The first season of Hulu’s dramedy Shrill was a cheery primal scream of body positivity for those in the fat* community and others who have felt bullied because of their appearance, particularly their weight. Aidy Bryant’s heroine, Annie, finds her voice as a writer, feels accepted at a pool party full of similarly shaped women, gets the doofus paramour who was previously ashamed of her to treat her with respect, tells off her boss who publicly fat-shames her, and (eventually) confronts the stranger who has been trolling her online—an event that culminated in her (legally unwise, but probably still therapeutic) decision to bludgeon his car with his own flower pots after she tracks him down to his house and he makes a pass at her.
Note: *Although there is stigma behind the word fat and who is allowed to use it, we are choosing to use it here as that is the word the writers of Shrill use in the series.
The second season, which premiered January 24 on the streaming channel, finds Annie’s story and world broadening. Her writing takes on other issues—like the contradictory world of women’s empowerment seminars that cost a fortune and also sell products aimed at fixing the flaws you didn’t even know you had—along with a confidence to explore career mobility. Better dating options also present themselves.
When Annie’s weight is brought up in the second season of Shrill, it is usually in a matter-of-fact, passing manner, like an experience of “chub rub,” or thigh chafing, while covering the aforementioned seminar (as someone who has never had a thigh gap, I relate). When it’s more pointed, though, the show mostly goes right to the source of her feelings of inadequacy: her mother.
An embodiment of the therapists’ favorite saying “if it’s not one thing, it’s a mother,” Julia Sweeney’s depiction of Annie’s mom, Vera, is well-meaning if controlling. She’s a boomer looking for purpose now that she’s an empty nester who is also coming to terms with her own life regrets (this season, she takes a brief detour from the show’s setting of Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, BC to investigate memories of her misspent youth. She comes away with a hat).
Vera also cannot help herself from needling Annie about any caloric intake that might be deemed excess. Bread as part of the meal at the restaurant when she meets Annie’s boyfriend? The waiter might as well have offered her a bomb. A reminder that she used to monitor her daughter’s chocolate chip intake? Defensiveness that this was all meant to help her with math homework. A bitterness that Annie had previously referenced all of these lingering issues in a personal essay? Still very much harbored.
None of this necessarily makes Vera a bad parent or suggests that she and Annie cannot get along (Vera is willing to let her kid borrow some dope earrings to wear to a colleague’s ‘70s-themed birthday party at the roller rink).
But it’s also extremely familiar to myself and so many others, regardless of our body shapes. In a childhood memory solidified in my brain, my mother pulls me aside on the playground to point at another, chubbier, little girl happily playing nearby. She offers a cautionary tale that this is my future if I keep eating ice cream. As an already poorly dressed, crooked-teethed kid who was mocked daily for my unattractiveness, this warning came with a layering message that fat equals ugly; fat means you’re unpopular; fat means you will not find love.
Now, as an adult with my own children, it’s still hard for me to eat more than one snack because I grew up in a house where I was constantly reminded that I could have “one treat a day.” Sometimes I do break. Defiantly eating every crumb of a so-so cheesecake while attending a writers’ retreat a few years ago felt a challenge in telepathically telling my mother to suck it.
This all sounds harsh, petty and #FirstWorldProblems, I know. But it’s also a systemic problem. My own mother is at least the third generation of well-meaning but nagging women in my family who thought restricting and commenting on their children’s meal choices was the best way for them to grow into healthy adults who would find love and happiness. Outside of the truth-fueled fiction of Shrill, which last season saw Annie and two other female characters bond when they learned that all of their moms would all make them different dinners than the rest of the family, it’s long been a root of strife or aggravation for daughters on television dramas (This is Us) and comedies (Friends).
Lauren Muhlheim, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and eating disorder specialist who is the director of Eating Disorder Therapy LA, stresses that “parents don’t cause eating disorders.” However, she says, they are “the messengers of the cultural messages that they get.”
“Parents are given so many messages by medical and mental health professionals because of the war on obesity, which is largely fueled by weight stigma,” she adds. “I think we have to educate parents … [that] some people think that weight is something you have control over and so much of it is genetic and not in our control … and that bodies naturally come in all sizes and that [being] fat is not so bad. We have to make it safe for people to be fat.”
Luckily, the culture and conversation around this topic are changing. In addition to Bryant and writer-activist Lindy West, whose memoir serves as the basis for Shrill, so many (female) public figure are willing to share anecdotes about body acceptance and telling diets to suck it (see The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil’s crusade against airbrushing). Journalist Taffy Akner’s 2017 deep dive into the world of Weight Watchers and the like for The New York Times showed just how much this industry is struggling to keep up. Last year, that company launched its horrifically-named Kurbo app aimed at kids eight to seventeen. It … did not go over well (writing for the Times’ Opinion section, registered dietitian nutritionist Christy Harrison pleaded with parents not to give their kids this app because “attempts to shrink a child’s body are likely to be both ineffective and harmful to physical and mental health”).
But what are we to say to the parents and grandparents who, probably just like Sweeney’s Vera, are well-meaning but have been ingrained to think this way for decades?
“I think you have to come to a truce and [ask them to] agree not to talk about what I’m eating,” Muhlheim says, explaining that you can say “‘I’m going to chose to eat what I’m eating and I don’t appreciate your comments.’ I think setting some boundaries is the best that most people can do.”
And also maybe suggest they watch Shrill. Both seasons are streaming now on Hulu.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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