The first comment about weight in Mindy Kaling’s new show comes at the six-minute mark. “My body mass index isn’t great,” Mindy Lahiri tells her well-coiffed BFF Gwen, “but I’m not like Precious or anything.”
Kaling’s comedic timing is impeccable, but the joke rests on unsteady territory. Sure, Mindy’s being self-deprecating — but the punchline is really about how big Precious is. It assumes that, like Mindy, the show’s target audience of college-educated, middle-class women in their twenties and thirties will laugh at Precious to make themselves feel better by comparison. Of course, there are plenty of viewers who are closer to Gabourey Sidibe’s weight than to Kaling’s — but the show doesn’t seem worried about alienating them.
The Mindy Project, as Sarah S. wrote in a recent GLG post, is a funny show with a heroine who, in the tradition of Bridget Jones, is both together (doctor!) and a lovable mess (drunk bicycle-pool incidents). And like Bridget Jones, Mindy L. is clearly a bit obsessed with her weight. “Do you know how hard it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?” she demands as a patient tries to drag her away from a promising restaurant rendezvous.
“HOW HARD IS IT?” this late-twenties, probably roughly-Kaling-sized viewer thought in a panic. And then I thought, “Wait. ‘Chubby?’ Is this show calling me fat?”
The answer, I think, is: sort of. The pilot mentions Lahiri’s non-stick-figure-size an average of once every 7 minutes. I don’t think Kaling, or the show, is intentionally trying to make fun of bigger people or rile up the insecurities of its audience. But while Kaling is a talented comedian, her approach to the subject of weight sometimes makes me wince. In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out with Out Me, she writes about being a happy and confident size 8. Yet she seems stuck in the body binary she’s protesting:
“Since I am not model-skinny, but also not super-fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall into that nebulous, “Normal American Woman Size” that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size 8 (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size because, I think, to them, I lack the self-discipline to be an aesthetic, or the sassy confidence to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like ‘Pick a lane.’
While the language isn’t super-clear, I think Kaling means that the stylists, not her, see larger women as “total fatty hedonists.” But there still seems to be stereotyping of plus-size women at work in this passage, as if bigger physical size necessarily corresponds with an outsized personality.
What’s most revealing, though, is that Kaling describes herself as “Normal American Woman Size.” This is key to Kaling’s image as the ultimate gal-pal, the kind of witty, sparkly friend who’s always up for sleepovers and juicy gossip. “She’s become the contemporary Everywoman,” Jada Yuan’s New York Magazine profile of Kaling reports, “both a Mary and a Rhoda.” The central conceit of Kaling’s public persona — as well as of The Mindy Project — is that Mindy is relatable. And unfortunately, in our culture, one of the things women can relate to most is being self-conscious about weight.
Mindy’s not just calling herself chubby — other characters call attention to her weight too, including a cocky doctor who is pretty obviously her future love interest. In the midst of an argument, Mindy strikes a low blow about his divorce. He fires back: ”You know what would really look great? If you lost 15 pounds.”
Mindy’s furious and offended, though hardly broken, by this comment. But the line moves Mindy’s concern with her weight beyond personal neurosis and into the world of established fact. This differentiates the show’s approach to body image from the Bridget Jones model. As Sarah S. said recently, “The point of the books is that Bridget thinks she’s chubby when she’s just normal.” Bridget monitors her caloric intake with alternating levels of vigilance and wild despair (“calories: infinity”), and reacts to the numbers on her scale as if she’s reading a Shakespearean tragedy. But the books make it clear that her size isn’t actually a problem. When Bridget finally manages to diet down to her goal weight, she realizes, with the help of her gently puzzled friends, that she actually looked better before.
The second Bridget Jones movie, on the other hand — a mean-spirited film with vast distaste for its own central character — features an onslaught of characters making fun of Bridget’s weight. It’s as if her internal self-loathing metastasized into the people around her. The same phenomenon occurs in another movie released around the same time, the mysteriously beloved Love Actually. In Love Actually, Natalie is supposed to be chubby. Her family’s nickname for her is Plumpy, because I guess they are sadistically devoted to attempting to give their daughter an eating disorder. Hugh Grant grunts when he tries to lift her up. This creates a bizarre reality paradox for viewers, since the woman playing Natalie is, in fact, on the slender side.
The issue isn’t that these movies and TV shows depict women who are average-sized as chubby. It’s that they imply that any woman who’s not super-skinny is necessarily flawed. Jabs and one-liners about their romantic heroines’ weight mark their bodies as imperfect, while male attention assures them, and by extension the female audience, that they’re lovable in spite of those imperfections. It’s a classic case of negging, and it’s just one small way that our culture reinforces women’s body issues on a daily basis.
I’ll definitely be watching more of The Mindy Project: I think it’s probably going to be a great series. And I don’t mean to ignore the significance of having a woman who looks like Kaling — that is, Indian and not-stick-thin — as the romantic lead. She’s undeniably pretty, not to mention smart and hilarious, and the show recognizes her character as such. That’s huge. But so far, its body negativity sure is weighing me down.