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Body Politics: TV’s Slow Push Toward Size Acceptance

In the third episode of Shrill, the new Hulu comedy based on Lindy West’s same-named memoir, Annie, a thirtyish magazine editor played by Aidy Bryant, attends a pool party. There, for the first time, she enters a world filled with people who look like her: fat women, drinking, dancing, swimming and sunning themselves — “living in their bodies and enjoying their lives,” Annie marvels.

It’s a remarkable moment not just for her but also for the viewer. Like Annie, TV watchers are unaccustomed to seeing so many thick women share so many frames. Discussions of Hollywood tokenism typically center on race or sexual orientation, not body type. Only now are we seeing the premiere of a TV rom-com starring a beautiful, charismatic young woman who is also fat.

Shrill is one of several recent series centered on plus-size women, a trend abetted by the rapid nichification of TV — the splintering of channels and the effective dissolution of the mainstream. As a result of these changes, TV has welcomed a greater diversity of creators, and stars that would have been unlikely 15 or 20 years ago. But while we’re seeing more and more big women in major roles — a step in the right direction — Hollywood is still stumbling over this frontier, struggling to depict these characters in realistic, respectful and nuanced ways.

Some shows grapple explicitly with body image, like AMC’s Dietland, which aired for a single season in 2018 before the network pulled the plug. The series stars Joy Nash as Plum, a ghostwriter for the editor of a glossy women’s magazine. On the page, Plum is the assured voice of female empowerment; in reality, she’s miserable from a lifetime of dieting and yearns to save enough cash to get her stomach stapled.

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On one hand, as Shrill so nimbly demonstrates, fat women often don’t have the option of conceiving of themselves outside their weight. On the other, pop culture representations of heavy women tend to perpetuate this reality in their myopic attention to these characters’ bodies. The treacly NBC drama This Is Us and the ABC sitcom American Housewife both feature plus-size women whose lives seem to revolve around their weight. This is Us co-stars Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson, who, like Plum, has struggled with her size all her life. In flashback scenes to her youth, she’s shunned and mocked by classmates because she’s big, and her mother closely monitors her food intake. American Housewife stars Katy Mixon as Katie Otto, a stay-at-home mom in tony Westport, Connecticut who, in the series premiere, watches with dismay as her heavyset neighbor moves out of town, making her the “second-fattest housewife in Westport.”

This would be a reductive way for a sitcom to frame its protagonist even if the gorgeous Mixon were seriously overweight. As it is, she’s just a bit more full-figured than the flat-tummied “Westport mommies” that Katie sees as her rivals. She is, as the feminist writer Roxane Gay declared of the protagonist of Netflix’s Insatiable, “barely even Lane Bryant fat.”

Like Dietland’s Plum, Insatiable’s Patty (Debby Ryan) is driven by a thirst for retaliation. She’s a heavy teenager who, after a violent altercation with a homeless man outside a convenience store, has to have her jaw wired shut, and struts back into her high school after the summer break transformed by her inability to eat solid food. She’s skinny now, and she vows payback on her former haters. Perhaps it’s a marker of progress that Insatiable’s trailer alone provoked a swift backlash on social media, where users recoiled at the suggestion that a girl ne to lose weight to “win.”

On Insatiable, Patty’s desire for vengeance leads her down strange paths: First she schemes to lure her attacker to a motel and have sex with him; then she decides to become a pageant queen. “My demon was out and she was hungry,” Patty tells us. “Insatiable.” The show frames this kind of baffling, self-destructive behavior as acceptable so long as Patty remains thin. It’s OK for a woman to be hungry — for revenge, not for food.

On Dietland, Plum, too, is driven to violent retribution, but the show effectively connects the dots between the pressures placed on women to be thin and pervasive issues of gender inequality and misogyny. She’s recruited into an all-female guerrilla group called Jennifer whose members are military veterans and rape survivors fed up with men mistreating women and getting away with it.

Insatiable is a uniquely retrograde exploration of how weight affects women’s self-esteem. Like Friends’ long-running gag about Monica’s (Courtney Cox) weight issues as a teenager, the show treats a fat girl as an implicit joke and figures such a girl’s life only begins in earnest when the pounds come off. Patty describes her former fat self as a “demon” firmly lodged inside her. Caught up in a legal dispute over her altercation with the homeless man (she punched him first), she laments in voiceover, “My life had just started.”

There are bright spots of counter-programming to this narrative. MTV’s Loosely Exactly Nicole, which was later picked up by Facebook Watch, starred Nicole Byer (now the host of the Netflix baking competition series Nailed It!) as a raunchy, joyous, perpetually horny twentysomething making ends meet in Los Angeles. Unlike so many series centered on heavy women, Loosely Exactly Nicole is simply about a particular woman who happens to be fat. In a way, the show feels like a throwback to Roseanne, another comedy about a fat woman who didn’t give a fuck, and that didn’t make its title character’s weight the point of the series.

Shrill is not quite so blasé about its protagonist’s appearance. Annie’s weight is central to the show because it’s central to the character, who, over the course of the first season, begins to finally take ownership of her body and accept — and love — herself. Annie’s problem isn’t that her life revolves around her struggle to lose weight; it’s that although it does not, she constantly has to fight the perception that it does. “There’s a small person waiting to get out,” a woman in a coffee shop earnestly tells Annie in the first episode. She means it as a compliment.

Shrill is remarkable not for its full-figured heroine. A fat woman on TV these days is nothing new. But a fat ingénue is something different. Why is it that Loosely Exactly Nicole and Dietland — well-received series centered around actual fat women — were cancelled by their respective networks after one season while the critically panned Insatiable, which stars a thin former Disney star, was picked up for a second? Why is it so hard for television executives to conceive of a leading lady — the character whose fears and desires and hopes and dreams audiences root for — who looks more like the average American woman than a runway model?

“The best revenge is a life well lived,” Insatiable’s Patty decides. But doesn’t a life well lived include solid food?

Annie reaches a more liberating conclusion after attending that life-altering pool party. “I’m fat,” she says, not unhappily. “I’m fucking fat, hello. I’m fat, you know?” What Insatiable says, Shrill does: It shows a woman who exacts revenge on all the haters by living her best life. And she doesn’t have to lose a pound to do it.