Why Fat is Back in Hollywood

In an industry rife with painfully thin stick figures, women with some meat on their bones are—lucky for us—rising to the top.

“The curve,“ Mae West observed, “is more powerful than the sword.“ Measuring 38-24-38, the five-foot-one sex goddess spoke from experience—lots of it. West’s bodacious successors—women like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Drew Barrymore, Rachel Weisz, and Kate Winslet, who hold fast to their cushioned curves even as their peers downsize more aggressively than General Motors—understand that maxim. Their faminista sisters do not. Now, the bigger-(relatively speaking)-is-better argument could easily be made with logic. But a growing faction of actresses who appear to have a healthy relationship with carbohydrates are making the point better than any polemicizing ever could. Line Hollywood’s wispy players up next to the lush likes of Scarlett Johansson, Lost siren Evangeline Lilly, Liv Tyler, Big Love star Ginnifer Goodwin, and an increasingly curvy Mandy Moore. Who would you rather slow-dance with? Seriously, would you prefer to get a Grey’s Anatomy lesson from an hourglassed Katherine Heigl or a reedy Ellen Pompeo? Nicole Richie or Nicole Richie at 50 percent off? Madonna “Like a Virgin“ or Madonna “Hung Up“ on Yogilates? Here’s a one-woman argument for roundness: Gretchen Mol. After going virtually unnoticed in some 20 films, the cherubic starlet put on a few pounds, took off her clothes, and gave a breakout performance as the world’s most famous pinup in The Notorious Bettie Page.

“The pinups didn’t have ‘perfect’ bodies. They didn’t go to the gym. They did Jack LaLanne exercises, those lazy leg lifts,“ says Mary Harron, the biopic’s cowriter and director. “It was a more forgiving era. I think constant dieting makes people crazy. It gives them this strained look.“

You see that look in the faces of formerly fleshy sexpots who have morphed into pinched, prematurely aged superwaifs. What do they do for fun? Food and sex are appetites inextricably linked in the human psyche. One could speculate that for those obsessed with not eating, even the boyfriend’s salami goes the way of the bread basket.

A certain young actress whose figure has been closely scrutinized by the tabloids recently came out in defense of padded bones. “You want to be called sexy, and you want to have tits and an ass,“ she said. Perhaps those of her peers still busy whittling themselves down to a size zero should adopt that statement as a mantra.

“Curves are all good from where I stand,“ says writer and director Neil LaBute, whose plays—The Shape of Things, Fat Pig—have occasionally been inspired by the subject of weight. “I’m working with Maura Tierney right now, and she’s a picture of what a great American girl looks like. It’s not even that she’s particularly curvy. But you get the sense she never spends time worrying about what anybody else thinks about her weight. She appears incredibly comfortable in her skin.“ Which, as everyone knows, is sexy as hell.

It’s also the same quality that makes the delectable–as–a–Krispy Kreme Drew Barrymore universally irresistible. “She’s a great example of somebody normal and beautiful who likes her body,“ says costume designer Mona May, whose credits include two Barrymore films—The Wedding Singer and Never Been Kissed. “A lot of actresses are paranoid. ‘This makes me look fat!’ Meanwhile I’m shopping for them at Gap Kids because they’re less than a size 2! I’ll tell you something—the chubby chicks aren’t the ones turning the lights off during sex.“

Of course, it’s easy for anyone who isn’t an aspiring actress to beat the drum for weight gain. Our careers don’t depend on being a jean size smaller than the next girl.

As one male studio executive who asked not to be named says, “Do we really want stars to look like the rest of us? If actresses represented the way the public really looks, the mother from Gilbert Grape would be a sex symbol.“ An admittedly unrealistic proposition.

“In Hollywood, there’s a domino effect of envy and competition among women,“ says Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist with the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia who identifies the prevailing ethos as: The skinniest girl wins. And indeed, when so many actresses make millions, rake in designer clothes, and land modeling contracts, the thinnest of the thin always stand out from the pack. We just hope that the Goodwins, Moores, and Mols taking to the screen flip that paradigm on its head—and represent the shape of things to come.

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