Warning: Spoilers included
I can still remember first watching Kate Pearson on This Is Us in 2016. Less than two minutes into the pilot episode of NBC’s quick hit drama, viewers meet a plus-size character as she stands dejectedly in front of her refrigerator. Each item inside is carefully labeled with its caloric value, a “throw this crap out” sticky note, or the simple but morally-charged adjective “BAD,” which was clearly intended as a description not only of the food itself but of the person thinking of eating it (or their self-perception, anyway). A few minutes later, the same plus-size character disrobes, taking care to remove even her earrings, before getting onto the bathroom scale. She missteps and falls down.
I can still remember how disheartened I felt as I watched those scenes. The feelings were not a reflection of actress Chrissy Metz, nor her character Kate, but of being presented with yet another plus-size narrative seemingly centered around dieting and self-loathing. I felt angry that anyone could possibly believe fat women, like me, needed the reminder that we can only exist in the public eye if we promise we’re trying to lose the weight.
Despite my initial reaction, however, something compelled me to continue watching the show. It’s true that I craved a plus-size story that had nothing to do with the character’s size, but I also understood that such a story wouldn’t be all that realistic, and therefore not all that relatable. The broader world outside of fat-liberation communities arguably remains just as anti-fat as it’s always been. The chances that a visibly fat person could reach their thirties, like Kate, without ever having to consider socio-cultural perceptions of their body are, I’m fairly confident, nonexistent. Besides, it was clear even in those first few minutes of the show that Metz was an immensely strong actress. I wanted to see where she was going to take this role.
Metz’s portrayal of Kate’s journey through adulthood is similarly relatable and poignant in no small part because of its take on self-discovery in a fat body.
Six years later, I am certain I will remember the experience of watching Metz over the course of This Is Us. What I feared would be a storyline solely focused on the pursuit of weight loss became one that explored generational trauma, mental health, romance, motherhood, professional aspirations, romance again, self-worth, and nuanced, imperfect personhood as the undercurrent of it all. Across 100 episodes, Metz and Kate have shown us the limitless possibilities of what a plus-size narrative can actually be.
Starting with flashback episodes that depict Kate as a child, it has been impossible not to reflect on the similarities between our stories—and so many fat stories. I watched as her size-small mom avoided feeding her the sugary cereals that she didn’t think twice about dishing out to her thin sons. I watched as poolside bullies handed eight-year-old Kate a note with a pig drawn on it, proclaiming that they could no longer be her friends because she was “embarrassing.” I watched Kate slip a T-shirt over the Care Bear bikini she’d been dancing in hours earlier, before she was made aware of her body in relation to external stigmas in a wake-up call that comes for us all.
Chrissy Metz’s portrayal of Kate’s journey through adulthood is similarly relatable and poignant in no small part because of its take on self-discovery in a fat body. At 31, I have often felt as though I’m living in a state of arrested development. My childhood, adolescence, and a substantial portion of my twenties were so devoted to imagining what life would be like when I was thin that I had virtually no time left to figure out my interests, goals, wants, or needs outside of the compelling drive I felt to shrink, shrink, shrink.
In moments when I was hurt by other people, I assumed the fault was mine. I believed wholeheartedly that any pain or trauma to come my way were a result of my body—my lack of willpower and discipline—and never of my abusers. I didn’t dare dream of dating, becoming a mother someday, or pursuing gratifying work because I did not believe fat people were allowed to have those things.
Kate Pearson has never promised fat people, mothers, or fat mothers that we can “have it all” (because who can, really?). But she’s shown us that we can get darn close.
The Kate we all met in the pilot episode of This Is Us might not have used the exact words I’m using here, but I believed that she understood them. Just three episodes in, I also sensed that she was going to rock the boat.
From that third episode, I will forever remember Kate Pearson singing “Time After Time” in front of nursing home residents. It was her first public performance after years of hiding her vocal talents because of shame associated with her figure. From the third season, I will remember Kate Pearson deciding she would try to have a baby despite the clinical weight stigma she’d be facing, undergoing IVF, and confronting her mother (and her mother’s weight-related biases) along the way. I will remember Kate Pearson becoming a mama (twice) and every subsequent moment in which she proved that fat parents are wholly capable of being caring, focused and inspiring caretakers. I will remember when Kate Pearson quit her role as her brother’s personal assistant to carve a path of her own. From season five, I will remember Kate Pearson standing face-to-face with her abuser after two decades of battling the memories. The words, “You’re the disease, and I’m not carrying it a moment longer,” were so strongly, believably delivered.
The Kate Pearson of season six has given me some of the most striking material for my hippocampus yet. As a mother of two, and one who cares deeply about not perpetuating toxic cycles associated with dieting and food and fat, I will never forget the moment she stood up to her husband as he tried to bring shame to the dinner table in relation to their children and the foods they feed them. I will never forget Kate knowing when to call it on a marriage that was causing her pain. Or letting herself love again, and believing that she deserved to be loved well. I will never forget the kiss to end all prime-time kisses as Phillip (Chris Geere) took Kate’s face into his palms.
This character, for me, has been not only a much-needed addition to the small pool of fat representation on the screen, but a glorious depiction of fat motherhood. Kate’s journey did not end when she became a parent. If anything, it was motherhood that further pushed her toward introspection. It was motherhood, and her commitment to rectifying the mistakes of her childhood as best she could with her own children, that led her on an even deeper path toward figuring out what happiness and fulfillment might mean to her.
In this final season of the show, I have been shaken by Metz’s beautiful, gut-wrenching performance. I have sobbed for the things Kate has lost and gained, and at the realization that I have developed such a bizarrely visceral connection to a fictional character. Ultimately, Kate Pearson has never promised fat people, mothers, or fat mothers that we can “have it all” (because who can, really?). But she’s shown us that we can get darn close. The ride won’t be easy, linear, or even pretty. It won’t be free of fat-phobia or self-doubt. It will be ours, though, and maybe it will be better than what so many of us once believed we deserved.