When Plus-Size Women Are On Reality TV, Why Are They Always Models?

Searching for actual body inclusivity amid the rose petals of dating TV shows.
"Curve model" Ashley and her match B.T. on "Coupled."
"Curve model" Ashley and her match B.T. on "Coupled."
Michael Becker/FOX

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As a card-carrying member of Bachelor Nation, I have bought into the idea that dating on reality TV deals heavily in fantasy. Aside from the never-in-real-life premise of a 20- to 30-something guy or gal getting to choose between two dozen eligible romantic prospects, the ensuing love stories captured by the show are rife with helicopter rides, rose-petal-strewn private concerts, horse rides at sunset, etc.

Anyone tuning in accepts the idea that everything on screen will bear more resemblance to the romance shelf at a bookstore than any actual dating experiences. Still: Why has it proven so difficult to allow body inclusivity in this fantasy world?

The “Bachelor” franchise has long lacked diversity among its contestants. Most of them are fit, white and conventionally attractive. War veteran Jubilee Sharpe, who is black, made “Bachelor” history for lasting until Week 5 on Ben Higgins’ season, which kind of sums up the series’ race problems in a nutshell. The show, which has yet to cast a black lead, hinted at a more “diverse” Bachelorette to come after Higgins, and, uh, kind of delivered with JoJo Fletcher, who is half-Persian. (Caila Quinn, who is half-Filipina, was in the running for the position before producers decided JoJo’s story resonated more with fans.)

“Coupled,” a new dating show on Fox, presents a more diverse — though still heteronormative — cast and somewhat ameliorates the stress-inducing model of 25-on-1 that the “Bachelor” shows typically follow. Men are helicoptered (and then boated) one at a time onto the island where 12 women wait. They each get some first-impression time with him before deciding whether to head back to the bungalows alone, or wait for him at a nearby bar. Of the women waiting at the bar, the guy selects two to accompany him to a private villa, where they see if their initial chemistry holds up.

Among the women, I noted while watching the first few episodes, is Ashley, a “curve model.” She is, true to her profession, slightly more curvy than her fellow single women, but still well within what would commonly be considered “hot” in a sampling of Tinder users. Her presence reminded me of “Bachelor” contestant Bo Stanley, a plus-size model and former surfer who appeared for one brief episode on Chris Soules’ season.

It appears that within the conventional reality-TV dating realm, one can be a little curvy as long as you’re white and so attractive that your actual profession is to be attractive.

This brings us back to the fantasy point I mentioned earlier. Sure, TV is escapism, and reality TV, despite the word “reality” in its description, is the ultimate escape. It’s fun to watch pretty people join together and split apart in dramatic ways, all while giving us great crying shots during in-the-moment interviews. (Alex, a conservative radio personality on “Coupled,” is a beautiful ugly crier.) All of this begs the question: Why can’t fat people be part of that fantasy?

We can look at the misguided flop that was the condescendingly named “More to Love,” which was basically “The Bachelor” for a plus-sized guy and his plus-sized ladies. It’s no wonder this misguided attempt at inclusivity lasted for just one season, as it implicitly sent the message that fat people can only date other fat people, that anyone over a certain size wasn’t qualified for “normal” dating shows and had to be othered over onto an underperforming television show that execs can now point to and exclaim, “See?! No one wants to watch that!”

While discussing this topic, my co-worker mentioned she had looked at the “More to Love” Wikipedia page, pointing out that the contestants’ height and weight were listed. “In what world is that information relevant,” I chatted back. “In the ‘More to Love’ world, Jill,” she wrote. “In a world where I can look and be like, THIS DUDE JUST PICKED THE SMALLEST PLUS-SIZE GIRL AVAILABLE.”

I wonder if I would have looked at my own love life differently if I saw someone who looked more like me being loved on television, if all women could breathe a little easier to see a wider range of body types on television, each of them just as worthy and lovable as the next, outside of a Dove commercial. It must be said that as a white woman, I generally see myself well-represented in media; these issues are compounded for women of color who aren’t a certain size or otherwise don’t have the typical dating-contestant “look.”

I don’t wish for some “Kumbaya” movement where reality-TV daters have to shelve their natural attraction in the name of picking a “real” woman; I just want reality TV to acknowledge that people — any kind of person — can be attracted to fat people, without it being “brave” or “groundbreaking” or anything but totally normal. (Replace “fat” with “disabled” or “tattooed” or “genderqueer,” and the same idea holds up.)

The internet, for all its faults, has at least provided a place for fat women to show that they feel attractive and loved, somehow still a radical act. There’s the amazing Lindy West, author of Shrill, who appeared on The Guardian with the headline, “My wedding was perfect — and I was fat as hell the whole time.” There’s Kristin Chirico of BuzzFeed, too, with the powerful essay, “My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women,” where she ruminates on the idea of fitting into her beau’s “type.”

The difference, I realize, is that these two women are discussing lasting love, whereas the romantic connections on reality TV, by virtue of its format, are mostly made up of chemistry-fueled, sometimes short-lived, attraction. But I think television producers could be willing to try harder to marry what we already see on television with what we see IRL.

Follow Jill Capewell on Twitter: @jcapejcape

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