Fat suits have been front and centre the last few days. They’ve even been award winning. Skilled artists have been praised and admired for their work in transforming an actor into something very different to the body that they actually occupy. It’s nothing new. In fact it was one of the first things I was taught to make at university whilst studying costume.
Since then, I have made a number of fat suits for stage and screen. The formula is quite simple. Usually I will drape a stretch body suit on a mannequin the same size as the actor, and then I will use a polyester wadding such as Dacron to build layers onto and around the bodysuit. The layers can’t all sit in one place nor can they look too uniform. It then takes a gentle hand to stitch the layers of wadding to the body suit without creating any unwanted shaping by thread that’s pulled too tight. But stitching can also be the way to create folds and rolls to make the fat body more realistic. A stretch layer then covers the wadding and compresses it into an often uncomfortable and certainly very hot structure for the actor to wear under costumes.
In truth the process of making fat suits can be quite peaceful, and as a fat person, I find beauty in sculpting other fat bodies. It is when that sculpture inevitably leaves me and enters into the story that I was paid to make it for, that things change.
What I have come to realise is that the narrative for these characters who wear the fat suits I create is also quite simple. The characters who wear my fat suits are never praised for or find joy in their body. The characters who wear my fat suits are never in romantic or loving relationships. The characters in my fat suits are never portrayed as sexy in a non comical way. And the characters who wear my fat suits are never happy.
As an audience member I hear the words and see the part that the fat suit plays. The fat is there more often than not to illicit pity, or disgust. The characters pain, shame, grotesqueness, and sadness is suddenly heightened with a few layers of sculpted cushioning. It is also the fact that the audience is given the context of fat on a body that they know is not fat. It dehumanises the fat character by making them nothing more than half puppets with a skinny puppeteer pulling the strings awkwardly.
I want fat stories to be told. The truth is that fat joy exists, fat pleasure exists, and fat love fucking exists. Fat characters deserve to be layered with depth and thoughtfulness in the same way that their fat suits are. And fat actors deserve to tell them. Until then, I will continue to hate making fat suits.