Watching weight Will 'Babes' reduce or reinforce negative ideas about large women?

September 13, 1990|By Jean Marbella

It's standard-issue sitcom material, single woman division. Three gals -- a wise-cracking cynic, a hot tomato and a pretty young thing -- share a tiny apartment in the big city. Oh, the wacky adventures they'll have!

But you can bet none of the Molly Dodds or Mary Richardses to precede them in this genre ever got into fixes such as these: getting stuck in one of those school-type chairs with the attached desk, for example, or causing a sofa bed to collapse.

That is the gimmick in "Babes," a new series that stars three sisters who violate one of television's last remaining taboos: They are -- gasp! -- unapologetically overweight.

As such, the Fox network's "Babes" has met with both anticipation and trepidation from real-life overweight women whose "type" is usually ignored or serves as the butt of jokes in the unreal world of television. Some laud Fox for showing that fat women can be smart and sexy -- the "Babes" trio have boyfriends, great clothes andupbeat lives -- but some fear it will merely perpetuate the use of weight as a quick and dirty joke.

"Anyone who wants a cheap laugh makes a joke about fat women," said Carole Shaw, editor and founder of the magazine, BBW: Big Beautiful Woman. "Television treats us the way it treated blacks in the '50s. You're either comic relief ... or you have these deep, deep problems. You're never just a person."

"Babes" is coming along just as weight discrimination seems to be getting its 15 minutes as an issue. Flight attendants, for example, are fighting weight limits imposed as a condition of their employment, and Baltimorean Regina Guy recently won national attention for her successful battle against the Motor Vehicle Administration, which threatened to take her license away because officials thought she was too fat to drive a car safely.

Perhaps nowhere is weight more of an issue, however, than on television, where even successful and glamorous women, such as talk show host Oprah Winfrey and "Designing Women" star Delta Burke, have had their other accomplishments overshadowed by the obsession with their weight.

Some believe, however, that television is slowly realizing that overweight people exist; statistics show, after all, that 30 percent to 40 percent of Americans are overweight.

"I think 'Roseanne' has helped, and 'Designing Women,'" said Susan Peretz, an actress who plays one of the "Babes." "I think television is catching up with the rest of the world. We're really getting people out of the closet. You don't have to be perfect or fit some designer's mold ... and you can still be lovely and sexy and funny."

Baltimore-based actress Susan Duvall -- who auditioned for the role that Ms. Peretz got -- said weight discrimination has always targeted women more than men, and thus "Babes" could be a breakthrough for actresses of her size.

"Jackie Gleason was 'The Great One,' but Roseanne Barr gets fat-bashed," said Ms. Duvall, who teaches acting at Towson State University.

TV, of course, rarely mirrors real life, weight-wise or otherwise. But itplays such a large role in image making, especially among children, that it shouldn't be excused on the basis that it's just make-believe, some argue.

Television "is extremely powerful," said psychologist Rita Freedman, author of "Body Love: Learning to Like Our Looks and Ourselves" and "Beauty Bound." "It both reflects and creates the norms of society. So it's a vicious cycle."

The desired look for women has changed over the years, paralleling other changes in society, Dr. Freedman said. In recent decades, when women have pushed further into the male-dominated workplace, slender and thus more masculine physiques have been the preferred image.

Advocates for the overweight, however, predict that will change.

"There are so many women who go through life hating themselves because they're not thin," Ms. Shaw said. "My hope is that as women become more economically independent -- that's where the beauty thing came in, having to attract a man to take care of you -- they will start feeling more fidelity to the bodies that they have."

Sally E. Smith, director of the 3,000-member National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, said "Babes" may help accomplish that.

"Here are three fat women who are sexy and smart and have really hot clothes. ... They don't apologize for their weight," said Ms. Smith. "On the negative side, though, there are a lot of jokes about food ...

"But I think fat women watching it will start questioning their own assumptions, like waiting to buy a new coat because next year they're going to be thin," she said. "And for average-size people watching it, it might go a long way in shattering the stereotypes."

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