(I'll be referencing a specific episode of Full House, watch it HERE )
The date: November 9th, 1990
The time: 7pm
I was freshly bathed, PJ’s on, and saddled up to the TV with my little sister by my side. Maybe a bowl of ice cream nestled in the nooks of our crisscrossed legs?
We were anxiously awaiting the start of our favorite show. This was the hey-day of Full House and it was must-see-TV.
Season 4, episode 3, entitled “Shape Up” quite simply changed the trajectory of my life. There was my naïve, childlike bliss before that episode, and the soul-crushing reality of everything after.
What could a 30 min TV show do to affect me so profoundly? DJ Tanner came out as ‘fat’.
A little background:
I was a big kid. Not really fat, or even chubby, but stocky and just kinda large for my age. Being taller and “broader” than all of my classmates, especially the boys, was just a fact of life, one that didn’t really bother me. While I was well aware of my “big-ness” I didn’t view it negatively. In fact, my height was something that was often celebrated, especially as the pencil marks inched-up along the wall my parents set aside to track the growth of their 5 kids.
Little did I know I would be in full-blown puberty the following year and would “develop” much earlier than most of my female friends, a fact that in retrospect, perfectly explains my soft roundness and rapidly sprouting height.
If you are a Full House fan you’ll surely remember that “very special episode”: Kimmy is having a pool party for her birthday and DJ panics, instantly replying that she can’t possibly attend because she can’t bare the idea of being seen in a bathing suit in front of all of her friends.
“Why is DJ embarrassed to be seen in a bathing suit???!” My 9-year-old mind scrambled to make sense of this seemingly absurd plot line. I kept watching, hoping it would turn around, and I could go back to believing that DJ was as beautiful and perfect as I always believed her to be.
The way her family goes on to handle DJ’s ‘dilemma’ is quite upsetting, to say the least. At no point does anyone try to convince DJ that she doesn’t need to change her body. They all respond with: “Well if you want to lose some extra pounds, here’s how to do it… And oh yeah, don’t develop anorexia or bulimia.”
(Anorexia and bulimia* were the two biggies in eating disorders back then, featured in many an after-school special. So as long as you didn’t have one of them, you were fine)
Recently I went back and re-watched this episode and I was saddened to see that it was even worse than I remembered. It is appalling that this young girl was given advice to eat “broiled fish, skinless chicken, and steamed vegetables” and was told to “hit the gym to burn some calories”. The suggestion is that physical appearance is a metric from measuring health. We see that her ‘naturally-thin’ friend Kimmy is ‘allowed’ to eat cookies and not exercise BUT Aunt Becky has to work a lot harder at it, and that’s just the way things are if you want to be healthy and attractive, right?
The “H” word gets used A LOT. Losing weight is good as long as you do it in a ‘healthy way’. And the way your body looks is a direct reflection how healthy you are. It’s a confusing and shameful message even for adults, but especially for young girls.
After Daddy Tanner gives the obligatory end-of-episode-lecture, that people come in all shapes and sizes and you are beautiful no matter what, they head downstairs to dinner. DJ excitedly rattles off what she’s going to eat, after 3 full days of total starvation mind you, and the first thing she says is: a salad WITH DRESSING ON THE SIDE. She then smiles up at him and he gives her the ole ‘atta girl’ stamp of approval. Barf.
My negative reaction to that episode is further intensified because I saw myself in DJ Tanner. We were roughly the same age and we kinda looked alike; she had fabulous thick hair, round cheeks and a short, strong body. I loved seeing myself represented on TV, especially in the sea of conventionally thin bodies.
So as a 9 year old I walked away with this: if DJ wasn’t happy with her size, then I shouldn’t be happy with mine.
Sadly, I would go on to have many more experiences like this one, including a few well-meaning comments from family members trying to “help” me with my “weight problem”. (Whoever said “words can never hurt you” hasn’t been weight-shamed by someone they love or admire) But this Full House episode will forever hold a special place in my heart, because THIS was my first. My first clear memory that my body wasn’t OK and that it needed to be changed.
I wouldn’t actively start trying to change my body until many years later, but it was too late, the seed of body-insecurity had already been planted. Like too many other victims of diet culture I ended up spending too much time skipping pool parties and not nearly enough time believing I was worthy and wonderful just the way I am.
*Ironically enough, Candace Cameron Bure, who starred as DJ Tanner, went on to develop an eating disorder in her 20’s and is now very outspoken about the insidious ways people develop complex disorders with food.