Watch the first 15 minutes of Dumplin’, now on Netflix, and you’ll see it’s unlike any plus-size narrative to hit the big, or small, screen. At the center is Willowdean Dickson, a plus-size teenager who’s very comfortable in her skin—so comfortable, in fact, that she has no qualms about entering her town’s beauty pageant to honor her late aunt. (Her mother, a former title holder, is played with delightful camp and humor by Jennifer Aniston.)
Does she have insecurities? Of course. The constant fat-shaming Willowdean experiences do hit hard, but she never once thinks she has to lose weight to win the crown. Willowdean’s strong sense of self helps her endure and realize that the bullies are the ones with the problem—not her.
This messaging was crucial to Danielle Macdonald, who plays Willowdean, and a big reason she took the part. “Growing up you see movies, and the big person is always the butt of a joke or the funny best friend or they lose weight, and that’s when they become redeemable,” she says. “It was really great to see someone who just found the confidence within themselves, just as they are. I thought that was really important.”
You are worthy of being the star in your own life. Don’t wait for, “One day, I’ll change.” You do you. You be you. Love yourself.
Macdonald, who garnered acclaim in the 2017 indie Patti Cake$, grew up in Australia and was the only plus-size girl in her group of friends. A movie like Dumplin’, she says, would’ve helped her realize sooner she didn’t have to lose weight to succeed. “I wish I had felt that more growing up,” she says. “It always felt like, ‘Oh, I have to change, and then things will happen one day.’ That’s how people present the world to you. That’s what society tells us. It’s all we know. So it’s nice to change that narrative and show it’s OK to love who you are. You are worthy of being the star in your own life. Don’t wait for, ‘One day, I’ll change.’ You do you. You be you. Love yourself.”
I identify with both Macdonald and Willowdean so much. Like both women, I too am one of the only plus-size people in my friend group, and it can be difficult at times. There are problems I encounter in my day-to-day life most of them could never understand—problems they probably aren’t even aware exist. It’s easy to fall in the trap of putting my life on hold for a diet or exercise plan and only allowing myself to “live” again once I’ve reached a certain weight. Dumplin‘ is arguably the first time I’ve seen a plus-size character not do this. She fully lives in the world as she is—unapologetically. That’s thrilling, and reminds me I’m more than capable of doing the same thing.
I’m also capable of allowing people to love me—which is another major theme in Dumplin’. The movie’s handling of the central romance between Willowdean and Bo (Luke Benward), her hunky co-worker, is commendable. Often, characters who are interested in the plus-size protagonist reach a conclusion akin to, “I love you in spite of your size”—but not here. Bo finds Willowdean beautiful and sexy—because she is.
“I remember seeing something recently, and the guy said something about loving the person in spite of the fact she was [plus-size]. I remember being so mad about it,” Macdonald says. “Are you freaking kidding me? You’re basically saying, ‘You’re ugly, but I’ll love you anyway.’ No! Screw you! I hate that.”
It’s actually Willowdean who pumps the breaks on her relationship with Bo. “She’s worried about people judging,” Macdonald notes. “That’s a huge thing, [but] anyone can be in a relationship! Be in a relationship! He likes you! Why does it matter what anyone else thinks? What matters is the two people in the relationship, and we need to stop caring so much about outside perspectives.”
It’s this push and pull of confidence that makes Dumplin‘ such a relatable story. Willowdean doesn’t focus on her body or hate it, but she’s still affected by how the outside world treats her. It’s a nuanced, incredibly realistic portrayal that we haven’t really seen in pop-culture. Kristin Hahn, Dumplin‘s screenwriter, said she worked hard to find that balance.
“It was important to me that Willowdean feel like a real girl, and every girl—every woman, for that matter—can be both confident and self-conscious within the span of a minute,” Hahn says. “It’s just a human reality. We have all of this in us and each have different triggers that can throw us off unexpectedly and send us into our turtle shells. I loved that Willowdean could be authentically confident one minute and recoil from insecurity the next.”
Macdonald says the fact Dumplin‘s source material comes from a plus-size woman, Julie Murphy, is a big reason why the story feels so authentic.
“I had never read a book and felt so connected to a character,” Macdonald says. “This person experienced this. Whoever wrote this isn’t coming from an outsider’s perspective and isn’t judging. It is an experience of everything you feel. That’s why it stuck with me so much.”
These “revolutionaries” in the film don’t wait for an invitation to join the pageant…They give themselves the invitation.
The actress wants people who aren’t plus-size to find Dumplin’ educational. “I hope people understand a perspective that they hadn’t before,” she says. “People say things unintentionally not realizing that it could hurt someone’s feelings because they’ve just never experienced what you have.”
And for the people who have struggled with body image—like myself—both Hahn and Macdonald want you to feel seen. “I hope anyone who’s felt less than because of their physicality can feel emboldened by this story and go pursue something, anything, they may have denied themselves or waited for an invitation to pursue,” Hahn says. “These ‘revolutionaries’ in the film don’t wait for an invitation to join the pageant, to feel welcome: They give themselves the invitation and make the experience what they need it to be.”
This comes back to the concept of not waiting for a pant size or dress size or number on the scale to start living your life. We’re all entitled to happiness right now—regardless of our gender, size, race, or sexual orientation. It’s a simple message, in theory, but the roar of societal pressures and body-shaming certainly drowns it out. That negative energy will likely always exist—but we can ignore it. Dumplin’ shows the power in doing just that.
Says Hahn, “Willowdean is keenly aware of peoples’ judgments, the way some people look at her and make comments or jokes behind her back, but for the most part, she’s able to magnify the positive voices around her like her Aunt Lucy, her best friend, Ellen. She turns up the volume on those voices and tries to drown out the others, which is a choice we all get to make in our own way every day.”
Christopher Rosa is the staff entertainment writer at Glamour.