There is a lot to love about Dumplin', the new Netflix original film based on Julie Murphy's 2015 novel of the same name. It is, quite possibly, a first of its kind. It is a movie that not only centers, and celebrates, a fat person, but one that centers and celebrates plus-size characters from start to finish, led by the winning Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), while tactfully looking at the tangled relationship some moms have with their daughters' bodies.
As InStyle Senior Editor Amanda Richards described, it is "the movie that made fat girls more important than Jennifer Aniston," who plays Willowdean's mother, Rosie Dickson, a beauty pageant has-been. The plot follows the self-assured Willowdean, nicknamed "Dumplin'" by her mother, as she navigates a crush on a cute boy, Bo (Luke Benward), holding onto her confidence in the face of haters, then entering a pageant to spite her mom.
Willowdean, her friend Millie (Maddie Baillio), and Willowdean's Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley) are all vastly different from one another, exploding the formula of the plus-size actor as comic relief. Each is a well-developed, multi-dimensional human being. None is given a weight-loss narrative. All exude unique forms of strength and confidence, whether we're talking Will's sharp tongue, Millie's unabashed joyfulness, or Lucy's eye-catching sense of style. We even get to meet a fierce plus-size drag queen or two.
Amidst several body positive, and even fat positive, plot points and affirmations, though, something quintessential to the film is its mother/daughter narrative. Aniston's character, Rosie, is an aging beauty queen. A lifetime of striving to be thin and conventionally pretty hasn't brought her all that much happiness, apart from her crowning glory in a 1993 pageant. Even so, she is still immersed in the industry, leading the same local teen pageant she won back in the day, altering contestants' gowns, and endlessly dieting to fit into the dress she wore 25 years ago.
Her daughter Will, on the other hand, is fat, and not especially interested in changing that. She stands up to body shamers, she kicks ass when she enters her mother's beauty pageant, and she gets the guy in the end — all without losing a single pound.
As a fat girl with a thin mom myself, their relationship was particularly interesting to watch. As a mother with two daughters of my own now, their relationship was also a reminder that our girls are not our trophies.
Although her body does not stand in her way of finding love, friendship, and adventure, it has clearly been the source of her mother's disapproval for years. As a fat girl with a thin mom myself, their relationship was particularly interesting to watch. As a mother with two daughters of my own now, their relationship was also a reminder that our girls are not our trophies.
Early in the film, we learn that Will has never felt particularly accepted by her mother. "You'll never come out and say it, but I know you can't stand that your daughter looks like this," she tells Rosie. "Like a round little dumpling."
Rosie unenthusiastically denies the claim, prompting Will to tell her, "I don't fit into your world."
I grew up surrounded by Rosies. My Rosies told me how much easier my life would be if I lost weight. They told me how much prettier I'd be. They suggested I wouldn't find love unless I found myself in a smaller jean size.
Will points to her relationship with her Aunt Lucy, telling Rosie, "We both know who raised me, and she never once made me feel bad about myself."
The thing is, Rosie doesn't vehemently deny her daughter's accusations, as one might expect a parent to. Instead, she defends her feelings, telling her kid, "I just want you to have opportunities, all right? It's harder for big girls. I know, I was one." In reference to her deceased sister, whom is shown in flashbacks to adore Will unconditionally and free of weight-related caveats, Rosie adds, "If she took better care of herself, she'd probably still be here."
In justifying her feelings toward Will as faux concern over her future or her health (in a moment that unfortunately reiterates the notion that all fat people are big because they do not "take care of themselves"), Rosie only confirms what her daughter already knows. Her mom wishes she looked different. Her mom wishes she had a thin daughter. Her mom wishes she had someone to be proud of — to link arms with and show off in her dreamy, up-do-laden world.
I know Rosie. In many ways, I grew up surrounded by Rosies. My Rosies told me how much easier my life would be if I lost weight. They told me how much prettier I'd be. They suggested I wouldn't find love unless I found myself in a smaller jean size. They exuded embarrassment at being seen with me, especially if I happened to be wearing something that was not designed to hide my body. My Rosies made me feel small and pathetic, but all at once enormous. Monstrous, even.
I have met Rosie at baby groups. I have met her in the mothers of some friends. I saw her at a diner recently, vigorously pulling a slice of cake away from a chubby toddler. They were there celebrating someone's birthday. A Rosie in the doctor's waiting room asked me if I was concerned about my youngest (a 4-month-old); she was "so pudgy" already. She herself was concerned about her 15-month-old; an adorable little girl with squishy cheeks and a bright smile, as yet unconcerned with her "baby fat" and the perceived value of losing it.
Much like Rosie Dickson, it is not uncommon for some mothers to treat their daughters like direct extensions of themselves. It is not uncommon to try to live vicariously through our children, to burden them with all our wishes and desires for what they may be, and achieve, and to raise them with the ideals we ourselves uphold — even if those ideals might on occasion be harmful.
It's evident that a part of Rosie wants her daughter to be thin because she wants her daughter to be beautiful, as she understands the word. Rosie's entire life has been shaped by her acquisition of traditional beauty, and having a fat daughter does not align with her presentation. Having a fat daughter does not make her feel successful. Having a fat daughter just doesn't make her feel good.
It's unfortunate that it takes Will joining a beauty pageant for Rosie to finally realize how talented and gorgeous and admirable her kid really is. It's unfortunate that it takes Will having to "prove herself." It's unfortunate that she has to subscribe to pageantry pomp and circumstance, and infiltrate an institution fundamentally rooted in beauty ideals, in order to get her mother to really look at her. It's unfortunate that we're supposed to feel good about this — as if it's totally cool that this is what it took for a mother to accept her child. "Oh my god, she did so good," Rosie says after seeing Will dance, sing, and perform magic tricks on stage while wearing a fabulously sequined ensemble. In reality, though, Will had been doing good all along. She had been a good person all along.
The film reminded me that I can do better.
This is what it took for Rosie to realize that her daughter was not her trophy. That her daughter is an individual, with aspirations, hobbies, gifts, and intrigue all of her own. That her daughter is not beautiful regardless of her body, but that her body might actually be part of her beauty. That her daughter deserves to find or create her own path. That her daughter is worthy of affection. That her daughter is good enough for anything. For everything.
The film reminded me that I can do better, though. I can proudly claim my daughters as my own, and celebrate everything that makes them unique, different to me, and different to one another. I can make sure they know how loved they are. I can be the kind of parent that lifts them up, and never thinks to tear them down. I can let them experiment with style, no matter how "flattering" or "unflattering" a magazine tells them their chosen looks might be. I can be someone who teaches them the worth of all bodies, and who reiterates that there are as many kinds of beauty in this world as their are people. I can be their Lucy, from start to finish and sans conditions.
After experiencing a traumatic c-section, this mother sought out a doula to support her through her second child’s delivery. Watch as that doula helps this mom reclaim the birth she felt robbed of with her first child, in Episode Three of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below. Visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes, launching Mondays in December.