When I developed an eating disorder, it was because I thought I needed to be skinny to be loved. A new TV show does nothing to erase that message.
I can’t remember what my friend Sophie and I were talking about that night in the spring of 2011. I know our families were having dinner together; I know I had just lost 30 pounds in three months, and would lose at least 10 more. What matters, though, is that for whatever reason, I said, “I’m not fat anymore,” laughing, expecting Sophie to grin and agree.
She didn’t. Instead, she gave me a response that I have not forgotten in seven years. Her face contorted into confusion, pure in its immediacy, framed by the platinum hair I so envied. Sophie looked me in the eye, without a trace of hesitation, and said the most shocking thing I’d ever heard: “You may be skinny now, but you were always slim.”
I don’t know how I responded. It’s possible I didn’t say anything. I may have laughed and brought up something, anything, else. But Sophie’s words have replayed in my mind too many times to count in the seven years since she said them—when I’ve tried to fall asleep, when I’ve hung out with friends, when I watched the trailer for the upcoming Netflix series Insatiable.
You were always slim, she said, the first person who ever told me that, when I was 14 years old.
When I think about the shows and movies I watched as a kid, only one features characters comfortable in their fatness, lovable at any weight: Dumbo, whose lovable, fat characters are elephants. The first human—or, at least, humanoid—fat characters I remember were villains, whose fatness seemed to correspond with greater deficits in character. The Powerpuff Girls’ Big Billy is as rotund as he is stupid: even when he wants to help Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup, his weight and idiocy prevent him from doing so—until he can save the day by eating. Fuzzy Lumpkins, another recurring antagonist in The Powerpuff Girls, first enters the series by attacking Townsville with a weapon that turns everything into meat, and plans to eat the city. The Powerpuff Girls can only defeat him when he turns sweet Bubbles’ hair into a chicken drumstick, an affront on her appearance which enrages her so much, she gets a full action sequence beating him to a pulp.
And then, of course, there’s Ursula. Her hugeness in The Little Mermaid makes her a looming, frightening figure, so sharply contrasted with beautiful Ariel, whose waist is smaller than Ursula’s arm. In “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” Ursula convinces Ariel she uses her magic for good by talking about the time she made a fat mermaid skinny, which helped her get a boyfriend. It’s a small moment, but one which sets the tone for women’s weights in the movie. When Ursula turns herself into a human to win Prince Eric, armed with the voice he fell in love with in the first place, she can give herself any body imaginable. She makes herself tall, white and skinny.
These characters didn’t tell me all fat people were evil: I knew from my own experience that wasn’t true. I spent most of my childhood snugly chubby, and I adored my parents, who were both fat. However, these characters did tell me fatness was gross, fatness was wrong, and fat people should be considered unlovable. My parents unintentionally spread that idea, too. They hated their own, fat bodies, and fed me a steady stream of well-meaning encouragement to lose weight as a child. Part of that encouragement came from my doctor’s advice, but part of it came from their feelings, externalized: they didn’t want me to look like them.When I think about the shows and movies I watched as a kid, only one features characters comfortable in their fatness, lovable at any weight: Dumbo. Click To Tweet
Although I loved my parents, their self-loathing told me I should not love their appearances. I took that self-loathing as my own. When I was 14—and 13, and 12, and 11—I felt like a beached whale. In reality, Sophie was right: I’d never been fat. Before I began losing weight that year, I weighed 132 pounds and stood at 5’1. I had a BMI of 24.9—just below the overweight range, but still, below it. I’d developed the kind of healthy lifestyle my doctor had always encouraged. I’d found exercise habits I enjoyed, such as swimming and biking; I began commuting by foot more; I ate enough food to make me happy.
It’s ironic, in retrospect, that those months of early pubescence were the physically healthiest time of my life. Back then, whenever I looked at myself in the mirror, all I could see was ballooned fat, suffocating me. That body dysmorphia was severe enough in suburban Ohio, where I grew up. It became worse in the summer of 2010, when I was still 13, and my family moved to Paris, France.
I had been chubby in Ohio, but so had plenty of other kids: my fat didn’t stand out much. Paris was different. A 2009 study at France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies found French women were the thinnest in Europe, with the highest proportion of clinically underweight women on the continent. Even at a private, international school in Paris, my classmates reflected this study’s findings. I was objectively one of the heaviest girls in my grade.
To their credit, none of my classmates called me “fat” to my face, but I felt isolated by my weight all the same. I couldn’t wear the same trendy fashions that everyone else did. I felt self-conscious eating anything in public because of France’s intense, ingrained stigma against eating too much. The country’s Catholic roots have popularized the notion of gluttony as a sin: portions are small, snacking is rare, and fatness is seen as a character flaw that any Jacques or Julienne has the right to talk about.
The most striking moment, though, happened in March, just as the winds had begun to warm. One day in the courtyard during our lunch break, I saw a crowd of boys throwing paper balls at a girl in the grade below me. She was one of the other “fat” girls. She wore a pale, yellow shirt that clashed with her reddening eyes, and she was cowering against a wall, yelling at the boys. I couldn’t understand everything they shouted back, but I could make out the words grosse and laide—fat and ugly.
My legs froze, and I stood watching that scene until the bell rang and a friend dragged me to class. No one else had seemed shocked by the bullying; no one had tried to intervene on the girl’s behalf. Those ranks of cowards included me: I was too scared. I knew, if I tried to help her, the boys would attack me, too.
I decided to start losing weight two weeks later.
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Yet the bullying I witnessed wasn’t enough, on its own, to make me want to lose weight. The bigger problem was my loneliness. In Ohio, I had a close-knit friend group with whom I spent countless hours, friends I trusted with my life. In Paris, my 10-person class hung out together after school sometimes. But I couldn’t make forever friendships, one on one, the way my other classmates did. They would hang out with each other in pairs instead of groups, they would spend hours texting each other and exploring the city. I got along with all my classmates, I consider them friends to this day, but they made close, personal friendships without me. In the entire year I lived in Paris, only once did I hang out one-on-one with a friend.
I decided my fat was the problem. I thought of Big Billy and Fuzzy Lumpkins and Ursula, whose weights were indistinguishable from their villainy; I thought of Natalie in Love Actually, whose so-called “tree trunk” thighs made her unattractive to nearly every character in the movie; I thought of Fat Monica on Friends, who exemplified the potential of a fat person to find love only once they lost weight.
Everyone else at school had found their BFFs; everyone else was thin. To me, the pattern was clear. I decided to lose weight, my parents celebrated my decision, and eventually, my dieting spiraled out of control. I lost 40 pounds in four months. At my lowest point, I weighed 92 pounds.
After a year in Paris, my family moved back to suburban Ohio. I started to see a therapist, who helped, and slowly I gained back weight. But I was never quite able to regain the healthy lifestyle I’d had when I was a preteen. It took me until college to realize where I’d gone wrong. Not only had I never been fat, but—more importantly—people’s opinions of me, nine times out of ten, didn’t depend on my weight. When I started high school in Ohio, no one became my friend because I had a toned stomach or because they could see my ribs. My new classmates became my friends because I made them laugh, treated them kindly, and showed I cared about them. And they remained my friends when I gained weight, knowing my body had no bearing on my personhood.
Yet movies, TV shows and books keep perpetuating the idea that fat people can’t be loved. The latest example, coming to Netflix on August 10, is Insatiable. The show’s premise is simple: “Fatty” Patty (Debby Ryan, in an awful fat suit) is bullied for her weight in high school, until a punch to the face forces her to spend the summer with her jaw wired shut. When she comes back to school after those three months, she has miraculously lost 70 pounds, looks like a Disney starlet, and her classmates all but salivate over her. Newly confident, she sets out to take revenge on everyone who bullied her while she was fat.Everyone else at school had found their BFFs; everyone else was thin. To me, the pattern was clear. Click To Tweet
In plenty of ways, Patty is a far cry from the Big Billys and Ursulas of the world. She’s the hero; she’s clever and determined; she’s meant to receive the viewer’s sympathies, not their disdain or disgust. But Insatiable would not exist without the assumption that fat people can’t be loved—fat women, in particular. To care about Patty’s revenge crusade, the viewer has to believe in the pain she is avenging: that almost everyone she knew really did hate and bully her because of her weight.
That’s not to say no fat person has ever experienced such cruelty. Insatiable’s creator, Lauren Gussis, has said her own experiences inspired the show. The bullying she suffered as a 13-year-old because of her weight made her develop an eating disorder and want to seek revenge. Indeed, Gussis called Insatiable “a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe the outsides are more important,” and said she’s trying to share her “pain and vulnerability through humor.”
Maybe Insatiable does succeed in that. But when over 150,000 people call for a show’s cancellation before it airs, and when thousands post selfies with the #NotYourBefore hashtag, a commentary on how fatness is often depicted as a sad or undesirable “before” to skinniness, there’s usually a reason. Gussis’ statement, in which she admits developing an eating disorder in her drive to “look pretty on the outside,” is revealing. Skinniness does not make a person more beautiful. Fat does not make its bearers ugly. I understand Gussis’ anguish: I grew up convinced that fat was the antithesis of beauty, too. But I have spent years unlearning that conception of bodies, letting myself find beauty in our skins’ folds and creases instead. Gussis seems to have done the opposite: she has internalized the idea that fat people can’t be pretty, can’t be successful, can’t be loved. For all her good intentions, she remains trapped in a twisted, dangerous cycle of fatphobia.
That cycle has infected almost every part of our lives. Our culture is oversaturated with fat jokes and narratives about overweight people’s—particularly overweight women’s—inability to be loved. We perpetuate this standard through negative representations in media, showing viewers over and over again that skinny bodies are aspirational and overweight bodies are not. A 2012 study from Durham University in the U.K. found that such exposure, called a “visual diet,” directly influences our perceptions of acceptable weights: seeing a series of large or small bodies, presented as aspirational or not, changed participants’ preferences for different body types. These perceptions, in turn, affect how we treat people with “unacceptable” weights, and the consequences can be devastating. Overweight women are significantly less likely to be believed if they report rapes or sexual assaults, obese patients often receive worse medical care than their thinner counterparts, and overweight people even face hiring discrimination, which is not illegal in the U.S. And that’s not even mentioning the social ramifications in day-to-day life activities such as dating.
Insatiable is a cog in that cycle, contributing to the stigmas and mistreatment overweight people face everyday. Even worse, it masquerades as a progressive, uplifting show, targeting young women most susceptible to its misguided messaging. When I was 14, I would have loved Insatiable. The premise would have given me hope: just like Fatty Patty, I could lose weight and get everyone to love me, too.Skinniness does not make a person more beautiful. Fat does not make its bearers ugly. Click To Tweet
I am healthier mentally in every way now than I was when I lived in Paris. Still, I have a lot of work to do. I hate taking or looking at photos of myself because of the fat on my arms, chin and thighs. I’m too self-conscious to join #NotYourBefore, because to do so I’d have to share photos emphasizing my fat, and that idea nauseates me. Almost every day, I think with regret of the time Sophie told me I was slim, had always been slim, and how I couldn’t believe her.
I am self-aware enough now to understand how much media like Insatiable, which seem so innocuous, damaged me. Media with messages like Insatiable’s—that overweight people are ugly by default, that overweight people can’t be loved—nearly destroyed my life. Insatiable is an irresponsible, ill-conceived television program that can’t possibly be funny enough to make up for the harm it will cause. If Netflix does air it, against tens of thousands’ of people’s objections, they hold the blame for the children they will hurt.