Friends has a few recurring backstories — Phoebe’s shady past, Ross’s divorce — but one seems to come up again and again: Monica used to be fat in high school.
We actually get to see it in Season Two. Mr. and Mrs. Geller drop off boxes from Monica’s childhood bedroom. The friends all happen to be over when they unearth a video of Monica and Rachel prepping for prom. The tape clicks into the VCR, and there’s Monica in a fat suit and a billowy maroon dress, clutching a sandwich.
“Some girl ate Monica!” crows Joey. And the audience laughs.
I thought grown-up life would basically be a Friends rerun. As a kid, I clung most to that image of adulthood. ’90s New York life seemed so fun and glamorous — the impossibly large apartments, the casually fashionable overalls, the Hootie & the Blowfish concerts.
My family wasn’t hopelessly devoted to the show, so I watched syndicated episodes on the tiny, static-y TV propped on my bedroom dresser. Reruns came in a never-ending stream. A lot of nights, I fell asleep to the soothing chords of Smelly Cat.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I look at my life now, it echoes back to these episodes. Maybe Friends is just a great look at mid-20s life, or maybe I drifted off to Ross’s whine so often that these ideas sunk into my subconscious.
I didn’t move to New York, but I did move to a big U.S. city. I spend way too much time in coffee shops. I have a group of friends who are here for me whenever my life’s a joke, I’m broke, my love life’s DOA.
When Friends hit Netflix in January, I was ready. Now I could stream episodes all day and night, until my roommate begged me to shut it off. So much of it was how I remembered. Certain scenes made me scream-laugh so hard that I was afraid the neighbors would complain.
But I’d forgotten about the relentless fat jokes. They pop up every few episodes. Skinny, beautiful, OCD Monica used to be fat — and her friends will never let her forget it.
Maybe the jokes didn’t register with me when I was younger. In high school, hating my body was the norm. But I have to wonder, as I formed my opinions on lattes and boyfriends and the merits of having a capuchin monkey as a pet, what ideas about fatness versus success crept into my head during that formative TV-watching.
Because when everyone taunts Monica about the girl she used to be, I begin to suspect something: If Monica was still fat, they wouldn’t be her friends.
In flashbacks, Monica exists only as a punchline. What effect did this have on me at 13, 14, 15? To see women defined only by their bodies. To know that only when you get skinny do you star in your own show.
Monica becomes real only when she loses the weight. Before that, she’s just a caricature. I was a fat kid; I am a fatter adult. What does this mean for the girls like me who never become thin? Are we relegated to side roles and stereotypes in our own lives? Of course, this isn’t true. But I think it sometimes, dark and secret: The fat girl doesn’t get to be the protagonist.
What does the opposite mean, then? To stay fat or — horror of horrors — get fatter? Does this lessen my successes — the stories I’ve told, the friends I’ve made, the life I’ve built? Sometimes I hear my friends dismiss people we knew as teenagers with, “Oh, he got fat,” and my stomach flips as I wonder what other people say about me.
That’s what the fat jokes on Friends feel like to me, like someone I know and trust is leaning over to whisper, “You matter less because of your body,” then expecting me to laugh.
I know the simple solution is to just stop watching. I boycotted How I Met Your Mother when the fat jokes got too vicious. Maybe it’s because I fell in love with Friends young, before I knew the possible damage.
But I love so much about the show, and I just don’t want to turn it off. I wish there was some edited version where I could skip over the worst of the jokes. I know Friends has other problems with diversity and homophobia, and I never expected it to be a perfect show. But when those Monica jokes come up, they always feel like a punch to the gut.
It’s not just Friends either. The “formerly fat” story line shows up often enough to be considered a trope. The heroic skinny person earns their TV life by shedding the weight.
A recent example: In New Girl, the fit and fastidious character Schmidt used to be chubby (and shlubby) in college. He briefly reunites with his college girlfriend Elizabeth, who remains heavier. But instead of the skinny girls on the show, who wear Peter Pan collars and sleek cocktail dresses, Elizabeth dresses like a slob. She doesn’t know how to present herself in social situations. The joke is that Schmidt is embarrassed by her. I could barely finish the season.
I didn’t need these reminders about how the world views women’s bodies, then or now. You never forget being a fat teenage girl. When my skinnier friends ran into certain stores at the mall, I lingered by the accessories, sliding bangles up and down my wrist and avoiding the eyes of salesgirls. I wanted to apologize for the space I took up, to confess that I knew they didn’t carry my size.
But it was worse when my mom took me to the designated plus-size stores, where I stood back as far from the door as I could in case a classmate wandered by. Walking out of the mall, I’d keep the label of the shopping bag turned towards my leg. At home, I’d cut the XXL tags from every shirt collar.
Since then, I’ve read so much about feminism and body positivity and the fat acceptance movement. I know that bodies are not inherently good or bad. My fatness is a part of me — both my history and my everyday — but it is not the only part of me.
The Monica in the prom video is maybe a size 18 or 20. In high school, I wore a 16 or 18. When I look at her, I see myself. That chubby teenage girl afraid of her own ambitions, because who could she ever be besides the fat girl? I look at photos of my teenage self now and I think I look beautiful. I wish I could reassure her that she would grow past these insecurities.
I’ve learned to celebrate the good things my body can do. Walking through Europe after college, dancing to Talking Heads albums in my apartment now. I try to remember that there are good days and bad days; that loving my body isn’t a one-time goal but an ongoing process.
One joke hit me particularly hard — and it’s a joke Monica makes at her own expense. She wants to go on a date with Rachel’s high school boyfriend, Chip, and she argues her case. “The fat girl inside of me really wants to go,” says Monica. “I owe her this. I never let her eat.”
A life of withholding. This is the joke. The scene ends.
I bet Fat Monica was a great friend. I bet she kept meticulously organized Trapper Keepers and got really competitive over pop quizzes. She probably spent a lot of time in the kitchen, trying out recipes for her family while she dreamed of being a New York City chef. I bet she was just as funny and intense and neurotic and loyal as the woman she grows into. I bet she just went by Monica, and I bet she was fantastic.
Read next: Why I’m Glad I Was Bullied
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