Back in the early aughts, after years as a sitcom star but before she became a MAGA cheerleader and a Tucker Carlson guest, Kirstie Alley committed one of the cardinal sins for women in Hollywood.
She gained weight.
The tabloids treated this development with all of the nuanced consideration a formerly slender actress could expect at the time. “260 lb KIRSTIE TOO FAT FOR SEX!,” blared a 2004 Star cover. “250 lb KIRSTIE COLLAPSES: ‘I’M FAT & LOOK LIKE HELL!’” was a National Enquirer cover in June 2009.
Paparazzi circled like vultures around a dying squirrel. “ONLY 4 YEARS TO LIVE,” crowed The Enquirer in August 2009. “OUT OF CONTROL,” it wrote in 2012.
Ms. Alley, whose death from colon cancer at age 71 was announced Monday night, spent years as a tabloid punching bag, hewing to the accepted script about women and weight, one that cast weight gain as a moral failing, and weight loss — ideally, weight loss achieved in partnership with a commercial diet program, which would then peddle its services to women of far lesser fame — as the only possible response.
If my Gen X sisters can picture Oprah Winfrey schlepping a small red wagon full of fat across the stage in 1988 to illustrate her weight loss, my guess is that many younger women might have been similarly scarred by Ms. Alley’s appearance on Oprah’s show in 2006, dressed in a bikini — plus flesh-toned body stocking — after her first stint as a Jenny Craig pitchwoman.
Ms. Alley went from being one of America’s most famous comedic actresses to being one of its most famous dieters. (Never let it be said there are no second acts here.) She spent years yo-yo-ing, stuck in a loop of loss and regain.
She posed for People (July 2006: “How Kirstie Lost 71 Lbs — ‘If I Can Do It, Anybody Can’”) Then — as happens, more often than not — she gained the weight back, and posed for People, again. (2009: “Yes, I Gained 83 Lbs!”) Whatever television gigs she booked — including a short-lived Showtime show called “Fat Actress” in 2005, two turns on “Dancing with the Stars,” a stint on Britain’s “Celebrity Big Brother” — managing her body had become her true life’s work.
But even as she stayed on script, preaching the gospel of weight gain as bad and weight loss as good, another narrative was peeking through, pushing up through the cracks, blooming alongside the story the tabloids were telling.
Consider, for example, Ms. Alley on the cover of People for a 2004 story headlined “Livin’ Large.” Ms. Alley wears a flowing pale green caftan with a deep V-neck and an elaborate necklace. Her expression’s a little smirky, almost flirty.
Then there’s the 2009 cover shot for the “Yes, I Gained 83 Lbs!” piece, which shows Ms. Alley in a low-cut red sundress. Her turquoise shrug matches her jewelry; her nails and lips match her dress. Her makeup is sultry; her expression, come-hitherish. Her hair’s been lightened to a beachy blonde. The text is pretty much what you’d expect: Ms. Alley describing how she screamed after she stepped on her scale; the reporter interrogating her — “Did you go right back to indulging in cakes and pies the way you did the first time you let yourself go?” — as if eating butter was a war crime. But the photos — professionally styled, expertly lit and posed by a woman born for the spotlight — tell a different story.
Even “Fat Actress,” a semi-fictionalized look at Ms. Alley’s life as she tried to lose weight and make herself employable, undercut its own message — because while “Fat Actress,” the show, insisted that Hollywood had no place for women of a certain size, the actual fat actress in question was proving otherwise. The show put Ms. Alley in America’s Showtime-subscribing living rooms, week after week, and nobody’s television set spontaneously exploded, nor was anyone reported to have died from disgust.
What’s changed in the years since Ms. Alley did her time as a tabloid mainstay? Not enough. Even as the size of the average American woman has increased, with an estimated 68 percent of them currently wearing size 14 or higher, we still don’t see that reality reflected on our screens enough. Female stars are still rewarded for shrinking (see recent gushing headlines about everyone from Adele to Mindy Kaling and Kelly Osbourne, who in 2010 told Us Weekly that she “took more hell for being fat than I did for being an absolute raging drug addict”).
But the narrative that thin is always better, and that it signals virtue, does get challenged, interrogated, pushed back against. In a BBC interview, Rebel Wilson, who lost a considerable amount of weight last year, bemoaned the attention she’s getting after years spent being “invisible,” and wondered if “all a woman has to do in the world is just lose weight to get attention?” Adele, meanwhile, gave Oprah an interview after she’d lost weight, announcing that she was “body positive then, and I’m body positive now.”
Fat actresses, fat singers or dancers or stars are still few and far between. But there are a handful, and their weight isn’t always their entire plot arc, and they’re not always the butt of the joke.
And social media’s given all of us — thin, fat and in between — a soapbox to share our opinions. Women can call out designers when they don’t offer extended sizing, or complain when, for dramatic effect, a music video shows the actually quite thin Taylor Swift stepping on a scale that reads FAT. Fitness magazines wrestle with fatphobia in the health and wellness industry and put larger women like the yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley on their covers (to the tittering disdain of men who can’t wait to tell their followers how gross it is). Plus-size influencers flourish on social media. And Lizzo continues to redefine the game, whether she’s wearing couture in Vanity Fair, ruling the red carpets, racking up Emmy and Grammy wins, launching a size-inclusive shapewear brand or creating a reality show to launch the next generation of “big grrrls” into stardom — all while living joyously in her larger body.
The world is changing. And Kirstie Alley was a part of that change, whether she meant to be or not.
Jennifer Weiner is a novelist whose books include “Good in Bed,” “Mrs. Everything” and “The Summer Place.”
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