The Circle Is More Than a Netflix Reality Show—It’s Challenging Fatphobia

Netflix’s new reality series The Circle is an undeniable hit, thanks to a premise that’s truly unlike any other show on TV. In it, contestants rate each other based on their profiles and interactions on a fake social network (called The Circle, naturally). But the wildest part is that the contestants’ profiles can be whatever they want—meaning a person can catfish other players. And in this week’s set of episodes, fans saw one catfishing contestant, Sean, face both support and backlash after revealing that she’d been using a friend’s photos on her profile.

Sean, a plus-size social media manager and self-proclaimed body acceptance advocate, shared her true personality, job, and hometown with the others in The Circle. The only difference: She used the photos of a straight-size friend. But after getting to know the other contestants, she eventually decided to share her real self with them.

Several were positive about Sean’s reveal, but two in particular, Shubham and Ed, were less than impressed. And they’re not alone—a quick Twitter search for “Sean The Circle” shows that many feel critical about her choice. “Sean using a catfish photo is such a shitty thing to do when she promotes body acceptance irl,” one user argued. “She had this huge platform to show HAES & continue promoting body acceptance. Instead, she decided to reinforce the idea that size & beauty is what matters most.”

But Ed, Shubham—and, I’m assuming, many of Sean’s critics on Twitter—don’t know what it’s like to go through life as a fat woman, and I think they’re missing the core point of what she’s doing. As Sean explained on the show, she didn’t use her friend’s pictures because she’s not confident. Rather, it was a strategy: She knows the harassment that simply existing while fat can bring, especially online. As a plus-size person myself, I was excited to see her reveal on-screen—and what she said about fat women being mistreated rang true. Sure, most of The Circle‘s contestants were supportive of Sean, but trolly, anonymous comments are what many plus-size women deal with on a daily basis on Instagram and Twitter. (Just ask Lizzo.)

Sean on Netflix’s The Circle.

Courtesy of Netflix

It’s not like the catfishers, Sean included, who made it to the final three episodes were pretending to be other people for fun. One, Seaburn, used his girlfriend’s photos because he wanted to show it was OK for men to express their emotions. Karyn says she chose to be Mercedeze because she didn’t want to be judged for her looks. And Sean connected with her fellow competitors without having to worry about potential snap judgments that could have come with using her real photos.

By using another woman’s photos, Sean challenged the show’s contestants—and viewers—to examine the unconscious biases society has toward plus-size women. Even The Circle players who responded to her reveal positively might be more cognizant of some of the challenges and harassment that plus-size people face every day after hearing Sean’s reasoning. What her critics are missing is that this isn’t a debate about whether or not Sean should just “be herself”—it’s a call to rethink internalized fatphobia entirely. And how often do we get that on a reality show?

Meghan De Maria is a writer and editor based in New York.

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