It took months of my friend Nicole’s nagging for me to finally sit down and start watching This is Us. I was resistant for a long time because I feared the show would be overwrought and overly sentimental, despite its standing as both “the top-rated new series among adults 18-49” and “the top-rated broadcast drama.” But a few weeks ago, after Nicole’s thirty-fifth request, I finally caved and binged the show, pleasantly surprised, but also paying special attention to the Kate Pearson character. Kate Pearson, you see, was the primary reason Nicole had wanted me to watch.
For the uninitiated among you, Kate Pearson, played by Chrissy Metz, is a plus-sized woman who has been battling both her weight and the weight of other people’s assumptions her whole life. My friend Nicole could say the same thing. In Kate Pearson, Nicole saw elements of her own life that she says non-plus-sized folks simply do not understand.
“On TV, fat people are always the butt of the joke,” Nicole told me. “Sexless stereotypes trapped in the fun friend role, or the tragic sad sack, or the freak. Kate Pearson is a fully-formed human. I’ve literally never seen someone like me on TV before her.”
At first, I viewed Kate in the same way. The role was refreshing because of how rare it is to see a plus-sized woman on primetime television being treated seriously and sympathetically. Taking a quick glance at Chrissy Metz’s prior jobs speaks volumes about the rarity of such roles. Her last before This is Us was in American Horror Story: Freak Show as Ima ‘Barbara’ Wiggles. Freak Show was her first role in four years, after Huge — a series about a weight loss camp — was canceled after one season. In 2008, Chrissy Metz’s two roles were “Chunk” in My Name is Earl and “Heavy Girl” in The Onion Movie.
The problem is, while Kate Pearson might seem like a fully formed character in comparison to most other television (Empire‘s Becky and Glee‘s Lauren also being rare exceptions to the rule), it became clear, as This is Us moved through its first season, that Kate’s primary function was to stress about her weight, feel bad about her weight, or try to lose weight.
She breaks up with her fiancé (whom she met in a weight loss support group) to focus on her diet; she spends time in a weight-loss camp; she considers getting gastric bypass surgery; she buys two seats to fly somewhere because of how worried she is about being judged by fellow passengers. When it comes to work, she is hired by a woman with a plus-sized teenager, partially to give the girl someone to relate to. Kate’s childhood memories primarily revolve around being bullied or feeling sad due to her weight. When she goes to a fancy Hollywood party with her actor brother, she is cripplingly self-conscious.
In the midst of the body positivity movement, and with role models like Jessamyn Stanley, Jes Baker, and Kelsey Miller succeeding with no apology and no weight-loss plan, Kate Pearson can sometimes seem a little like another fat stereotype: the self-hating obese lady. With this in mind, I went back to Nicole, exasperated, and asked why Kate’s obsession with her weight (and little else) wasn’t driving her crazy.
“I really identify with her,” Nicole explained. “As someone who has been fat their whole life, Kate’s obsession with her weight is actually real to me. I factor my weight into absolutely everything I do, the way that Kate does — the way that so many of us do. Every time I go out to eat, I think about the chairs; every top that I wear, I worry about my stomach showing; I avoid flying because of the size of the seats. I know there are awesome, positive, enlightened fat people who are past this stuff, and I admire them, but for those of us who aren’t there yet — and I think we’re the majority — this show is incredibly important. You think they have her focus too much on her size, but when you’re heavy, you really do think about it this much.”
Not only is Kate refreshing to Nicole, she’s a shot of hope to the legions of other American women just like her, who are also struggling with being plus-sized, and who, until now, haven’t had a means to voice their insecurities for fear of being judged. Watching Kate struggle week after week opens up a space to talk about having the same feelings and experiences, in a way that the body positive movement, with its already super-confident participants, might not always.
In addition, the second season of This is Us seems to be taking steps to expand Kate’s role outside of the realm of weight-obsession. Though the first two episodes gave no indication of it (the premiere showed Kate worrying more about her appearance than her voice at a singing audition; the second episode saw her stressing about her mother judging her snack choices), This is Us seems finally ready to allow Kate to have stories that don’t only revolve around her size.
In this season’s third episode, Kate visits the set of her brother’s new movie and hangs out with Sylvester Stallone without worrying once about what she looks like. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is a major step forward for the character. The following week, we learn that — SPOILER ALERT! — Kate is pregnant. The doctor at no point declares it dangerous for a woman of her size. Both of these seemingly small steps indicate that This is Us might finally feel secure enough to push the Kate character forward.
“In the future,” my friend Nicole says, “I’d love to see Kate becoming more comfortable in her own skin. That self acceptance is a long journey for all of us in real life, so it makes sense for it to be a long journey in the show too. And maybe watching her take these baby steps, week after week, will be enough to help all of the other women like her. And me.”