On Tuesday's episode of "New Girl," Winston and Cece tried to have a little fun with Schmidt, their famously shallow friend. Fed up with his constant obsession with looks, the two trick him into posing for ridiculous photos that he thinks will land him a made-up modeling gig. (It was as convoluted as that sounds.) But the plot took a turn for the worse when "New Girl" asked viewers to sympathize with Schmidt after he admits to being critical of others' appearances because his experience as a fat child left him emotionally scarred.
This isn't the first time the audience learns of this element in Schmidt's backstory. In fact, it operates on a series-level in much the same way it does this episode. Schmidt's character archetype is basically "status-obsessed douche bag." This is fruitful when "New Girl" pokes fun at his need to hit the "cool" clubs, or wear "driving moccasins." But the show fails in it's attempt to balance out those negative qualities with this supposedly endearing "difficulty" of his past.
Let's get it straight: "fat" is a body type with just as much value as "thin." It is not a "traumatic struggle" people need to overcome.
"New Girl," is hardly the first show to use a "formerly fat" status to try to make a character more sympathetic. "Friends" used it to round out the high-strung Monica, and it's a been a go-to for years in countless television series.
But the trope needs to be retired immediately. Most simply, because it makes no sense. It's an attempt to make a character more likable by attributing to him or her what should be one of the most unlikeable qualities around: fat phobia. I have never thought to myself: "Well, Schmidt may objectify women, but he also hates fat people, including himself when he fell into that category, so now he's cool."
On both "New Girl" and "Friends," the information is also completely unnecessary. Schmidt and Monica already have qualities much more notable than their former sizes that endear them to viewers in spite of their flaws. Schmidt is fun-loving, Monica is passionate, and they are both, playing right into the themes of their respective TV shows, fiercely loyal to their friends.
Essentially, "formerly fat" is a useless character detail that just gives shows the chance to convey wrong ideas about fat people.
The first being that fatness is a bad, temporary thing that leaves people forever traumatized. Showing fatness as a successfully abandoned, negative characteristic of a now conventionally thin person sends the very untrue message that all fat people are (and should be) ashamed, and trying their best to shrink down their bodies as fast as possible.
Which brings us to the second widely held misconception to which the trope contributes: within every fat person is a thin person waiting to be let out. Fatness is not --as the flashback scenes in "New Girl" and "Friends," which depict the "formerly fat" characters also as formerly food-obsessed, would have you believe -- a result of laziness and gluttony. It is a body type that -- just like thinness -- naturally exists in the world.
In place of this harmful trope, shows need to portray fat people the same way their thin counterparts have been written for years: as present tense-protagonists living their lives, with story lines making no reference to the size and shape of their bodies.