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'Shrill' Demands Space for Fat Women

The series teaches us that loving yourself is more than 'accepting' your own body. It’s about claiming your space and your agency.

by Alice Lesperance
Mar 21 2019, 10:28pm

Credit: Hulu

In Shrill’s first episode, we see Annie making choices that every fat woman I know has made, in one form or another. She’s sleeping with a man who has absolutely no respect for her because she feels that he’s her only option. When she gets pregnant, she considers keeping a baby she doesn’t really want out of fear that she’ll never get the chance again. She’s letting everyone, from strangers in coffee shops to her own mother comment on and try to control her body. When you’re a fat woman, you’re taught to just accept what you’re allowed to have and how much space you’re allowed to take up in the world. And we see Annie doing that: thanking a fitness instructor for insulting her body and eating the bland diet-plan meals that her mother pays for in an effort to control her weight.

The choices that Annie makes are driven by a lifetime of fat shaming and diminishing comments about her body by those closest to her. When having sex with Ryan without a condom leads to pregnancy (because, as no doctor or pharmacist told her when she bought them, morning after pills are useless if you weigh more than 175 lbs), Annie gets an abortion. It’s at this point in her life that she comes to terms with the fact that her body is her own and that she doesn’t have to apologize for it. She starts to become more assertive in all areas of her life: showing us that loving yourself is more than “accepting” your own body. It’s about claiming your space and your agency.

To understand what Shrill is, let’s talk about what Shrill isn’t: it’s not a story about a fat woman who hates herself until a man teaches her that her body is acceptable. It’s not a makeover montage about a woman who realizes she could be pretty if she just “tried harder.” And it’s not a show about a woman who gets an abortion and then spends the next six episodes grappling with that decision. It’s not these movies and TV shows that we’ve all seen dozens of times.

Most crucially, Shrill is a departure from the lazy attempts at body positivity that abound. It’s not afraid to make people uncomfortable. More than that, it forces thin people to acknowledge that they are uncomfortable with fat bodies and to confront that discomfort. Annie doesn’t just go to a pool party, which would be your average body positive scene: fat girl gathers courage, goes to pool party. Shrill gives us: fat girl goes to fat girl pool party, full of fat women joyfully dancing, swimming and feeling great in their fat bodies. It gives us Annie in a swimsuit, filmed underwater as her body moves through the pool. That’s the kind of scene we’ve never really seen featuring a fat woman, and it’s astounding to watch.

So much of feminist, body positive media shows us women who seem to wake up one day and just become empowered. As if it were that easy, as if we aren’t fighting decades of fatphobia propagated by people who claim to care about our health. What’s different about Shrill is that self worth is shown as a labor. It’s a process: even when Annie feels confident enough to fight for space at work and tell off fatphobic strangers, it takes her time to assert herself within her more personal relationships. Even then, it’s not a smooth transition; she fucks up frequently and humanly while always working at herself and testing the bounds of her confidence.

Body positivity, despite its roots within the fat liberation movement, is a flat, meaningless term that comforts thin people while doing nothing to lift up fat people and their stories. Shrill, a show starring and produced by a fat woman and based on a memoir written by another fat woman, is telling fat people that they’re allowed to take up space—that they’re allowed to demand that space for themselves. Annie asserts her bodily autonomy when she gets an abortion, and that kick starts her resolve to be more assertive about who gets to talk about her body and her fatness.

We get to see her exhibiting real joy in things that fat people have always taught to enjoy secretly or not at all: fashion, swimming, sex, carbs. There’s a huge stigma that surrounds fat women eating and loving food, this thing that supposedly keeps us trapped in the bodies too often labeled ugly and fat. We get to see Annie smiling while she eats pasta alone in her kitchen after sex. Then there’s another scene with Annie standing up and saying, “I’m fat, I’m fucking fat, you know?!” in which fat isn’t a bad word but an adjective, a declaration. These are all such deliberate moments and they’re small examples of what makes Shrill so perfect. It’s not a show about merely accepting or changing how certain bodies look. It’s celebrating them.

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