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What 'My Mad Fat Diary' Meant to Plus-Size Teens

"It felt like someone was holding a mirror up to me, especially the bits of me I didn't want to see or talk about."

by Gina Tonic
23 July 2019, 12:24pm

Kerry and Milly. Photos courtesy of subject

Channel 4's My Mad Fat Diary is timeless not just because it's a teen dramedy set in the 1990s – every millennial’s favourite era – but because of the subject matter. Leading the fat revolution in 2013 with an adaptation of Rae Earl’s book of the same name, My Mad Fat Diary did plus size representation in a way that hasn’t been matched on British TV since.

In the first episode, Rae Earl introduces herself as "16 years old, 16 stone and certified mad", immediately centring the show on fat mental health. Over two years, we watch as Rae tries to navigate the world not just a teenager, but as a mad, fat one. For those of us who had ever been fat, lonely and mentally unwell, it was the first time we were seeing ourselves properly portrayed on TV.

In a world where many thought they could never be described as mentally unwell due to their size – in which Skins had dominated the previous decade with depictions of teen mental health as mysterious traits of our thin peers – My Mad Fat Diary offered a more down to earth narrative about the joys of finding popularity, and the pitfalls of trying to fit in, in a world that isn't fat sized.

You don’t have to be mad, fat or a teenager to enjoy the show, but its positive and negative impacts can be best explained by the people it represented.

MEL, 30

My Mad Fat Diary Mel
Photo courtesy of Mel

"I found the entire show revolutionary in a way that I’d never quite experienced from any other media before. There were so many moments where I had to pause and take a breath, because it was actually pretty hard to see my lived experiences played out on the television.

"To pick a few moments that I connected with most deeply: Rae's relationship with Liam, who was also fat – the scene where she's having sex with him and he suggests they both keep their clothes on because neither of them 'are oil paintings' really rung true to so many of my sexual encounters, particularly with fat men who seem to feel like they're 'settling', having sex with fat women. These days I don't allow other people’s internalised fatphobia to damage me, but I really saw so much of myself at Rae's age in those scenes."

EMILY, 24

My Mad Fat Diary Emily
Photo courtesy of Emily.

"I feel like MMFD came into my life when I needed it most. I'd never known, with certainty, that other people had the same fears about their bodies that I did. The show gives so much gravity to these fears, how very clearly you can see them ripping Rae apart, which is how I felt growing up fat.

"There were so many moments I'd never seen portrayed on TV at all, let alone by an actual fat girl: when Rae is terrified of how her friends will react to seeing her in a bathing suit – and when they don’t react at all – and Rae feeling on top of the world because she’s with Finn and then suddenly, without warning, her brain telling her she's not good/hot/skinny enough for him, so she self-sabotages.

"These moments put words and tangible visuals to so many of the fears I’d kept deep down, under lock and key. It made me feel seen in a world where I’d almost resigned to never being seen at all."

MILLY, 20

My Mad Fat Diary Milly
Photo courtesy of Milly.

"I can clearly remember the first time I watched MMFD. I was 14, and it happened to be the same week I was hospitalised for the effects of my eating disorder. The frank way that mental health was spoken about [on the show] was really refreshing, and it really felt like an honest look into what it’s like to live in recovery. But the programme doesn’t touch on the issues of what it’s like to be black and fat – the narrative that we will always have sassy and strong personalities, and how it feels to sit at the bottom of the barrel of what society deems attractive.

"Being black, fat, gay and disabled means that I will rarely see anyone on TV that looks like me, but an increase of diversity in television means I can rely on more than one show or character to represent what it’s like to live life the way I do."

HONEY, 25

Honey My Mad Fat Diary
Photo courtesy of Honey.

"For me, MMFD was the first and only time I'd seen a fat girl be the main protagonist. The thing that stuck with me the most was when Rae's therapist gets her to talk to her younger self and asks her if she'd say the awful – relatable – things she says to her present self to her younger self, and – I’m tearing up thinking about it now! – she says no. I think about that regularly, even now.

"I love that the show existed and told Rae's story in such a respectful and kind way. Straight size girls I know loved the show and the character, too. What I'd love to see is an even broader range of fat stories being told, where size isn't one of the central issues."

MEGAN, 19

1562248450483-MEGAN
Photo courtesy of Megan.

"I only watched a few episodes, when I was 13, but I vividly remember every scene that addressed her weight and food issues. I've always been a bit bigger than everyone else, ever since I was a child, so I've grown up with a lot of body image issues. From my own personal experience, MMFD is scarily accurate.

"When I saw Rae take off her fat suit and burn it, it made me cry. I felt nauseous. I'm almost 20 now and I still hate remembering it. For as long as I can remember, I had wanted to do the exact same thing: strip myself of my fat and reveal underneath it a pretty, skinny girl that had been there all along.

"I'd never seen a character so like me before, and it was as terrifying as it was comforting to know that I wasn't the only fat girl who felt like that. I couldn’t finish it [the show] after that, so I never saw if Rae got a happy ending, but I hope she did."

KERRY, 32

My Mad Fat Diary Kerry
Photo courtesy of Kerry.

"There were times watching MMFD when I felt like they’d used my own personal experiences as inspiration, like when Rae talks about her difficulty with eating in front of people because of the inescapable judgement: eat a salad and who is she kidding, but eat a burger and 'look at that greedy pig'. It was like my teenage diaries realised in real life.

"It was a very vulnerable thing to watch, but also really compelling and heart warming. Rae didn't lose weight and become the popular girl, because that's not reality, and she got the guy without compromising all the things that made her interesting. Because that's the crux of it: we are valuable, interesting, funny, engaging and attractive people with desires and wishes all our own – and that is somehow ignored or not represented simply because we're a bigger size."

ELIZA, 26

Eliza My Mad Fat Diary
Photo courtesy of Eliza.

"My problem with the show is that the fat girl never gets the guy – not even in MMFD, really. Through her own insecurities, or whatever you want to call it, she ruins it. The case of 'too good to be true' rings loud for Rae, and something that completely resonates with me. Why does this fit guy fancy me when he could fancy the Kendall Jenner look-alike he matched on Tinder? You constantly question if their affection is a joke, or if they'll drop you instantly for someone skinnier and 'hotter'.

"I think the show reinforces the fat experience in that a fat person is normally the joker, the life of the party, but never the object of sexuality. The friendship between Rae and Chloe is an interesting representation of friendship in relation to this – the skinny friend is jealous of how funny Rae is, but humour is a tool. It's a tool for a lot of people, but maybe, if you’re fat, you’ve had to be funny because you’ve never been considered fit, and you need to get the attention somehow.

"But all in all, I think MMFD successfully represents the fat experience. I watched it and related to things I felt at that age. Now I know there are other things that are more important than being fat and, as I’ve grown up, I’ve realised the thoughts Rae has in My Mad Fat Diary are pretty childish, very 'Kim, there are people that are dying.' And if a guy doesn’t fancy me because I’m fat then there’ll be others that love me for it. Perhaps the faux confidence that fat people give off turned into actual confidence for me – and hopefully, in her fictional universe, for Rae too."

GRACE, 24

My Mad Fat Diary Grace
Photo courtesy of Grace.

"While the TV show doesn’t exactly replicate my experiences, I find MMFD to be really accurate in terms of what it’s like to grow up fat. It’s the little nuances scattered within the show – the periods of binge eating and regret, not being able to fit in (physically) and being scared to eat in public. It’s because of this that I feel extremely seen by the show, but also found it really difficult to watch, and triggering sometimes. It felt like someone was holding a mirror up to me, especially the bits of me I didn’t want to see or talk about. It’s really sad how relevant the show still is and how well it still holds up. It proves that there needs to be way more shows about fat girls written with nuance."

MOLLIE, 25

My Mad Fat Diary Mollie
Photo courtesy of Mollie.

"I didn’t end up watching MMFD until I was in my early twenties, but it represented my teen fat experience eerily closely. When I was a teen in school, I definitely felt I was the 'fat friend'. One of my closest friends in school, who I told most of my secrets, including stuff about my mental health, was particularly popular and beautiful – sound familiar? I found myself, in the same way Rae does, comparing myself to her and questioning whether I'd be more liked by other people – and particularly the boys I fancied – if I was thinner and prettier. For the longest time, I thought if I stayed the way I was I’d never get anywhere with boys and would remain un-wantable for life.

"Towards the end of my school days I developed disordered eating, which caused me to lose a lot of weight, and also my mental health plummeted. On leaving school I ended up in residential mental health care, similarly to Rae at the beginning of the show. It makes me wish that MMFD had been out when I'd been in school and that I'd watched it. I wish I’d seen a fat girl on TV acknowledging her fatness and mental illness, acknowledging that it's a struggle but trying to love herself anyway.

"It's been a long time coming, but as I've grown I've become more comfortable with who I am and, as cliche as it sounds, what makes me special and different and 'me'. I’m never going to be the beautiful, glamorous type that Jodie Comer's Chloe is, and that's OK. The world needs its Raes."

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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