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Dawn French on Big Women

Dawn French is always the first to joke about her love for chocolate side by side with her weight. But behind the laughter lies a more serious issue. When the subject of attention is her weight, Dawn French will willingly parade around in a swimsuit or a ballet costume. However underlying these familiar comedy sketches is a message for us all to read. Dawn French is fat. And beautiful. And proud. Which for many, can be difficult to comprehend.

Modern society appears to have a problem with fuller figured women, but Dawn French has succeeded where others have failed. She's made it into the limelight without dieting or changing the way she looks. For this, she has a right to be proud. Dawn has always believed that being big should be something to celebrate rather than be ashamed of. She is happy, successful and secure, with no problems regarding her size. Dawn puts her own self confidence down to her upbringing, "I was so loved and supported".

She says proudly; “In my family, there was no suggestion that I should ever eat less. My father thought I was the most delicious girl, and was always telling me so. He told me that I was uncommonly beautiful, that I was the most precious thing in his life, that he prized me above all else, and that he was proud to be my father.”

Despite Dawn’s obvious pride in her appearance and size, she did diet in the early 1980’s just before her wedding."I fell for it, I thought you couldn’t get married unless you looked like the people on the cover of Bride magazine... All the time I was on the diet, the only thing I could think about was food... I got into the dress and didn’t know who I was.”

Dawn’s size dropped from a size 18 to a size 12 in eight weeks, with help from a Harley Street 'quack'. This unpleasant experience gave Dawn the chance to see both sides of the argument, although it’s now very clear which side she’s on.

“The diet industry dictates how we should look along with the fashion industry. They take all your money for you to buy these products and you lose a lot of weight very fast. Then of course when you put it on, you put on much more than you ever were before. So then you’ve got more to lose, so give them more money to buy more of their stupid products. Meanwhile you’re destroying your body, no chance of ever settling at the weight you’re 'supposed' to be. So we’re paying for them to destroy our bodies, because we’re not allowed to feel happy with the size we are... Why should we have to starve to be beautiful?”

Aside from the debate on whether big is beautiful, another main reason why many women are constantly dieting and trying not to put on weight is because of the health issue.

“But look how unhealthy skinny women are!” Dawn argues, "you can’t say that women are unhealthy just because they’re big. It is possible to be fat and healthy.”

Regardless of the image of fat in today’s society, it is a fact that just under half of women in Britain are a size 16+. But where are they represented? Large women are never seen looking glamorous and beautiful on magazine covers or on the catwalk, which could give young women the impression that being big is wrong. Dawn explains; “It should be balanced, teenage girls have no role models... We’re only used to seeing high fashion on stick insects. Why aren’t they [fashion designers] interested in the challenge of designing things that would only look good on big women? ... Proper grown-up fashion doesn’t seem to be available for big women. Why not?”


Originally broadcast as part of ‘The South Bank Show’ series, this video provides a documentary style look at the lack of representation given to fuller figured women in the contemporary media and arts. According to Dawn “The South Bank Show was meant to be a celebration of big women”. However this aim was not entirely fulfilled.

Yes, Dawn posed for a variety of photographs and paintings, but no modern images of big meaning beautiful were created. The photographs were mostly reinactments of old-fashioned paintings from Rubens’ era. As a result of this programme, the conclusion was drawn that images of fat in the 1990’s took two forms; parody or pornography.

“Most photographers have had no experience of photographing big women, especially in an appreciative, celebratory or even modern way. They have nothing to emulate, so they take the safe route and parody the past.”

To investigate this idea further, Dawn French volunteered to pose nude for Esquire magazine, an offer which they immediately took up.

But where is the 90s’ image of bigger women? In some other art forms such as sculpture and modern art, new images are being created, but this not as influential as photography. Women today need to retake control over the image of fat and tell the photographers what to shoot, rather than it being the opposite.

“If I was alive in Rubens’ time I wouldn’t have to be a comedienne for a living. I’d be celebrated as a beautiful model. In those days Kate Moss would only have one use, as a paintbrush. He’d be painting me and I’d say ‘what’s that in your hand Rubens?’ He’d say ‘It’s Kate Moss. I’m using her as a paintbrush.”

However successful large women such as Dawn French are, we have a long way to go before some people will accept that we are all individual shapes and sizes. Although Dawn has proved that big is beautiful, is it still a thin girl's world?

Dawn French featured on the documentary series 'Fat', in 1998. The programme looked at the advantages and positive aspects of being big, including a profile of a female photographer who specialises in exploring the beauty of large women. Dawn French spoke about her personal experiences relating to her weight. The programme also included clips from 'Sex and Chocolate', and the French and Saunders sketch where Jennifer interviews 'Dr Eleanor Wood' (Dawn) on the radio.

Dawn said that when she was going through the process of trying to adopt her daughter, the adoption agency went through over 6 months of investigation into her marriage, finance, home, etc. After this time, Dawn was eventually told that she was the wrong size for a woman of her height and so was therefore unfit to be a mother. Reluctantly, Dawn had to diet again.

Dawn said that it was "a disease to think it's OK to marginalise big women ...People do not ask you to play a central role unless it is required [to be big]." She spoke about the fact that her profession was especially to blame for the discrimination of people because of their weight. "It has to be in the job description", either fat and depressed, or with an eating disorder, or "retarded". Even in her reviews Dawn said that she is always described as 'Fat and Funny', 'Rolypoly Dawn French' - there's always the adjective.

Ending on a positive note, Dawn told of how her daughter has recently become interested in her own self image, and likes to take her clothes off and look at herself in the mirror. She'd look herself up and down, and then one day she said "Oh, I hope I get fat soon". Dawn glowed at this point, saying "It was so great, that she can value me as her fat mum".

Website created by Caroline  -> Contact Page last modified: 21st May 2002