When I pulled up Dumplin’ on Netflix last weekend, I only meant for it to be background noise. I was tired and planned to fall asleep, but instead I found myself lying awake for the full hour and fifty minutes of the movie, tears streaming down my face by the time the end credits rolled onto the screen. This movie, which I had imagined was just another coming of age teen flick, had punched me right in the gut. But more than that, it had touched me deep in my soul.
For those of you who don’t know, the film stars Danielle Macdonald as overweight teen Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson, a lover of all things Dolly Parton and the daughter of a small town beauty queen. Despite not being “conventionally pretty” (a phrase I hate to reiterate), Willowdean decides to join her small town’s beauty pageant to make a point, both to her mother and to society et al. In the movie, she did just that — and outside the movie, she proved so much more.
Growing up, I always loved rom coms, but I couldn’t necessarily relate to them. I wasn’t as confident as Elle Woods or as popular as Cher Horowitz; I didn’t even have the take-off-your-glasses-and-turn-into-a-beauty-queen potential of Laney Boggs in She’s All That. And while rom com heroines may have varied in personality, more often than not, they were all the same: white, straight, able-bodied and skinny. And not just skinny, but undeniably pretty.
Up until college, I always felt like the girl that was strangely put together. My hair was untamable, my acne just as disobedient. I always felt like I was drowning in too much skin, too much fat, too much bone. I was not the kind of girl who would have ever competed in a beauty pageant — not that I ever cared about that. What I did care about was this: I was not the kind of girl who got a rom com ending.
Throughout most of cinematic history, the fat girl was never the hero of the story. She was usually delegated to the sidekick or the bullied, someone who made up for what she lacked by becoming the butt of the joke — even if the other characters weren’t laughing at her, the audience was meant to. Even more contemporary chick flicks, such as Bridesmaids and Rough Night, fall into this trap. Is it really any surprise that I grew up believing I deserved the same treatment in real life?
I refused to become that tragic supporting character in my own life, and as a result, I spent so much of my adolescence trying to disappear. For the most part, it worked — I flew under the radar in high school, but that doesn’t mean my self-confidence remained unscathed. In conversations with strangers, I felt like I was always waiting for someone to make a pointed joke; whenever I developed a new crush, I never imagined the object of my affections could be equally attracted to me. I was convinced that everyone else was hyper-focused on how I looked, and sure, there were some people who were; but at the end of the day, there was only ever one person who actually let it affect my social interactions, and that was me.
Representation in film isn’t just about finding someone who looks like you; it’s about finding someone who feels the way you do, who has been through the same struggles. Willowdean’s insecurities stood in her way just as much as, if not more than, anyone else did — after all, she joined the pageant without any intention of placing and pushed away the boy she had feelings for because she didn’t believe she was attractive enough. (In one well-loved scene, her crush countered this argument with the statement, “I think you’re beautiful. To hell with anyone else who’s ever made you feel less than that.”) It was only when Willowdean finally stepped up and owned who she was that things began falling into place. When Millie Michalchuck, Willowdean’s plus-size classmate who believed in her own ability to win the pageant from the very beginning, managed to place as the first runner up, it was really just the cherry on top. Dumplin’ told the world that the fat girl could be the beauty queen, the worthy love interest, and the confident star of the show.
A part of me mourns the fact that I didn’t have this movie growing up, or any that reiterated these messages, for that matter. Instead, it was healthy friendships that encouraged me to thrive, involvement in organizations that gave me purpose, and the realization that no one else gets to decide what I do with my life that helped me shed my insecurities. But how much easier would it have been if I had seen that conclusion reflected in the media earlier on in life, when I was a teen who struggled with how the world — and with how I — viewed me? If I’d had a rom com heroine who looked like me, felt like me, and still got the happy ending, how drastically would my life have changed?
I’m never going to know the answer to that. It’s always going to be a what if in my life, but that’s okay. What’s important is that now millions of young women won’t have to ask themselves the same question.