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Annie and friends at the fat babe pool party in Shrill

Shrill is the first show to accurately portray fat women’s experiences

TextMarie Southard Ospina

It’s taken until the end of 2019 to finally see true fat acceptance on screen

Minutes into the first episode of Shrill, Hulu’s television adaptation of author Lindy West’s eponymous collection of essays, protagonist Annie notices a flyer on the wall of a cafe. The advert reads ‘Get Toned With Tanya,’ and below that, ‘burn fat and get the body you deserve.’ Just as she’s finished reading it, she realises the actual Tanya is right behind her. 

Within moments of meeting one another, Tanya grabs hold of one of Annie’s wrists. “Wow,” she says. “You actually have a really small frame. There’s a small person inside of you who’s dying to get out.” Annie quickly retorts, “Wow, well, I hope that small person’s okay in there,” but Tanya isn’t finished. “I know it can seem impossible. But you can do this. You weren’t meant to carry around all this extra weight… I know I can help you… You could be so pretty.”

The scene immediately took me back to the Jazzercise class I enrolled in when I was in eating disorder recovery aged 16. I had gained back all of the weight I lost after several years of near-starvation and compulsive working-out, plus a bit more. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was feeling ready to find a fitness routine that seemed safe and controlled. After all, I could only attend a couple of classes per week because of school, hopefully meaning there’d be no way to get too obsessive about it.

After my first class, the instructor wanted to chat. She asked if I had fun. I said yes. Then she asked me what my weight loss goals were. “You’re big for someone your age,” she mused. “I’m sure we can get you to your goal by summer vacation. Bikini season, right?!” Nevermind that she said this to a 16-year-old, but she said it to a fat 16-year-old in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder who was finally feeling comfortable with the idea of working out not to lose weight, but to feel, I don’t know, happy and energised. Folks rarely imagine that a fat person might want to work out for any reason apart from weight loss, though.

In the last two years, we have arguably seen an increase in plus-size female characters on-screen, like Kate Pearson in This Is Us, Willowdean Dixon in Dumplin’, Becky in Empire, Plum Kettle in Dietland, and Sierra Burgess in Sierra Burgess Is A Loser. Each story undoubtedly aids the fat-acceptance conversation in some way. Willowdean and Sierra, for instance, show us what it’s like to be fat during adolescence (the dating woes, the mean girls, and sometimes the mean moms). Kate’s story often focuses on her desire to lose weight, with flashbacks that uncover the intersection of weight and trauma. Plum starts from a place of internalised body-shaming until she discovers an underground world of vigilante feminism. Becky’s narrative doesn’t ever really focus on her weight, which in and of itself makes a point about just how rare it is to see a plus-size character whose storyline has nothing to do with self-loathing.

Throughout its entire first series, which is now available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer, Shrill further brings the varied nuances of fatness to the screen, many of which are typically quite invisible to those who aren’t, and have never been, fat themselves. 

Like, when we see Annie’s sort-of-boyfriend ask her to leave out the back door of his house every time they shag, many of us IRL fats will undoubtedly remember partners who’ve been embarrassed by us, too. I instantly thought of Alexander, a boy I hooked up with briefly and secretly in school. He said it would be more ‘sexy’ if we didn’t tell anybody, and 15-year-old-me didn’t realise this was code for ‘I just don’t want my bros to see I’m into someone like you.’

When Annie gets pregnant because her pharmacist has never told her that the morning-after-pill might not work on women over 175 pounds, I felt a sharp pang in my large guts. Fatphobia in the medical world creates so many problems: like misdiagnosing (whereby life-threatening illnesses are missed because practitioners are so fixated on a patient’s weight) or being diagnosed disordered eating behaviours as a weight-loss tool (like when my doctor told me, at the height of my eating disorder, to keep restricting calories because what I was doing was so obviously working).

“In the last two years, we have arguably seen an increase in plus-size female characters on-screen, like Kate Pearson in This Is Us, Willowdean Dixon in Dumplin’, Becky in Empire, Plum Kettle in Dietland, and Sierra Burgess in Sierra Burgess Is A Loser. Each story undoubtedly aids the fat-acceptance conversation in some way”

When Annie has to listen to her colleagues talk about the ‘obesity epidemic’ and people’s ‘cheese thighs,’ I intrinsically knew how dehumanising it must have been for her. How many times have my thin colleagues, or thin friends, or thin relatives discussed their ‘excess fat’ in disdain in front of me, before musing on their latest diet or weight loss goal? Then there’s Annie’s mum, who buys her low-cal meal plans and acts totally shocked when Annie admits that she is dating someone (assuming any crush her daughter has must be unrequited). In these moments, I thought back to the packed lunches myself and my one other fat friend in school would bring in. There was always a Special K bar. So many Special K bars, and always packed by our parents. 

Annie’s also sick of online trolls who come after her for being a fat woman daring to write on a public platform. Some call her a ‘little piggy slut’, some claim her parents must be ashamed of her, some say ‘she uses a corndog as a dildo,’ some threaten to kill her. I was doxed in 2016. My email addresses, cellphone, social media pages, and bank accounts were hacked. Every home address I’d ever lived in was shared online, along with my mother’s current address and my partner’s. Death and rape threats hit my inboxes. When my now-husband finally found the source of the information (on a website dedicated to posting people’s private info for the purpose of harassment), we found the ‘reason’ listed beside my profile. ‘FAT.’

Things aren’t always all doom and gloom, though, and Shrill knows this. When Annie attends a fat babe pool party, we see one of the most beautiful depictions of fat community ever portrayed on-screen. It’s a scene filled with fat babes of all sizes on the fatness spectrum, of all styles, and skin colours, and sexualities, and personalities. It is not unlike the fat-positive pool parties that are starting to crop up IRL in some major cities around the world. They are spaces where fat people can laugh, and play, and just be. In this episode of Shrill, we see fat bodies moving without fear. We see the ‘headless fatty’ image turned on its head, with fat bodies being shown not for purposes of mocking but celebrating.

Spoiler alert: series one culminates in Annie, with the help of her tech-savvy colleague Maureen, finding her most violent troll. She goes to his house to confront him (a moment undoubtedly inspired by Lindy West confronting her own mega-troll, who made a Twitter account in which he pretended to be West’s deceased dad). 

‘Do you know how fucking lame it is that you spend so much time trying to hurt a complete stranger?’ she questions. ‘I’m a real fucking person. And I’m just trying to go to work and do my job. And you’re calling me a pig every day and you threaten to kill me and you talk about my family. And what I don’t understand the most is why? Is it because I’m not the type of girl you want to fuck? Or maybe, it’s because I am the type of girl you want to fuck but you’re too chickenshit to admit it. Either way, it doesn’t fucking matter because fuck you. I fucking hate you.’

As it turns out, Annie’s confident, feminist writings piss the guy off because he’s a former fat kid who has a ton of self-hatred. Her happiness angers him, because she hasn’t earned the right to it by virtue of remaining fat. As it also turns out, he does want to fuck her, inviting her in for a drink after she accepts his apology.

Here is where Shrill further diverges from a lot of plus-size stories, though. Some narratives might take the opportunity to tell the tale of the ‘reformed troll.’ Others might turn the whole thing into a twisted little love story (like in Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, wherein the plus-size protagonist feels the only way she will ever find true love is if she cat-fishes her crush, who eventually admits he is glad she pretended to be a beautiful, thin, blonde babe because otherwise, he may never have gotten to know the ‘real’ Sierra). Shrill doesn’t, and in not doing so, it hints at the message I’ve long been waiting to see clearly in my media: Fat people deserve better.

“Here is where Shrill further diverges from a lot of plus-size stories. Some narratives might take the opportunity to tell the tale of the ‘reformed troll.’ Others might turn the whole thing into a twisted little love story... it hints at the message I’ve long been waiting to see clearly in my media: Fat people deserve better”

‘Oh my god. No. Are you insane? That’s fucking disgusting. You’re sick. You’re fucking more psycho than I thought,’ Annie disgustedly tells her troll. Of course, he doesn’t like that. He screams, ‘Well I probably couldn’t find your pussy anyway, you fat cow,’ and moos at her as she storms away. And then, Annie throws a big-ass stone into his car window before rapidly fleeing the property with a joyous smile on her face. 

To be fair, there are some things the show could’ve perhaps done better. Like, it would’ve been really interesting (not to mention important) to see the experiences of larger fat people. For example, people being denied healthcare on the basis of BMI alone, or being asked to buy two seats on an aeroplane, or struggling to find clothing (even at dedicated plus-size retailers) in their size, or being ridiculed in public of any kind for ‘taking up too much space.’ When Kate of This Is Us has to explain to a bunch of thin folks that she can’t fit into the booth at a restaurant after they suggest sitting there, for example, we get to see a really clear picture of how so many spaces just aren’t designed for fat people to exist in comfortably. 

Still, the final moment of Shrill signifies something damn special: a fat woman at the ultimate level of fed-up-ness. In my 28 years, this is the first time I’ve seen a show so accurately depict my experiences. Not only the day-to-day BS that I and so many fat people go through, but the experience of finding fat community, fat acceptance, and self-worth. It begins to paint an alternative narrative: one in which fat people aren’t condemned to lifetimes of insecurity, one in which fat folks who appear on telly or in film get to have storylines that have nothing to do with their figures, and one in which (as we saw with Annie) more fat people stop being angry at themselves, and start being angry with everything and everyone that’s ever made us feel worthless and small and like things to be used and abused. Like Annie, maybe more people will stop tolerating this too. 

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