I had high hopes for One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London (2020), but unfortunately, this idea –of a fat contestant on a reality dating show–was better executed with less internalized anti-fatness in the main character by Julie Murphy in If the Shoe Fits.
Bea is a plus-sized fashion blogger who has had little luck with finding a man for a relationship, and has instead crushed on her best friend, Ray, for years, even though he’s been in relationships with other women, and is engaged. When he visits her after several years living across the country, and they hook up, she thinks her dreams have finally come true. But then he ghosts her, and she feels terrible not only because of her broken heart, but because she hooked up while he was engaged to someone else. She talks the talk of being fat-positive, but she doesn’t feel it in her heart–she feels like there’s something wrong with her and she doesn’t deserve anyone else but Ray, who sleeps with her in secret after stringing her along for years.
In a drunk-thread about the Bachelor-like Main Squeeze reality dating show, Bea criticizes the show’s lack of body diversity and her thread goes viral. Her substantial social-media presence gets the showrunner’s attention, and she is offered the spot of being the next star of the show–the woman who gets to pick from twenty five men to fall in love with on television.
Stayman-London does not shy away from repeating the horrific response tweets and comments fat women content creators get, which can be difficult to read, but realistic. She also regularly intersperses tweets, podcast transcripts, emails, and internet articles throughout as a way of seeing what’s going on in the “outside” world while Bea is on internet blackout during the show’s filming. These were done very well, and broke up the filming scenes and dialogue.
The first episode of the show, where Bea meets the twenty five men, was difficult, but also realistic, in that some men reacted badly to meeting Bea. And Bea’s history made it difficult for her to believe that the men who did act as if they were attracted to her really were. Was it the fame they were after? She had a hard time believing that any of the conventionally-attractive men could be attracted to her.
Beautifully Bookish Bethany did a 17-minute video review here, that I recommend and am trying not to repeat too much, but I completely agree with her assessment. I was so disappointed that Bea bought into anti-fatness except at the very surface level of her fashion and outward portrayal of herself, and I was disappointed that the author reinforced both anti-fat and racist stereotypes in her portrayals. I think the LGBTQ representation was well done, with lesbian, asexual, and nonbinary characters, but the author’s representation of the black and asian male love interests bought into some harmful racist stereotypes without exploring them and perhaps giving some alternatives.
I suspect that the author probably needs to explore anti-fatness and fat liberation a little more herself because, although she acknowledges the work of some very good anti-fat thinkers (Your Fat Friend/Aubrey Gordon and Lindy West), these acknowledgements were limited and there are a lot more people doing great fat liberation work that might have informed her character development and allowed her to see how her portrayal of Bea as a fat woman perpetuated negative stereotypes.
All that being said, she wrote a book about a fat woman, who is trying to be accepting of herself, on a reality show and I didn’t, so I can criticize but I haven’t done that! If the premise of the book strikes you, but you’re uncertain because of this review, please try If the Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy–Murphy gets anti-fatness and fat positivity and writes great fat characters, without reinforcing harmful stereotypes.