We had the great pleasure of chatting and giggling with the very lovely and multi-talented actress and body love activist, Jen Ponton. Jen is most commonly recognized for her work on “30 Rock”, “Orange is the New Black” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” – and hopefully many more leading roles in the near future!
Jen found her love and refuge in school plays and dance as a young girl, and received such joy in making people laugh. After attaining her theatre degree, she transitioned to TV with the desire to tell bigger stories that could impact more people. In finding the body love and fat acceptance communities, Jen says she found the most wonderful, dynamic, justice-seeking, compassionate, badass people she’s ever known – and we think she is all of those things and more!
When and how did you find body positivity and fat acceptance?
My fat acceptance & body love journey started when I was in my mid 20s. I was maybe 23 or 24. I had spent all my life up to that point being where most fat people find themselves – self-loathing, feeling undeserving of love, constantly dieting, starving myself, abusing my body- it was bad news bears. My first step, honestly, was meeting and then dating my now-husband, who is also fat and comes from a family of size (I am from a family of very thin WASPs). Early conversations with him were really illuminating, and gently encouraged me to love my body. It was the first time I’d ever heard that. It helped – and it even took me out of the cycle of dieting and eased my food issues.
During that time, I was primed to find the blog circle called the Fat-O-Sphere. It included blogs helmed by (mostly) women who are now prolific writers – Kate Harding, Marianne Kirby, Lesley Kinzel, Melissa McEwan of Shakesville. I was fascinated and so ready; I read their archives for months and months, and there I learned about fat acceptance, health at every size, and the insidious diet industry’s influence in funding research that points to fat equaling morbidity. It molded me into a new person who really owned myself and truly loved my body, ate intuitively, and moved my body because joy not because getting skinny.
Has acting strengthened your own love and acceptance of your body?
It didn’t used to – it used make it glaringly clear to me that I wasn’t like everyone else and that something was wrong with me. My costumes were often frumpy and unbecoming, while all the other actresses (many of whom were very slim) played romantic leads and got to look adorable and lovely. I found this to be true especially in musical theatre. Being a fat actor is a weird fun-house mirror, because you LIVE inside the sizist media skew that we’re all subject to. For us it isn’t just a magazine or a movie, it’s literally our entire demographic and world. In the years since I started pursuing television and film, the paradigm shifted. I started relishing the opportunity to play fat characters, because I could really humanize them and connect in a real way. In addition, I loved getting cast in non-size-specific roles – it allowed me to say, “Great, this is a normal person. Her size has nothing to do with this script.” From there, it was just being a person, showing someone’s humanity – even if she happened to be a size 22. I find that getting to be a visible representative of our community is a gift that I love to give, but also one that comes right back to me in spades and enhances my own body positivity.
What is the most body positive role you’ve had opportunity to play and why?
This season, I did a guest star on my beloved Hulu show, Deadbeat – and I got to play the most delicious character ever! She was an English Duchess who died while her nude portrait was being done, and since I played her ghost, the entire episode is ‘TV Naked’ (i.e. pasties and nude shorts with censor bars and a CGI navel – movie magic!). Duchess Beatrix was also a total freak-a-leek, so all she does for the entire episode is hit on Pac (Tyler Labine) with the creepiest, raunchiest come-ons that may have ever escaped my lips. She is hot and KNOWS she’s hot, and while Pac is turned off by her, it’s more because she’s a creep than because of her body. What he lacks in interest, Clyde (Kal Penn) makes up for – he sees her painting and talks about what a babe she is. It’s such a great depiction of a confident and sexy fat woman who sees what she wants and goes right for it.
Is it harder to be a plus size actress?
I really don’t think so. I think it’s enormously difficult to be a fat actress who doesn’t love her body and is uncomfortable in her own skin; that base level of self-loathing with a scoop of feeling disenfranchised on top of it is just a recipe for misery. I think if you ARE confident in your body and truly have a healthy relationship with yourself, being a fat actress can be much easier. We’re still a distant minority in this business, and television and film are really starting to come around and tell stories about people who look like us. The best is yet to come, for sure.
Do you think plus size representation is important to the body positive movement?
ABSOLUTELY. We normalize what we see every day. (As Hannibal Lecter says, “We covet what we see every day.”) Part of feeling so icky and alien in our bodies is because nothing we take in reflects fat people in a human way – period. What little we DO see of fat people in print and entertainment is meant as a punchline or a sad sack or someone’s pitiful ‘before’ photo. How are we supposed to feed that to our subconscious for a lifetime and take anything good away from it? To change the game for fat people, we MUST be represented in humane ways across the board. We must see our pictures, our characters, our stories everywhere, and it’s vitally important that they be featured in a way that doesn’t have our happiness, success or sense of worthiness be contingent upon changing our bodies.
What’s next for you professionally? What can we expect to see you in?
I’ve got a lot of stuff on Netflix that premiered this year, so if you haven’t yet binge-watched this season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, “Orange is the New Black”, or Hulu’s “Deadbeat” – you’ll find me there! Also, a film in which I star, “Love on the Run”, recently released and is available on Amazon and iTunes. As for what’s next, I’m tackling sizism in content creation, too – writing a couple of awesome scripts with badass, sexy fat characters. Why wait for everyone else to wake up? I’m excited to get these stories out there to lead the way!