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I Watched ‘Shrill’ and I Didn’t Feel Empowered — I Felt Terrified

The show is meant as a body-positive anthem, so why am I scared to eat now?

I Watched ‘Shrill’ and I Didn’t Feel Empowered — I Felt Terrified

This post contains light spoilers for the TV show “Shrill.

Yesterday I finally watched Hulu’s Shrill, a short series starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant based on Lindy West’s book of the same name. With only six 30-minute episodes, the show is perfect for an evening (or weekend, if you have a life) of binging — perhaps, an ironic term for a show that deals heavily with issues of weight, body image, and confidence.

Shrill tells the story of aspiring online journalist Annie, who is based on West herself. It’s clear from early on in the show that Annie has a confidence problem. Her “boyfriend’ is a dirtbag loser who cheats on her, she is constantly afraid to speak up at work, and she struggles to feel comfortable in her clothes and her skin. The cause of all her anguish is her weight, which she has struggled with since childhood.

Annie has tried everything to be skinny. At one point she states that she practically has a degree in nutrition thanks to all the research and studying she’s done in an attempt to “fix” herself.

The show painfully demonstrates the micro-aggressions Annie faces everywhere as a fat woman — in the coffee shop, at work, and even in her personal life.

On the other hand, the show also portrays a utopic example of what fat positivity could look like. The fourth episode, “Pool,” written by Samantha Irby, involves a body-positive pool party where women of all races, shapes, and sizes strip down to their bikinis and enjoy a day of fun in the sun. For Annie, who has been too afraid to wear a bathing suit in public for most of her life, this is an absolute revolution.

Slate describes the impact of this powerful episode:

Our culture does not encourage carefree living, especially from fat women. To dance and swim and enjoy yourself in the moment without caring about what other people think is a joyful act of rebellion.

At the end of the series, Annie experiences cathartic moments of release with those who have tormented her for her weight, finally calling them out on how their behavior has impacted her.

It’s clear the intent of this show is to call-out a culture of fat-shaming and empower women of different sizes to be loud, take up space, and be confident. It seems that for many women this show has had that impact. Bryant spoke on The Tonight Show in March about how women are coming up to her on the street in tears because of the effect the show has had on them.

But, as someone who is not particularly fat but still struggles with worrying about my weight, Shrill didn’t leave me feeling empowered. The show made me feel terrified.

The character of Annie was deeply relatable to me. I’m an online journalist who has had to deal with trolls. I’ve had shitty boyfriends like Ryan. I’ve been afraid to speak at work. I’ve struggled with body image.

Although I grew up relatively skinny, as I’ve gotten older I’ve started gaining more weight. While as a teenager I could wear size zero shorts, now I wear a size six. I have a bulge on my stomach where I didn’t before, and my arms are a little thicker than I would like. My face is getting rounder, my thighs thicker, and I’m absolutely terrified that I’m getting fat.

I used to be able to stress-eat without consequence but, lately, I’ve had to start actually paying attention to my food intake. My friends who have struggled with weight all their lives would probably call me spoiled and privileged for just starting to worry about my weight now, at the age of 27. They wouldn’t be wrong — I have been very lucky in this regard.

Yet, as a woman, I am still faced with the same pressures of all women to adhere to patriarchal standards of beauty: white, skinny, clear skin, tall, shiny hair, big eyes.

For me, Shrill served as a terrifying reminder of what awaits me if I slip up.

Don’t eat that extra slice of pizza. You better skip dessert. Have you exercised today? Are you really going to drink that soda?

Although I normally snack when I watch TV, I found my appetite slipping as the show went on. The more the conversation of weight came up, the more guilty I felt about eating.

Women are under constant pressure to adhere to gender norms, and the risk of falling behind in any one of these categories serves to keep women in line. Shrill accurately demonstrates the barriers that fat women face in society, and that’s enough to make the rest of us terrified of becoming fat. Some women even claim that they would rather be dead than fat.

Vanessa Friedman wrote for Shape that, in America, being fat is the worst thing you can be:

“Society demands that women present themselves in slim packages (don’t take up too much space!), and nothing hurts the Patriarchy’s feelings more than a woman who doesn’t acquiesce to its demands. Society wants you to be thin, and if you’re not, you will deal with the consequences…
“The word and the concept of fat are used as a threat. It’s coded language used to keep women in line, remind them not to take up space, not to be too loud, not to enjoy themselves too much, not to have too much sex, and not to make too much money.”

These attitudes are deeply hurtful to people who live with fatness, but they are also harmful to everyone else who is on the outside of that experience, scared of tipping over the edge. It’s not dissimilar to the way homeless people on the city street remind us all that we better not give up on that nine to five grind, no matter how soul-sucking or menial, because we don’t want to end up like them.

Society helpfully provides these people to us as examples of what awaits those who do not adequately perform patriarchal or capitalist roles and norms. It is a warning and a threat to the rest of us: Better shape up. Better get back in line. This could be you.

Shrill is important because it’s starting to break down some of those threats. By portraying a fat woman who does eventually find confidence, joy, and catharsis, Bryant is providing a counter-narrative. Yet, the feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach proves that this show is just the start, and we still have a long way to go.

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