Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration: Megan Kirby
Screenshot: Cartoon Network

How Steven Universe’s fat bodies helped me draw my own

Illustration: Megan Kirby
Screenshot: Cartoon Network
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

When COVID weight loss tips started flooding my feeds, I wanted to combat those bad takes by purchasing some fat body art. Then I realized I could just draw my own. So I stripped down to undies and stared at myself in the mirror, my sketchbook in hand. Shoulders, thighs, a hanging tummy: My body translated into a series of round, confident, complicated shapes. On paper, I looked strong. I looked powerful. I looked like a Crystal Gem.

Steven Universe had sustained me through the pandemic. As I binged episodes, and the twee theme song wormed its way permanently into my brain, the show’s depiction of fat bodies stunned me. In the animated series from Rebecca Sugar, 13-year-old Steven is raised by a trio of powerful otherworldly beings called the Crystal Gems. Lithe, graceful Pearl. Broad, strong Garnet. Stout, compact Amethyst. And half-human, half-Gem Steven—short and chubby and charming, jamming on pizza and fry bits as he comes to terms with his supernatural powers.

I grew up seeing fat bodies in cartoons as dopes, like Homer Simpson, or villains, like Ursula the Sea Witch. Even popular, athletic Fat Albert was often the butt of the joke. (Sometimes literally—in one episode, his friends tell him he must play the elephant’s backside in the neighborhood circus.) In Steven Universe, Steven’s body just exists. There is no morality behind being fat or thin; no discussion of “good” or “bad” bodies. In 2020, as my body shifted in lockdown and negative thoughts came a-knockin’, I clung tightly to this reminder.

I’ve published my own ’zines and comics for a decade. But I only recently started drawing myself as fat. I watched most of the show with a sketchbook on my lap, doodling away while Steven developed his powers. He lifted boulders and leapt chasms and galloped across deserts on his magical pet lion. His clumsiness came from inexperience, and never from his chubbiness.

I’ve been fat pretty much my whole life, but when I started drawing memoir comics in college, I drew my body the way I wanted it to be: skinny. I rarely saw bodies like mine reflected in the protagonists of the comics I read. I couldn’t help mimicking the slim shapes of Ghost World’s disaffected teens, or the willowy bodies in Craig Thompson’s Blankets. My drawings looked almost-but-not-quite like me. They had my thick glasses and my swoopy bangs, but they didn’t have my tummy or my thighs. In my first ’zine, published when I was 19, I drew myself with a “Doritos gut” on one page—a glimpse of my sloppiest, most secret self.

A world without fatphobia means a world without diet culture. In Beach City, Steven frequents Fish Stew Pizza and The Big Donut with no concerns about his weight. In fact, in the very first episode of the show, the euphoria of a Cookie Cat ice cream sandwich activates Steven’s mysterious gem powers. What a nice twist: That eating for joy can unlock hidden abilities. There are no cheat foods, no guilty pleasures, no demonizing carbs or calories. Fry bits are just fry bits. Steven’s favorite snacks don’t have any moral standing at all.

Watching Steven’s body move on screen helped me pay attention to how fat bodies move in their own distinct ways. When I took long walks through the city, I focused on how my center of gravity sat in my hips. I drew pictures of myself walking through Chicago at night, my limbs round and loose. Drawing myself this way shifted what I saw in the mirror. Instead of considering what I didn’t like, I eyed my reflection and thought, “Wow, how can I draw that?”

Illustration for article titled How Steven Universe’s fat bodies helped me draw my own
Screenshot: Steven Universe

If you keep your eyes peeled, other contemporary cartoons are making progress in this area as well. Adventure Time’s Lumpy Space Princess continues a tradition of brash plus-sized confidence harkening back to Miss Piggy. She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power broke from the 1980s Barbie-bodied source material to reintroduce characters with diverse frames. Princess Glimmer started with a stocky, wide-hipped build—and some fans were upset when traumas (and a character redesign) slimmed her down. (The plus-sized Spinnerella stayed that way throughout the show’s five season run.)

Of course, trauma—and months in lockdown during an endless pandemic—can make us gain weight, too. As my body shifted from March to December, I fixated on one Steve Universe character in general. Steven’s absent mom, Rose Quartz, gave up her form to bring him into the world. She’s remembered as a friend, a lover, a protector, and the fierce leader of the Gem rebellion. And she’s fat. I particularly love the animation of her chubby hands and wrists. I grew up self-conscious of my hands, one body part in particular I could never hide. But in Steven Universe, I saw a cartoon hand that looks like mine, attached to a body that looks like mine. And the character was a badass war leader with a huge pink sword. She’s a total babe. In a flashback episode, Steven’s dad Greg recalls meeting Rose Quartz while he’s touring as a struggling musician—“eight feet tall, gigantic pink hair.” Her largeness is the very thing that draws him in. He woos her with an XXL tour T-shirt. I wish I’d watched that scene sooner in my life. It took the entirety of my twenties to learn that someone could be attracted to me not in spite of my fat body, but because of it.

Illustration for article titled How Steven Universe’s fat bodies helped me draw my own
Screenshot: Steven Universe

And why not? Fat bodies rule! I understood that more and more, as I drew what I saw in the mirror. But before I could draw myself as a fat woman, I had to see myself as a fat woman. Not as a secret to be hidden behind flattering cuts and vertical stripes. Not as a “before” picture in a diet ad. And not as the cartoons I watched on the weekends, where fatness signified laziness or stupidity or greed.

Rose’s fat body signifies ferocity and compassion and power. Which brings up an important point in the show: On Earth, all bodies are chill. But on Home World, the Gems are ruled over by the cold, flawless Diamonds, who expect everyone to fit specific parameters. Any Gem who breaks this protocol is labeled “off-color” and shattered on sight. The whole point of the Crystal Gems’ rebellion is that Earth is a place where “flaws” can be celebrated or, even better, viewed as no big deal. The show’s big reveal—spoiler alert—is that Rose Quartz is actually a Diamond in disguise. I love that the form Rose chooses to represent rebellion and freedom is a fat body.

Loving my body went hand-in-hand with adding fat bodies to my media consumption. I watched Divine cavort and contort in John Waters movies. I built outfits inspired by plus-sized influencers like Gabi Fresh and Tess Holliday. I smashed like on Instagram accounts like Fat Art History and Historical Fat People. And I paid attention to my own reactions, from Steven Universe to Hulu’s Shrill to my own body in the mirror. These images shifted my brain from normalization to admiration—and then I started admiring my own body, too. During the pandemic, I’m learning that bodies will always change, but the ways we love our bodies can remain steadfast. I’m trying to see my body with gentleness, gratitude, and even a little awe. That takes a lot of work.

Illustration for article titled How Steven Universe’s fat bodies helped me draw my own
Illustration: Megan Kirby

What a relief to peek into Steven’s world, to see what happens when a boy grows up with nothing but love and support. Sure, Steven Universe has shape-shifters and intergalactic teleportation and a whole island filled with sentient, Steven-shaped watermelons. But my favorite bit of fantasy is that Steven grows up in a world without the slightest whisper that his fat body will ever hold him back.

Have you ever drawn a blind contour? The whole point is that you don’t look down at your paper. You keep your eyes on the subject. As you focus on its lines and curves, your pen corresponds on the page. That’s how I drew my body in the mirror. And I saw it for what it was, free of judgement, not one thing I would change or hide. I made three portraits this way, and then I colored them in bright greens, pinks, and yellows. I pinned them above my mirror, where I can see them every day.