The peppy mixed messaging of I Feel Pretty is only the latest reminder: American culture doesn’t fully know what it’s talking about when it talks about attractiveness.
Every once in a while I’ll re-watch an old episode of Friends, because it’s familiar and soothing and there. The other day, Netflix served up one of those flashbacks the show would sometimes air to poke light fun at the friends and at the visual absurdities involved with being alive in the ’80s: Rachel in chintz, Ross and Chandler in tragicomic Flock of Seagulls bouffants, etc. Watching the meta-nostalgia, I was reminded of the existence of a minor character who nonetheless plays a major role in the show’s universe: Fat Monica.
Fat Monica is technically just a younger—and slightly larger—version of Standard-Issue Monica; what becomes wincingly clear, though, as the Friends flashbacks play out, is that Fat Monica differs from the other Monica not just in scale, but in kind. Padded by her former girth, Monica Geller—the person who categorizes her hand towels and designates committees for the planning of birthday parties and is, in general, in thorough control of her life and her Type-A-tastic self—undergoes a transformation: Her voice gets higher. Her movements become jerking and awkward. She giggles a lot, uncomfortably. Remember when, in those late-series episodes of Family Matters, Steve Urkel would go into that flashing box and emerge as the suave Stefan Urquelle? Fat Monica’s metamorphosis is a little like that, but in reverse: The transformation depletes her dignity rather than compounding it. She becomes bashful. Childish. Foolish. Watching the proceedings, you start to wonder whether Monica Geller, for the purposes of the flashback scenes, was given a fat suit or a lobotomy.