Jen Ponton is famous for playing Rubi, the feminist fat activist on AMC’s new show Dietland, and from spots on 30 Rock, Orange Is the New Black, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. However, one of Ponton’s early and cringe-y roles was SpongeBob Squarepants.
“When I was 22, I worked as a mascot for kids’ birthday parties,” Ponton tells Yahoo Lifestyle about her humble beginnings. “I wore a hot polyester suit and a big foam head, and I made balloon animals. That was rough.”
A native of the Lehigh Valley in New Jersey, she always wanted to act, but her parents were less than thrilled with her unstable career trajectory. However, growing up as an only child and a self-described outcast, Ponton craved intimacy and connection on a grander scale, and performing — in school plays or by emceeing family gatherings — become her “light in the darkness.”
“I always had trouble making friends at school and camp and always felt ‘other,’” says Ponton, who will join other plus-size celebrities at theCURVYcon 2018, which you’ll be able to watch live on Yahoo Lifestyle. “I was an adult from a young age, and no one knew what to do with me.”
Ponton was bullied at school for her weight and she began a disordered relationship with food and exercise, bingeing or barely eating. “I was a latchkey kid, so I’d rip through cabinets and eat as much as I could,” she says. “At one point, I became a vegan, but for the wrong reasons, and did high-intensity workouts two to three times per day to the point where I couldn’t walk. I was destroying my body.”
“I don’t come from a fat family, so my parents were distressed and hid food because they were worried,” she says. “It was the ’90s, so our house was filled with fat-free Snackwell cookies and diet soda. I even joined my mom’s aerobics class three times a week, as the only child in the class.”
But when Ponton graduated college and discovered the internet’s the Fatosphere, a collection of blogs written by plus-size writers, she began feeling comfortable with her body. “I found amazing role models like Kate Harding, Marianne Kirby, and Lindy West, and because of them, I started blogging,” she says. “I’d come home, take off my mascot head, and read their work for hours. It reprogrammed me on a cellular level — I was able to subvert societal messages by listening to the right whispers at the right time.”
Ponton also resolved to avoid stereotypical roles given to plus-size women — a seriously ballsy move for a young, aspiring Hollywood actress. “Fat women are typically cast for funny sidekicks or sad sacks,” she says. “Comedy is how I cope with life, and it’s an important part of storytelling, but when ‘funny’ is only assigned to fat people, it’s problematic.”
As Ponton challenged the types of roles she was offered, she got more diverse parts: a Carvel ice cream employee on 30 Rock and a student in Boardwalk Empire, neither of which was relevant to her size.
In 2016, she starred in the indie comedy Love on the Run, playing Frannie, a dog groomer who is taken hostage by a handsome bank robber. The gig was important, because Ponton not only played a lead romantic role that wasn’t size-specific but also shot her first sex scene, a rare opportunity for a size-22 woman.
“It was difficult because there was no lead-up to the intimacy — I just dropped my towel and got on top of my co-star [Steve Howey] wearing pasties and nude underwear,” says Ponton. “But I got through it because I knew it would help women to see it. The experience also made me less inhibited and pushed me to be more vocal, fearless, and seen.”
Ponton also credits Instagram for sustaining the body-positive momentum. “The advent of Instagram is the whole reason the body-positive movement picked up steam. Plus-size women make up 67 percent of the population, but no one in power has presumed we are worthy.”
The actress contributes by Instagramming empowering full-body portraits, goofy childhood photos, and pics of Andrew, her husband of seven years, whom she met in college during a time she called a “peace treaty” with her body.
“He encourages me to embrace the word as an adjective, not an insult,” she says. “He also knows the best places to shop.” For Ponton, that matters. “Plus-size clothing is unrealistic when it comes to proportion, assuming that because a woman has a larger butt, she also needs a longer hemline,” she says, adding that her favorite style is a bralette, a crop top, and a high-waisted flowy skirt.
Ponton is hopeful that with shows like Dietland and events such as theCURVYcon 2018, an NYC-based star-studded networking event for bloggers and influencers Sept. 6-8 (Ponton and her Dietland co-star Joy Nash are speakers), larger characters will become more visible for the right reasons. “We’re taking baby steps, but I do think we’ll get to a place in which size isn’t the issue.”
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