Sierra Burgess: How a Movie Made Me Feel Powerless and Powerful at the Same Time

 
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Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a teen romantic comedy that was released on Netflix in early September.  Directed by Ian Samuels, the film revolves around Sierra Burgess, a plus-sized teenage girl, who through unfortunate circumstances ends up cat-fishing a “sweet jock,” Jamey, portrayed by Noah Centineo.


A loose adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Sierra Burgess has just a touch of 80s era John Hughes-type films, and the kind of problematic plot line we have become accustomed to when watching teen romcoms.  


My feminist laced curiosity was piqued.  I decided to watch it because I wanted to see how it would portray a female plus-sized character --  a type of character who is often poorly represented or not represented at all. I wanted to know if this film was going to do her justice.


Sierra Burgess isn’t the greatest movie, but it’s not the worst either, and here’s why...

Sierra Burgess says, “You are a magnificent beast.”

The movie opens with this line. Sierra hops out of the shower and still in her towel, looks in the mirror and gives herself a morning pep talk she has probably given herself countless mornings before.


No stranger to mirror pep talks myself, I loved this scene. It showed that yes, she’s vulnerable and needs to get hyped a little before starting her day, but it also gave viewers the opportunity to see a character who tries to build herself up with confidence. Immediately, Sierra shows the world that she doesn’t obsess over her looks and she has no desire to have anyone fight her battles for her.


Confidence is the key word in this scene. In my experience, people seem surprised when a fat girl uses her voice. People don’t expect these girls to defend themselves because society has taught them to believe that their voices, and their bodies, are not worth anyone’s time.


I remember once in a grade school music class, a boy whispered to me “Hey, I just wanted you to know that James said you’re fat.” Believe it or not, annoyance was the main emotion coursing through my veins in that moment. I turned to him, definitely not whispering, and said “Thanks, I had no idea.”

Needless to say, my little fat shaming friend and his cronies were puzzled at my sarcasm and nonchalance when they so eagerly wanted to hurt me. But believe me, my confidence and sarcasm quickly dissipated when I got home and cried to my mother, asking her why my body was the way that it was.

Sierra Burgess says, “Is this a test?”

This is Sierra’s first question when she gets a text from Jamey, our “sweet jock,” for the first time. Because surely an attractive athletic guy like him wouldn’t be texting Sierra Burgess out of the goodness of his heart. I believe this was, in fact, a test of sorts for Sierra. One that would reappear again and again throughout the movie. One that Sierra failed every time.


I should tell you that I so desperately wanted to give Sierra the benefit of the doubt. At first, she didn’t know for sure that Jamey thought he was texting was someone else. But naturally, she suspects he thinks she’s not Sierra Burgess. And why wouldn’t she? Fat girl logic  leads even the most naive to believe that if a strongly built hot guy texts you or approaches you, you’re probably about to be the butt of some cruel joke.


Now, there is also a scene where Jamey sends Sierra an unsolicited shirtless picture of himself. He panics, ultimately realizing his mistake, until Sierra sends him back a picture of an elephant to which he responds, “Real women have curves.” Sierra just laughs it off.


This is where Sierra and I are different. I would have agonized over this text. Real women have curves? Does he really mean that? Is there something, albeit unintentionally, nasty underneath it? Is this an inadvertent form of fat shaming? Is this to say that women without curves are not worthy? Am I overthinking this??? Maybe...but maybe not. Why would she pick an elephant?


Obviously she can’t send him a real picture of herself since he thinks that she’s someone else. But why an elephant? Because elephants are fat and that’s the only thing that Sierra could think to send, something inadvertently self-deprecating.


Like Sierra, I’ve failed some tests too.  


Like the time I stopped eating to lose weight. Or all the times I went on obscure and unhealthy diets to shed the pounds that made me feel worthless.


Or worse, the times I shamed other girls for their insecurities as a way to mask my own pain. There have been moment in my life when I have failed myself, and failed other struggling young women. After years of trying to fit inside of society’s preconceived body image, I try to be better, try to be stronger for myself and try to lift other girls up instead of putting them down

The Plot Thickens: “C’mon, Veronica”

About 20 minutes into the movie, Jamey tells Sierra that he has a confession to make and reveals that he thinks he’s talking to Veronica, the designated popular mean girl. Now it’s Sierra’s turn to panic. Before the reveal, she stares intently at her phone, wondering whose name he would give out, probably hoping, but not wanting to allow herself to, that he would say “C’mon, Sierra,” instead.


This is her first real test. Her chance to come clean and tell him who she is. Sierra Burgess Gets an F. She has every intention of continuing to cat-fish him, and attempts to justify it by claiming that Jamey is falling in love with her words, her personality.


And yet, I felt for her here. She’s fostering a deep relationship with someone who has no idea what she looks like. A true “blind date.” I can understand why she would want to keep it going no matter how horrible it appear to be.


Then, she says, “Out of all the billions of phone numbers in the world, he texted mine.  Now doesn’t that seem like some kind of cosmic sign?.” No, Sierra, fat girls don’t get cosmic-level true love and a happy ending. Haven’t you ever seen a teen romcom? Unfortunately, this is reinforced time and time again; the idea that if you’re fat, you don’t deserve love. You don’t get a guy standing outside your window with a boombox, you don’t get to be prom queen, and you don’t get courted by a hot jock.


And those are just the romance storylines. Fat girls also don’t get represented often unless they’re the comic relief, a sidekick of sorts. Why? Because they don’t deserve the spotlight since obviously they don’t care enough about themselves to be skinny. This is why I so desperately wanted Sierra to make the right choices in this movie.  I wanted to see her shine and fill her protagonist role, or build her eventual friendship with Veronica into something more beautiful.


I didn’t want to watch her make bad decision after bad decision.

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What I truly wanted was to see Sierra grow into a role model that I would’ve liked to have seen represented on the screen as a child.  I grew up watching thin women in movies and shows get validated while the chubby ones get tossed aside.


I grew up playing with dolls designed to portray only one beautiful body type, one that I never had.  I struggled with my body image every single day, and being exposed to television and film that reinforced unrealistic body standards didn’t help. This is why it’s so impactful to me now to see a Sierra Burgess-type character getting a chance. Because I don’t think I ever got a chance to see that my body, curves and all, was valid.

Sierra Burgess asks, “Are you calling my voice fat?”

Sierra asks Jamey this when he comments on how full her voice sounds, because of course he does. Fat girls aren’t allowed to have voices with small waistlines. I guess that’s a thing. He then asks her if she has any dark secrets.


Of course, her dark secret is that she’s not who she says she is.  But this made me wonder...Is her dark secret actually that she’s plus-sized? Would this tale be any less terrible if Sierra was a beautiful skinny girl, or is it meant to be so cringeworthy because she is fat and therefore doesn’t deserve to be happy anyway?  


There was this time in high school when I forgot my gym uniform at home.


The locker room had a bin filled with old, smelly, stained uniforms that we could use in the event that we didn’t have our uniforms. I wasn’t worried so much about wearing a crappy uniform - I was more worried about actually fitting into one, knowing well that I would not find my size in the musty bin.


I quietly went to my gym teacher and explained the awkward situation thinking that she would understand. Evidently, she didn’t get it and loudly exclaimed, “Well there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s not my problem.”


So, suddenly, shamefully, everyone knew that not only was I  the girl who forgot her gym clothes, but I was also the fat girl who couldn’t fit into any of the extras. I could feel my face getting red-hot with embarrassment, and maybe just a little bit of shame.  


I was made to feel like my size was a dirty problem that needed to be solved. A problem that implied I wasn’t worthy of sympathy or even compassion.


I guess my dark secret was just like Sierra’s, that I was plus-sized. And I could only keep the secret to myself if I could keep the attention away from it. I could pretend I was just like the other girls. Until I couldn’t anymore. After that, I never forgot my gym clothes again.



“Look at me. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a teenage girl and to look like this?”


Yes, Sierra, I do.  I understand. It is painfully hard to be a teenage girl and be plus-sized. To be made to feel less than good enough. To be disgusted by your own body. To feel like there is no hope that anyone could love you, or that you could love yourself.  Frankly, it’s painfully hard just to be a teenage girl.


I understand, Sierra. I’m just like you.


I have gone through what you have gone through. I have looked in the mirror and tried to force myself to like what I see, even though deep down I don’t know if I ever truly will.  I have fought off more than a few breakdowns in dressing rooms.


I have done everything possible to cover up my body, wearing black because “it’s slimming,” buying skinny jeans that I never felt skinny in, going up cup-size after cup-size to contain my chest. I have been the victim of bullying and fat shaming, letting each insult hit me harder than the last. And I have always been self-deprecating.


I allowed myself to believe that I was worthless. I allowed myself to be defined by the body that society doesn’t want.


“Look at me.” Sometimes, I can’t bear to. And yet, as I get older I find myself feeling good. Feeling better for having endured through the pain, feeling empowered, confident. Feeling worthy.

Jamey says, “You Are Exactly My Type.”


At the end of the movie, Jamey forgives Sierra despite the cruelty, and despite her size. He tells her, “You are exactly my type.”  Here’s something to know about me: I don’t often cry. In fact, I pride myself on being tough and having thick skin (pun intended).


But, in this moment, when he validated her, when he told her that he saw her, accepted her and wanted to be with her, I burst into tears. I’m talking swollen eyes, tears running down my cheeks, runny-nose-ugly-crying.


I can’t think of another time when I watched a plus-sized girl get a legitimately happy ending. Get a passionate kiss under the stars. Get told how beautiful, smart and talented she is, and have the person saying those things actually mean it.

To hear Noah Centineo (the actor who plays Jamey) say, “You are exactly my type,” I’m telling you, it did something to me. It was almost as if he was saying it right to me. I was absolutely over the moon to see someone with my body type actually be wanted.


But, then I started to ask myself deeper questions. Am I only happy and ugly crying because this female character is wanted by a man? Is that how I’m defining her worth? Is that all she deserves? That’s not very feminist of me, and I think Sierra deserves more than that.


Sierra Burgess Writes the Sunflower Song

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“But I’m a sunflower, a little funny

If I were a rose, maybe you’d want me

If I could I’d change overnight

I’d turn into something you like

But I’m a sunflower, a little funny

If I were a rose, maybe you’d pick me”


Sierra writes these lyrics as a way to apologize for everything she’s done to Veronica and Jamey. The words of the song spoke to me on a very emotional level. I completely understand feeling like you need to change who you are in order to be wanted.


Sometimes the world expects a rose in full bloom, but all you have to offer is a funny-looking sunflower. You wish you could snap your fingers and transform into something new, something better.


But you can’t. You may never.


We want the world, society, someone, anyone to pick us. To accept us. To make us feel like we belong. For some people, unfortunately, that may never happen. .


Sometimes it feels like every other flower gets chosen for the bouquet and we’re just the leftover weeds that nobody wants. But, if we think like this then we’ll always be the weeds.


We’ll always choke out the little buds trying to poke their way out into the sunlight. We won’t grow and we’ll never get to feel the sun. We have to adapt and get stronger and stop accepting that we don’t deserve the light simply because we don’t look the part.

 

Author: Kelly Friday