Before Chrissy Metz, one of the stars of NBC's breakout hit This Is Us, came to the Bustle offices, I knew I was going to ask her about a certain scene in the series' fourth episode, "The Pool," even though she isn't in the scene. Instead, the 8-year-old version of her character, Kate, played by Mackenzie Hancsicsak, sets the stage for one of the most relatable moments I've ever seen on television. In the scene, young Kate heads to the pool with her family, blissfully unaware of the fact that anyone might judge her for choosing to wear a bikini on her chubby body.
Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before young Kate gets the wind knocked out of her sails: A group of her peers hand her a note that says, “We don’t want to play with you anymore. You embarrass us.” There's also a drawing of a pig in the note, a crude sketch that's enough to break your heart into a million tiny pieces.
Deflated, young Kate returns to her family and puts on a T-shirt — and in that moment, we can see exactly where Metz's Kate begins a complicated lifetime of body image issues and social uncertainty.
As a formerly chubby kid, the scene struck a chord with me in a way that few others have before. And it turns out, I wasn't alone. "The other day, [the cast] was watching episodes three and four, and I cried," Metz tells me during our interview.
"Which part?" I ask, already knowing the answer. "Do you mean the swimming pool?"
"Yeah," Metz said — and suddenly, we had our common ground. I told her about the time the exact same thing happened to me as a kid: I was handed a note saying I "couldn't hang out" with my friends anymore, "because you're too fat." When I finished telling Metz the story of why the scene punched me right in the gut, I noticed she had tears in her eyes. It was the emotional response of a fellow fat woman who knew the feeling of having all your confidence and swagger stripped away in a moment, your self-worth popping like a balloon in a world you didn't realize was full of sharp objects.
"I didn't have a note," Metz said. "But I remember kids were mean and they bullied. I remember wearing a bathing suit, and then one day I just wore T-shirts. It was like, I know that exact conversation. And it effs you up for a long time."
Those days are behind her, but Metz seems to recognize that these kinds of experiences can affect the way you approach the world. Luckily, there are plenty of good moments that come with the bad. In fact, if it wasn't for a moment of encouragement and self-assurance, she may have never made it to Hollywood.
"My sister wanted to do modeling, and there was an open call for actors, models and talent at the Holiday Inn in Gainesville," she says. "We go and I'm filling out paperwork [for my sister], and there's this weird woman sitting across from me, and she's like, 'You're here for a reason.' I was like, 'Alright, lady.' She said she taught at my high school and I thought, no she didn't. I'd never seen her in my life. So, I turn around, and she's gone. Nobody knows who she is. Nobody saw her again. I knew when I went there, I was going for a reason. I just didn't know what it was."
That serendipitous encounter may have led to Metz to a sudden surge of confidence.
"The manager comes out and she says, 'Your sister is beautiful. What are you doing here?' Metz says. "I said I was just filling out paperwork. Then she was like, 'No, no, no. I think you should audition.' I was 21. I auditioned, and I sang a Christina Aguilera song. Eventually, I did a monologue, and she's like, 'You're funny. What are you doing in Gainesville, Florida?' And I'm like, 'I don't know. Get me out of here.'"
After that, Metz moved to Los Angeles and got an agent, and the rest was history.
Surviving as a fat woman is hard — trying to do it in the national spotlight is even harder. Metz is a visibly fat woman trying to make her way in the world: Part of her wants to be a role model for other fat women, and part of her just wants to exist beyond the labels that seem to define her.
"It's something that is always brought up in every single interview," Metz says. "But if you don't talk about the elephant in the room — no pun intended — people will continue fear what they don't know. When you educate someone that it's not just about food or just stuffing our faces and being lazy people — there's all these other things that are factors, but it's not just about food. It's about a symptom and what we fill that void with, and everybody can relate to that."
Metz's character, Kate, is the perfect representation of the complexity of being a fat woman in the world: Yes, she's fat. But she's also employed, in love, and one hell of a fun time at a party. As for Metz, she acknowledges these complexities and understands that while in an ideal world, her weight wouldn't be discussed nearly as much, she also has a chance to start a different kind of conversation.
"If I wasn't overweight, I wouldn't have this role, and I wouldn't get to have this platform and reach as many people and hopefully inspire and bring hope to this many people. So, it's this duality where I'm like, 'OK, I get that we have to talk about it,' but I know I'm not defined by it."
And just as she's not defined by her weight, Metz doesn't always want to be defined by her character, Kate. However, it's hard to ignore the commonalities the two of them share.
"There are a lot of similarities between Kate and I, in that she's put together, and she's intelligent, and she's educated," Metz says. "But, there is kind of one component missing, and that's directly connected to her weight and her self-worth. That plays into my life, obviously. I don't find my identity in my weight good or bad. I think so many people have given 'fat' such a negative connotation and made it such a negative word. Just because you're fat doesn't mean that's just what you are. You can say, 'I'm a woman. I'm an entrepreneur. I'm x, y, z.' That's what I love about this role in particular. Kate's not just the butt of the joke. It's actually a story with a message about how she navigates through her life and becoming the woman that she's always meant to be."
Still, it's impossible to talk about what Metz is doing on screen without acknowledging her weight, if only because of the fact that she's one of the largest women ever cast in a primetime television show. In fact, Metz and I joked about the fact that the pickings have been so slim in the past, younger versions of ourselves looked to Camryn Manheim on The Practice for fat girl inspiration — and we both agreed that while Manheim killed it, she wasn't even that fat.
"I think [my role] represents an education in people who are unconventional, whether it's because of their weight or their age or their background," Metz speculates. "I've had women of all ages and all sizes reach out, who have either battled weight or gained weight because of a medical condition. I think it represents coming together as unconventional women and finding that they are catching up to life — simply by seeing that this is a representation of someone who's different. This is also someone who's so relatable and real. It's like, why has it taken this long? Why is this a new thing?"
Luckily, if Metz continues the amazing work she's doing both on and off the screen, it won't be a new thing for much longer.
Images: NBC; Bianca Consunji/Bustle