Laying in my pajamas on a lazy Friday morning, perusing the feed in my borrowed Hulu account, I begin streaming the first episode of “Shrill.” In this new comedy, we follow the life of Annie, a writer who juggles her work and relationships with friends, parents and love interests. But this show is different from other female-centered comedies because … (drum roll please) Annie is fat! Did we finally just get a mainstream narrative of a fat woman where it is not entirely about her fatness? Yes, yes we did. A show where the main plot is not about the fact that she hates herself, that she is the punchline of the joke or that she is struggling to lose weight, but where she is just a fat woman living her life. It feels like a small victory and sign that things could change in our culture.
In three quick hours, I binged watched all six episodes and was left in awe and pain. Watching Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live," who plays Annie, take center stage and deal with the ridiculously hilarious situations that happen to fat women was both entertaining and relatable. Her character explored typical things like finding out how to be confident in her writing and what she deserves in her love life. But she also had some challenging moments, and I found it quite upsetting to watch her deal with her mother, who was obsessed with dieting, or take ridicule from an asshole of a boss who made physical exercise, or “forced fun” as they call it in the show, a required activity for their office.
Throughout the week, many of my friends asked me what I had to say about the show because they knew I had written a piece about “coming out” as a fat person like Annie did. It was pretty incredible to find out that Annie’s article is based off of a blog post that Lindy West, the writer of the book and show, wrote in real life. These types of pieces are common in fat activism, and it was cool to see her experiences pan out on-screen.
However, as the season came to a close, I found myself initially dissatisfied with the ending. I was somewhat disappointed in Annie because I wanted more from a character who I thought represented fat women. I thought she was going to display someone who radically and unapologetically loved their body, even if they do not look like the mainstream image of beauty and health. I wanted her to win the fights with her mom and boss. I wanted her to be a woman I could look up to as a role model for body positivity. But with time, I soon came to understand that this show’s message is not about loving your body or body positivity, but rather is a lesson of size acceptance and body neutrality.
Two weeks ago, I went to a talk at the School of Public Health where Ragen Chastain, a fat activist, writer and athlete, discussed weight bias and the social justice issues aligned with this oppression. Listening to her unpack the empirical research on weight bias, fatphobia and how dieting is damaging for individuals’ mental and physical health was one of the most empowering presentations I have attended at our university.
As her talk came to a close, I asked Chastain what she thought about body positivity, the community online and the message to love your body the way it is. She said that she was conflicted on the way the community has transformed from radical fat experiences into a space for chubby white women. And she asked a question that continues to ring true to me: What about body neutrality? This is the idea that we don’t need to be in love with our bodies but we can accept our body’s size, the way our bodies look and the way they move unapologetically.
In general, the body positive community emphasizes the importance of loving your body and being as positive as possible. But if one fluctuates in the way they feel about their body, they may be set up to fail if they never reach the ultimate body love that is displayed by body positive social media accounts. So, if body positivity is not attainable, what about body neutrality? Whatever path you are on, whether it's wanting to love or accept your body, it is probably going to be nonlinear, because it is difficult to unlearn things you were socialized to believe about bodies in relation to health and beauty.
As I am a white, fat woman who continues to discuss body size and the way our society treats larger bodied people, I used to think the body positivity movement was only empowering and benefiting individuals’ body image. But now it is clear to me that this movement is evolving and is not what everyone needs. Annie’s story in “Shrill” is not a path to body positivity, but a path toward size acceptance and body neutrality. She is not entirely empowered or in love with her body at the end of the season, and that alone is quite radical. As more narratives about fat people are entering mainstream media, “Shrill” should be celebrated as an important step in social change and representation. On the other hand, we must remember to think critically about the messages the show, and others like it, are sharing about fat bodies, and what social identities are being portrayed other than body size.
Ellery Rosenzweig can be reached at email@example.com.