Welcome to Fatness In Film, a new monthly column analysing examples of fat representation and body diversity on screen.
Positive depictions of fat bodies are hard to find, but Shrill is a recent example of plus size storytelling done right. Adapted from activist and writer Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, the half hour comedy series stars Aidy Bryant as Annie. She’s a budding journalist stuck in a bad relationship, a workplace that doesn’t take her seriously, and putting up with a daily tide of negativity and microaggressions because of her body.
As it is based on a fat woman’s actual lived experience, this show has a poignant authenticity for those who can relate to Annie. It reflects the reality of what it means to live in a fat body in a multitude of ways, and here are three that are particularly impactful:
1. “You can’t be what you can’t see”
In episode two – ‘Date’ – Annie is walking to meet her objectively terrible somewhat-boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) to forgive him for cheating on her. She has almost resigned herself to the fact that she’s going to take him back, trudging towards a man that makes her miserable because she can’t see that she deserves better.
But she is stopped in her tracks when a glorious plus-size goddess strides past her. Bedecked all in red, wearing sunglasses and block heels, she’s doing the exact opposite of what our society expects of fat women. She’s not trying to shrink – instead, she’s taking up all the space she likes and looking incredible whilst doing it. The mere sight of her throws Annie off track and she detours from her backslide to Ryan, treating herself to a bouquet of flowers instead – just like the inspiring girl she was watching from afar.
Annie also finds empowerment through others at the pool party in episode four – ‘Pool’. Wearing a swimsuit in public is triggering for many in bigger bodies, so Annie turns up in a button-up shirt and black jeans. As she enters the party, she (and the audience) is exposed to a plethora of fat bodies of all shapes, sizes and colours. As she grows more comfortable with the women around her and sees how much fun they’re having, Annie finally loses her inhibitions. She breaks into a euphoric dance as Ariana Grande blasts in our ears, then dives into the pool with a confidence that mirrors the women around her – watching her, a smile can’t help but spread across your face.
If you listen to everything our society tells you about living in a fat body, it’s easy to feel like all you have to look forward to is a lifetime of restriction and wishing you could change yourself. The power of seeing someone breaking free of that narrative and writing a new, more hopeful one of their own cannot be understated.
2. People fancy fatties, too
Sex and romance for fat characters is often complicated and sometimes extremely cruel. We’re the fetish, the friend of the girl the hero is really interested in, or the loser that gets pulled as a punchline. Shrill offers us a different perspective.
Annie starts the series trapped in a toxic ‘situationship’: having unsatisfying sex with manbaby Ryan – after which, he completely humiliates her by asking her to leave out the back door, so his friends don’t see her. So far, so typical.
Where things start to get butterflies-in-your-stomach, heart-grows-two-sizes kinda good is when Lamar (Akemnji Ndifornyen) comes to visit. The brother of Annie’s housemate, Fran (Lolly Adefope), he is sweet, kind, a good cook and all sorts of beautiful – and it’s clear from the first moment we see him that he’s harbouring a huge crush on Annie.
By the end of the episode, it becomes clear to Annie too. They are home alone, reminiscing over college days and old school playlists before they share a kiss. The joy and ease of it all is so obvious on Annie’s face; she’s almost surprised by it. It’s a lovely scene, all warm and fuzzy, and shows us that women in bigger bodies aren’t only a last resort or a dirty little secret – we can desire and be desired, and positive sexual experiences are not only possible but extremely likely.
The best bit? Annie creeping down to the kitchen as Lamar sleeps, grabbing the leftover spaghetti he saved for her from the fridge and eating it in generous wrapped forkfuls. In that moment, she doesn’t need to be anyone other than exactly who she wants to be.
3. The selfishness of self-actualisation
Being fat doesn’t mean I am worthless – I can remember the moment I realised it. I was in my car, stuck in traffic, listening to a podcast talking about the concepts of body positivity and “health at every size”, and I burst into tears that kept on coming all the way home. A few years have passed since then, and deciding to stop hating and apologising for your body and to start making peace with it has not been easy. It means being kinder to yourself and demanding that kindness from others too. It means doing internal work on your thought patterns, your coping mechanisms. It means setting boundaries that other people, especially the ones closest to you, might not like.
Annie rubs up against this problem a few times throughout the course of this first season of Shrill. She has arguments with her mother, the one who is encouraging her to eat dismal diet food and who is obsessed with controlling what both Annie and her seriously ill father consume. She misses a night out with a friend from work and when he confronts her about it, he reminds her of the complexities of his own life. Fran describes her as “going through a selfish phase”.
Working on improving your own emotional and mental health should never come at the cost of human decency and having respect for other people – but seeing Annie’s closest friends and family interpret her newfound confidence as selfish still feels vastly unfair. Fat people deserve to be the protagonist in their own TV show, their own story, their own life. They deserve to have the space to discover who they are, to be happy, to stop hating themselves and their bodies. They are allowed to prioritise themselves and do the work to free themselves from the toxicity of diet culture – even if it means they’re not the perfect friend, daughter or colleague 100% of the time.
Annie pushes through the judgments of those around her. The season closes with her confronting her online troll and taking power back when it comes to who she is and what people think of her.
Shrill is witty, uplifting and beautifully directed – but none of these great elements quite compare to the step forward this is for fat stories on screen. The second season drops on BBC Three in the UK on January 25th, and I can’t wait to see what Annie does next.
Watch the trailer for the new season of Shrill below: