“Don’t forget, ladies. Your usual meal is 1500 calories. Beware of overeating.”
Listen closely, and you’ll hear that announcement play in the background of various episodes on the Netflix original series “Orange Is the New Black.” The words are familiar to the average viewer in this health-crazed day and age, but they come off, in the context of inmates fighting for their everyday survival, as completely absurd. Adhering to the government’s opinion of proper caloric consumption is of absolutely no concern, for example, to Red in Season 2, Episode 2, when she enters the cafeteria to the instruction’s blare for the first time since a botched power play last season left her completely ostracized by the other prisoners. The idea that the people in charge at Litchfield, the same ones that regularly throw women in solitary confinement for nonviolent offenses and force them to use showers stained with human feces, would take the time to police food intake only serves to underscore their complete disregard for the inmates’ actual needs.
But outside of its absurdist function on an episodic level, the announcement also serves to clue us into a bigger undertaking at the heart of “Orange Is the New Black”: to counter the mainstream narrative of bodies that fall outside the thin cultural norm.
It should come as no surprise that mainstream American media consistently dehumanizes fat bodies. Whether in health magazine articles that feature photos of headless, large bodies holding giant soda cups and brand bodies the size of the average American woman as “pre-diseased,” or in sitcoms that feature one-note characters mocked for their size, the dominant line of thought is the same: Fat people are lazy slobs who eat too much and are desperate for love. Their existence in a room is reason enough for laughter.
“Orange Is the New Black” enters a landscape that labels non-thin bodies, at best, unattractive and, at worst, diseased, and inverts the resulting stereotypes with a slew of counterexamples: Classically attractive male guard Bennett does not, as he would on a lesser show, pursue a relationship with Maritza (Diane Guerrero), who Gloria jokes “looks like Sofia Vergara,”but rather with Daya (Dasha Polanco), who has a look not readily represented on television. Elsewhere, in a reversal of the oft-repeated trope, “fat woman gets rejected in her quest for the love of a thin person,” we see Tastee (Danielle Brooks) eschew the romantic advances of Poussey (Samira Wiley). Since the show’s first season, Lea Delaria’s character Big Boo has served as a kind of Litchfield prison sexual fiend — and while her aggressive-often-to-the-point of-harassment pursuits are not (and should not be) endorsed by the show, they do tell a very different story of how fat bodies can relate to sex than the one one that says they should stringently diet and wait patiently to be skinny before they can even enter the arena.
These are just a few of the show’s dozens of three-dimension portrayals of women with bodies that fall outside the cultural norm. They all have complicated inner lives and diverse wants, goals and desires — both romantic and otherwise. Louis CK recently received praise for depicting a fat woman on his show who calls out his character’s cruel discrimination. But it’s not new fodder for television to portray a fat woman unhappy with her lot, and desperate for the love of an uninterested party. What is new is to see a larger woman pursuing sex and love with absolutely no reference to her shape, and no comments to suggest to viewers that her body should be considered anything but attractive.
The kinds of bodies we see in the media directly influence the kinds of bodies that we come to value as a society, and studies have pointed to the fact that exposure to diverse body types can make us more accepting. While we still have a long way to go before the dominant idea of what’s attractive expands to include anything outside the very, very thin, we luckily have “Orange Is the New Black,” steadfastly paving the way.