When Bridesmaids came out, Melissa McCarthy became the newest flashpoint in public discussion of all things fat. The latest evidence of that is November’s cover of ELLE, where the magazine has swathed her in the largest trenchcoat imaginable. Longtime decipherers of women’s magazine jargon will recognize this as a maneuver by evil fashion stylists to “flatter her strengths.” In this particular frame, as June Thomas points out at Slate, it’s obvious that these purported strengths were not her body as a whole. So the result is this: ELLE runs a fat-positive cover that seems afraid of its subject’s actual, well, fat.
Rinse, repeat: the same thing will happen again. It is one of the unfortunate consequences of having an Official Symbol of the Fact That Fat People Are Human that they will become, as McCarthy has, a sort of screen onto which the whole culture can project their conflicted opinions on this question. This is why even as you’ll find the Internet replete with testimonials that Melissa McCarthy is “beautiful,” you will also find people eager to defend her “beauty” in deeply confused terms. Some, for example, will probably say that they don’t understand the problem with this cover, that McCarthy looks just great.
Except the problem with the cover isn’t any particular choice of costuming. It isn’t whether or not in anyone’s subjective appraisal, McCarthy looks “great.” It’s that putting Melissa McCarthy on the cover of your fashion magazine doesn’t solve anything, at least not just yet, because the fashion world doesn’t think women like McCarthy should wear fashion, the end. And fashion stylists lack both the self-awareness and the chutzpah to actively challenge that current status.
It’s not just the fashion industry that has trouble wholeheartedly embracing those who are publicly fat, of course. The same conflicted attitude has been manifest in other areas of Melissa McCarthy’s career thus far. Though I was largely alone in not loving Bridesmaids when it was released, the one thing I could generally get people to agree on was that McCarthy’s casting rested on a giant fat joke. I could mostly get people to agree with this opinion because she finishes out the movie in bed, eating a gigantic sandwich, in the most clichéd and frankly unfunny of fat jokes. Whatever else the movie might say about her character’s humanity, it never really strays very far from the position that she’s odd and crass, often as a function of what she looks like.
There will, undoubtedly, be a cultural moment when putting a fat person on the cover of ELLE will be something more than a backhanded compliment, when we will not have to swath her in yards of cloth to make it palatable to the fashionistas of America. But as long as Melissa McCarthy is one of only a few persons worthy of such an honor, we won’t be there yet.