Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 305 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix

People are saying a lot about Season 3 of Bridgerton. Penelope Featherington, played by Nicola Coughlan, is this season’s focus, However, her weight has brought the series unusual scrutiny.

What do I think about how this season has handled Penelope? What do I think about the online discourse regarding weight, attractiveness, desirability and worth? Turns out, I have a lot to say, especially since the season coincides with my own weight loss journey.

My personal experiences growing up with body image issues and my currently health journey prompted a lot of thought about my relationship with weight. What better time to parse through everything than through a fictional character?

With that said, I’m going to tackle some of the discussions people are waging online. Buckle up for a wild ride.

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington wears a corset as she sits at her vanity.
Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 307 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

The annoying conversation about Penelope Featherington’s weight

The remarkable thing about this season is that Penelope is one of the few plus-sized heroines we’ve seen in recent media. However, I find it frustrating that some people are calling Coughlan “mid-sized” as an insult, as if that negates how she represents non-skinny people in media.

The most important point to me is that Penelope represents women who have felt they were less than beautiful or desirable because of how society treats weight as a marker of morality and beauty.

I find the “mid-sized isn’t plus-sized” argument funny because the “plus-sized” benchmarks are different than they were almost 30 years ago. Back then, Coughlan would be plus-sized. “Mid-sized,” as a concept, hasn’t really existed until 10 or so years ago.

Acting like “plus-sized” only includes the biggest people negates the struggles all plus-sized people have when it comes to self-esteem. When you get the “plus-sized” label, whether someone would call you “mid-sized” or not, you inherit a lot of baggage. I’m sure Coughlan has dealt with her share of self-esteem issues just through osmosis of living in a society that equates thinness to beauty and worth as a human being. Acting like “mid-sized” folk don’t share in the mental and emotional woes from body stereotypes is unfair.

(L to R) Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington dance together.
Bridgerton. (L to R) Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 306 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

Does weight actually equal beauty?

Watching Penelope’s season has been interesting since, at the same time, I’ve been on a weight loss journey. Bridgerton fans are talking about weight and worth, bringing up a gripe that gets more intense the older I get and the more serious I get about my weight: Weight shouldn’t have anything to do with how we see our own self-worth and the worth of others.

Penelope’s weight affecting her chances for love is apparently a big deal in the books. As I’ve read online, Penelope actually drops a considerable amount of weight before she’s deemed desirable in the books. This is one of the many issues fans of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels have with the author; apart from Daphne’s heinous sexual actions towards her husband, the Duke of Hastings, the book series promotes the long-standing idea that weight loss enhances someone’s beauty, upping their chances at a successful love match.

If we just talk shallowly for a moment, weight loss doesn’t actually lead to enhanced beauty. I know that sounds mean.

Despite what historical ideology about female worth dictates, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. People are attracted to different attributes, including weight. Also, if you’re born with a face card, you’ll always have a face card regardless of weight or age. I’ve seen plenty of clinically overweight or obese women who have beautiful faces and hourglass figures. In other words, anyone can have pretty privilege.

While I disagree with the “mid-sized doesn’t represent me” crowd when it comes to who among plus-sized people can represent plus-sized issues, I will concede that society does praise a certain body type more than others, regardless of weight. You have more access to pretty privilege if you’re hourglass or pear.

I’m not agreeing with any of this, mind you; this is me stating a sad fact. I know that I have a certain level of privilege because I am between an hourglass and a pear. Thankfully, I also have a muscular body underneath my weight, which makes me look smaller than what the scale actually says. (At least, I look smaller than I should to my eyes.) Coughlan might not have privilege when it comes to size in Hollywood, but she does have a privilege in having an hourglass weight distribution.

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington
Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 308 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

But, if we really think about it, what does it mean to be hourglass? Is it truly a sign of beauty? Society claims that hourglass and pear shapes scratch the lizard brain regarding perceived fertility. But does that mean being more fertile is beautiful? Or is it just more coveted?

Being coveted is different than being beautiful. For example, ambergris is a sperm whale’s bile duct secretions. Its musky, sweet smell ranked ambergris as one of the most coveted ingredients in perfumes. Is ambergris beautiful? Of course not. Its rare and expensive nature, plus its natural smell, made it a highly sought-after ingredient, but that did not make the ambergris itself–a ball of whale waste–look any better.

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Similarly, we covet certain body types for the amount of cultural cache they might provide and couch that decision by calling the body type “beautiful.” In the 1920s, boxy bodies represented women’s new lease on life, including more rights and looser restrictions. They were gaining the same things men already had, so as a response, a more boyish form became en vogue. Before that, in the 1800s, the “pigeon-breast” and bustle look was in to exaggerate women’s chests and hips, matching the exaggerated, hyperfeminine gowns that celebrated both female beauty and female imprisonment within society (i.e. no voting rights, few chances for working outside of the home or working at all, few chances to have control over funds, etc.)

Advancing forward, the 1950s hourglass shape came into fashion after World War II, when soldiers were coming home and wanted to experience the joys of hyperfeminine, fertile women. Also, women were expected to leave the 1940s workforce and adopt more feminine modes of dressing and comportment.

Today, a version of the hourglass shape is still popular, but things are once again exaggerated due to the Kardashian era of surgically-enhanced butts and boobs. There’s a whole other conversation in here about how the Kardashians popularized blackface and adjacent practices to an extreme extent, such making your butt comically big to compete with Black women for Black men. But while the hourglass will remain “classic” in a way, we are already going through another body culture shift.

The Kardashians are adept at using their bodies to stay in fashion. They’ve removed their boobs and butts within the past few years. The coveted body type is now a slim, toned (or toned-looking) body, with much smaller hips and an ample, but reasonable-sized chest because of this and the rise of Ozempic and Wegovy as weight-loss products. Fashionable body types have never actually been about beauty as much as it is about how women’s bodies have been the battlefield for cultural power.

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington
Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 308 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

These thoughts tie into my current weight loss journey. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how my ’90s childhood warped my brain regarding what beauty is and who can have it. Many women, regardless of their childhood decade, have been fed lies about beauty.

Like many women, I was led to believe that being a waif was the most desirable. I hated my body. I became internally vindictive against myself for not having a small body (unlike my mom’s naturally thin frame) and believed I’d never get a boyfriend or husband because of how I looked.

What I didn’t realize is that every woman, regardless of size, feels like they aren’t enough. Someone could be what you consider the ideal weight and body type, but that person might hate the very thing you covet about them. In fact, they might like your body type better and wish they were you.

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington gazes at the fireplace while sitting in her nightgown.
Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 307 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

Redefining how we view weight

If society uses body types as cultural constructs, then what about weight? How does weight factor into the conversation about beauty? As I’ve written above, I’ve matured to realize weight shouldn’t come into the conversation about beauty. The two are mutually exclusive.

But, someone might ask, doesn’t a series about an overweight woman support poor health choices? Another way to ask this is: if I’m losing weight, why am I championing a series featuring an overweight character?

I’m championing this season because there’s never been a reason for people to watch a movie or TV show and feel like they are told they can’t find love. That’s how many women have felt for decades watching rom-coms. Seeing “perfect” people find love over and over again can make a viewer feel like they can never measure up. “If I can’t be perfect, I’ll never find love.” Penelope is an example of being a relatable woman who does get her fairytale to come true.

Using Season 3 of Bridgerton as a barometer about health, on the other hand, is something else entirely, and frankly, it’s foolish. The show’s entire focus is on love. It never claimed to be a show about perfect health. Realistically speaking, no one has ever had perfect health, including athletes. And skinniness isn’t always a marker of health–just ask anyone who was diagnosed as a disordered eater.

Bridgerton isn’t about health–we see characters snort drugs, drink alcohol, smoke and have unsafe sex. Characters are still living without plumbing, for goodness’ sake. It’s ridiculous to act as if the show was a bastion of health before it focused on Penelope.

Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington. Both sit on a loveseat as they talk to each other.
Bridgerton. (L to R) Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 306 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

Second, we don’t know what Coughlan does in her free time. She’s probably more active than most of us sitting on our couches, binge-watching the season. We can’t act like we know exactly what she does just because of her size.

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The question of health, then, is a question we should ask ourselves instead of scapegoating it onto a TV character. We should ask ourselves how we feel in our bodies. How satisfied are we with our quality of life? Do we think we could do better? Do we know we’re screwing up when it comes to our health?

If Coughlan’s body triggers you in some way health-wise, you should ask yourself what internal truths you need to come to terms with. The truth for some, like some of the people who are picking on her for not being fat enough, might be that you’re jealous, envious, or otherwise threatened by her size. Maybe you wish you could get down to her size. Maybe you feel she has it easier because you know you are currently having it hard with your weight. If you feel she’s too fat to find love, then that might mean you need to work on your own internal discomfort with weight. Either way, folks need to unlearn the toxicity we’ve been taught about weight, beauty, and desirability.

I started losing weight before this season ever started, but as I watched the season, I thought about my reasons for wanting to take the pounds off. I felt like I was too outside of my frame. I had used food as a coping mechanism over 10 years ago, and the pounds didn’t leave. Instead, I nursed those pounds and gained more as my depression deepened.

I’m still not overtly happy due to losing my dad unexpectedly a few years ago. But my reaction to my weight wasn’t to gain more; it was to lose. I decided that I didn’t want to continue nursing my mind with food. I wanted to live a full life so that one day, when I’m old and it’s my time, I could meet my dad on the other side and say I did well in life. To do that, I needed to make the decision to lose weight and get in a fighting spirit.

Throughout all of those years–and even now–I struggle with uncoupling unhealthy ideas about weight, desirability and attractiveness. I’m happy to say I’m better at monitoring and challenging those unhelpful thoughts. But I still have a lot of unlearning to do. But I am succeeding in remembering to treat weight as the clinical symptom it is.

Weight is not a sign of desirability, attractiveness, trustworthiness, or kindness. Weight has no feelings. Weight is more like a diagnosis: it exists, but it doesn’t impose morality. It is just a factor of a person’s overall health. The information you gather about your weight is yours to wield as you see fit. For me, losing weight is the answer to having a happier quality of life.

Polly Walker as Lady Portia Featherington, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington. Portia is walking Penelope down the aisle.
Bridgerton. (L to R) Polly Walker as Lady Portia Featherington, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 307 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

Uncoupling weight and beauty

Penelope’s season of Bridgerton has brought up a lot of conflicting thoughts about how we should view weight, attractiveness and desirability.

To me, the biggest throughline in all of these converging thoughts on the internet is that we shouldn’t couple weight with desirability and attractiveness at all. Everyone’s standards of beauty are different; it’s not unreasonable to think that Penelope shouldn’t have to change herself in order to get her true love. In fact, I’m glad the series changed Penelope’s story and that her sex scenes were a big middle finger to the status quo; it served as a way to show how beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.

Weight and desirability politics are complicated topics. But what the season should have taught us is that while external beauty does exist, it doesn’t depend on weight. It should have also taught us that we should focus on a more aspirational beauty–how we act towards others.

Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington
Bridgerton. (L to R) Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 308 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

Penelope’s true beauty shines in her kindness, intelligence, and her love for those closest to her. Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen) on the other hand, is the ideal “weight equals beauty” standard, yet Cressida’s internal character is unattractive due to her bullying, mean-spirited ways. Judging the two characters this way, Penelope is far more beautiful than Cressida. If we can learn these lessons, we might be closer to breaking the chain of desirability politics.

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