Tuesday night’s primetime ended up being a three hour commentary on female beauty standards. At 9PM on ‘Glee,’ Mercedes (Amber Riley) embarked on a crash diet because Sue (Jane Lynch) ordered her to lose weight to fit into a standard Cheerios girl’s uniform, before realizing she needed to accept herself as she was and belting out Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful in front of the whole school. Interestingly, she still chose to wear the men’s cheerleading uniform, suggesting that while any girl can be beautiful, she better not wear a miniskirt if she’s got junk in her trunk. Then, an hour later, Heidi Montag unveiled her brand new face and body on The Hills, claiming that she needed to change her appearance to feel better about herself among the hyper-competitive gorgeous people of Los Angeles.
Fortunately, at 8PM the night began with an antidote to the message that all young women are willing to sacrifice themselves to adhere to the prevailing standards of beauty. Surprisingly, it was on 90210. The show introduced a new character several episodes ago who is plus sized by TV standards (in real life she’s probably a size 8) and given her storylines that have nothing to do with her body image. Lila (Amber Wallace) was introduced as a reporter for the venerable West Beverly Blaze. Navid (Michael Steger) asked her out in part to get over Adrianna (Jessica Lowndes.) I braced myself for a storyline about the insecure chubby girl who was desperate for male attention. Instead, she was confident and kind of sarcastic. They had a good time. When Adrianna ended up becoming a singer for the Gloria Steinems, the school’s improbably named all-female band, putting her into direct conflict with Lila, who happens to be the guitarist, I prepared for the plot about Lila fearing she cannot measure up to the skinny Adrianna. Instead, she was just concerned that Navid was not really over Adrianna because they had a long, drama filled relationship and,well, Navid is totally not over Adrianna. I waited for the scene where all the other guys razzed Navid for dating a chubby girl. It never happened. They all like her. Lila’s personality and storyline have absolutely nothing to do with her weight. It’s sad that I am so surprised by this, but almost every time non-skinny women appear on television, they are definedby their size. Whether it’s the skinny model forced to live in a chubby woman’s body on Drop Dead Diva, or the constant cracks about Betty’s weight on Ugly Betty, to be bigger is to be stigmatized. Eleanor (Camryn Manheim) on The Practice had trouble dating despite her self-confidence and wealth. Callie (Sara Ramirez) on Grey’s Anatomy, who looks like she’s about the same size as Wallace, is the only slightly larger woman on television who gets to have a normal life complete with plenty of sex. While TV abounds with chubby men with hot wives, women bigger than a size four are always defined by their weight. As awesome and talented as Mercedes is, none of the guys in New Dimensions seem interested in her.
It’s refreshing that the show that chronicles the rich, status obsessed teens of Beverly Hills bucked the trend. Granted, the show’s motives may not have been entirely about subverting stereotypes. The show got a lot of flack in its first season for its ultra skinny cast. Their were rumors that Shenae Grimes (Annie) and Jessica Stroup (Silver) had eating disorders. The teen show may have wanted to prove that it was not sending out the message to its young viewers that they needed to starve themselves to be attractive. It would have been nice if the character of Lila was not written to have a specific appearance, and Wallace got the part simply because she had the best audition. But the character was always intended to be plus sized, according to the casting breakdown which hilariously specified that Lila is “chubby”and “heavier than our girls on the show.” I like how they had to clarify that heavier than the rest of the cast meant overweight.
Whatever 90210’s reasons, it is about time that a teen who is not size zero is portrayed as well-adjusted and popular. As Heidi Montag shows, being thin does not always lead to happiness. Being a little larger does not necessarily lead to misery either. Of course, the season could end with Lila developing an eating disorder. But until then, it’s a relief to know that at least in fictional Los Angeles, there are some TV characters who are not preoccupied with their bodies.