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When an opinion article published in the British weekly The Spectator last week questioned the desirability of Penelope Featherington, a character in the Netflix series “Bridgerton” played by the Irish actress Nicola Coughlan, it touched off a firestorm of objection. People rushed to criticize the claim that her pairing with Colin Bridgerton, the chiseled and handsome leading man played by Luke Newton, would never happen in real life because her character isn’t thin.

After the show’s third season debuted on Netflix this month, fans were offended by what they saw as body shaming in the piece, which bluntly stated that Ms. Coughlan is “not hot, and there’s no escaping it.” The article concluded by arguing that efforts to prioritize equality and diversity aren’t enough to “make a fat girl who wins the prince remotely plausible.”

Many pointed out that Ms. Coughlan wouldn’t even be considered fat by many — descriptors like “plump” and “curvy” came up often — but others online still echoed the same point made in the article. One Threads user wrote that she was “not used to seeing a woman like Penelope get the guy like Colin” and that it “wouldn’t have happened in real life,” which was met with a flurry of responses by plus-size women sharing images of themselves, happily coupled.

Danielle Wallace, a plus-size woman from Houston, said in a phone interview that while she wasn’t an avid watcher of the show, she had felt compelled to join the chorus of objectors under the post, as a woman happily engaged to a man who loves her.

“What one person finds attractive isn’t what everybody else finds attractive, and it seems like some people don’t understand that,” Ms. Wallace, 51, said. “Like, it’s really weird to be an adult and not understand that.”

This criticism overlooked something that has been true for many cultures and communities for a long time: Curvy women are desirable, occasionally almost to the exclusion of thinner women. The many examples of bigger women being desired does not mean that fatphobia isn’t a real issue, of course, because it is. But the claim that you cannot be both curvy and attractive is false.

Emily Ottney, a 28-year-old baker living outside Minneapolis, said that she and Penelope have similar body types — short and curvy — so that when she stumbled on this discussion, it really “rattled” her. “I’m at about, like, 170 pounds, and still being five feet tall, I still look pretty chubby,” she said, adding that her husband had helped her “get to this place where I don’t feel like I have to change.”

“Every time that I have expressed this to him, especially when I had the hardest time with it, in the beginning, he was always so reassuring that he loves me no matter what shape I’m in,” she said.

In 2017, Robbie Tripp, who became known as the “Curvy Wife Guy,” was both dragged and applauded for an Instagram love note in which he praised his wife and “her curvy body.” He wrote that he was often teased as a teen for being attracted to “girls on the thicker side.” Because of the self-congratulatory tone of the post, it wasn’t especially well received, but he was a proud straight man who liked bigger women.

Attraction to larger bodies is a fact across cultures and generations. Well before an April 2023 issue of British Vogue heralded the arrival of “The New Supers” with a cover featuring three mid- and plus-size models; well before Meghan Trainor declared that she was “all about that bass”; well before Sir Mix-A-Lot broke it to “the beanpole dames in the magazines” that “you ain’t it, Miss Thing”; and perhaps as far back as 28,000 B.C. (I’m looking at you, Venus), there has always been a healthy appetite for curves. Even Kim Kardashian’s own body modifications, which helped kick off the Brazilian butt lift era of the 2010s, appeared to respond to a lust for the curvier bodies often seen on Black and brown women.

In “Bridgerton,” the show doesn’t directly point to Penelope’s body type as the reason it takes Colin so long to realize that he’s in love her, but she is noticeably bigger than the female romantic leads seen in previous seasons of the show. Perhaps that’s the point: Beauty is subjective, and a highborn gentleman can find anyone, including a woman of her shape, beautiful. He could have been hesitant for other reasons.

Kymberli Joye, a 32-year-old gospel singer in southern New Jersey, said that seeing Penelope’s story had resonated with her because she had also experienced a fairy-tale-like romance. Being bigger most of her life, she hadn’t had many connections similar to what she saw on TV, just what had felt to her like a “relationship out of convenience.” When she began dating the man who is now her husband, in 2022, everything changed.

“It was a different kind of spark: It was romantic, and I would say it felt like a movie and I felt like the main character,” she said. “I felt like the leading lady in it. I didn’t feel like a consolation prize.”


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