How plus size characters are changing TV

(CNN) -- When a 324-pound Chelsea Settles moved to Los Angeles, she brought a bikini-clad mannequin along to inspire her to lose weight.
Now, as the first season of "Chelsea Settles" unfolds on MTV, the mannequin in the 23-year-old reality star's bedroom is nothing more than a functional statement piece. Doubling as a coat rack and guitar stand -- "It's definitely not what it was when I first started," Settles says.
And Settles' reality show, originally marketed as a weight loss/transformation series, has progressed right along with her.
The pilot, which focused on Settles' measurements and eating habits, gave way to less weight-fixated second and third episodes about a college graduate trying to make it in a new city.
So why mention her weight at all?
Settles brought a mannequin with her to Los Angeles to inspire her to lose weight.
Settles brought a mannequin with her to Los Angeles to inspire her to lose weight.
Failing to point out a plus-size character's weight is like -- for lack of a better idiom -- ignoring the elephant in the room, one TV insider said. But once weight is discussed, storylines can unfold naturally, allowing viewers to get to know the person behind the plus-size label.
That's certainly been true for CBS's hit show "Mike & Molly," which originally took heat for leaning on fat jokes. Now, in its second season, the sitcom draws laughs with family and relationship humor.
"Weight is so visual, it will always be part of the conversation," said Marie Leggette, the editor and founder of The Curvy Fashionista. "['Chelsea Settles'] is kind of breaking the mold. ... Executives will play the angle they know the best to see the interest. From that feedback, they'll make the new ideas."
So is Hollywood evolving to be more accepting of the overweight?
It certainly appears that way.
In addition to Settles' show, "Mike & Molly" star Melissa McCarthy is enjoying quite the ride.
McCarthy not only won an Emmy for her TV role, but she also snagged the hearts of fans with turns in the hit film "Bridesmaids" and a hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live." She's also sold a script to Paramount and a pilot script to CBS. Not to mention her planned plus-size clothing line.
Marshall Eisen, executive producer for "Chelsea Settles," said working on the Pennsylvania native's reality show reinforced the importance of approaching a series with an open mind.
"The project evolved from where we began," he said. "After we started digging into Chelsea, and learning more about her -- her interests and where her story was going -- there was a lot more to talk about than just weight loss."
"Focusing on who [Settles] really is as a person became the natural thing to do," Eisen added.
So, despite her tough personal trainer and waning insecurities, Settles isn't the "Mini Ruby" people predicted she would be.
Rather than letting weight dictate her every move, the series will begin focusing more on her transition into adulthood: Exploring a new city, breaking into a cutthroat industry, meeting new people and growing up.
"A strong segment of our audience is there right now," Eisen said of the network's demographic. "She's struggling to find her way with the same hopes and dreams all of us have."
Sound familiar, Lauren Conrad?
Though it wasn't the network's intention to create a more down-to-earth version of "The Hills," Eisen said, "People are picking up on it now and I totally get it. ... It's just a new way of showing a young woman trying to find her way, and trying to build a career in L.A., in a somewhat similar field."
One viewer who was originally turned off by the pilot episode is The Big Girl Blog's CeCe Olisa.
"She's stuffing her face with fast food in the first five minutes," Olisa said. "Those shots are more appropriate for [a weight loss show]. Those shots don't have a lot to do with fashion."
And to her defense, "The Hills" wasn't exactly rife with footage of Conrad eating chicken nuggets outside the drive-thru.
But, Olisa said, plus-size TV characters won't always be associated with things like consuming copious amounts of fast food.
"Sometimes people don't give the American public the benefit of the doubt," Olisa added, noting, there was a time when people didn't want to see men and women in the same bed.
Another new show, "Big Sexy," chronicles the lives of five plus-size women working in the fashion industry. It received mixed reviews when its first three episodes premiered on TLC in August and September.
BET was just one outlet to pose the question: "Is celebrating obesity really empowering or just undermining our health?"
Yet the show provides a more accurate portrayal of curvy women than most weight-loss shows, said Madeline Jones, a former plus-size model and editor of Plus Model Magazine.
"We're going in the right direction with shows like ['Settles'] and 'Big Sexy,'" Jones said.
"Plus-size women are just like everybody else," she added. "They have sex; they date; they have friends; they're married. ... The media portrays it as we're living this horrible life. We don't wear color; we only go out amongst ourselves."
And Settles is happy to be part of the progression.
"You can't let your weight stop you from living your life," she said, adding, "I probably used to weigh myself every morning when I woke up. After awhile, I realized I was going to crazy town. This is not what it's supposed to be about. It's about personal growth and self-acceptance."
And that's the message she hopes to convey on her show.
"It's important to be healthy, but I also want to be sane."

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