't have to overcome the prejudices she does, so that she can fucking win.

And even when she does, those women will then turn around and sneer that she only won because she is fat, because she caters to fat women. As if there's ever been a prize for doing something swell for fat women.

Even winning isn't enough to put paid the fat hatred.

Frankly, that makes me cry, too.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus