At 16 years old, the crowning achievement of my life was getting a boyfriend. And it wasn’t because I was ever so smitten. I mean, he was a sweet boy with a cute flop of black hair. But I wanted the idea of a boyfriend way more than I ever wanted a living, breathing partner.
And that was all because I was fat. I still am, but being a fat teen in the mid-aughts was a particularly crappy experience. Whatever fat activism existed at the time hadn’t filtered down to my little world. I didn’t yet have an Instagram feed full of fatshionistas, or the ability to see Lizzo rock a gloriously tiny bikini. I didn’t even know what a damn Rubens was. I just knew the basic shit we teach everyone about fatness: that it is bad and undesirable. Therefore, I was bad and undesirable.
So when I got a boyfriend, long before my thinner friends got boyfriends of their own, I wasn’t just going through the motions of a teenage rite of passage. Honey, I had ascended. I was no longer the sad, lonely fat friend. I was the friend with a boyfriend. I had beaten the big fat odds and secured the affections of A Real Live Boy. And pop culture had taught me a boyfriend was the only way to prove my self-worth.
Pop culture had taught me a boyfriend was the only way to prove my self-worth.
If there was one fat girl on TV I recall most vividly from the time, it was Terri (Christina Schmidt) from Degrassi: The Next Generation. Most of her storylines revolve around being rejected by the boys she likes and struggling with her self-esteem. The show finally cuts poor Terri a break when she becomes a plus-size model, which earns her some confidence, but ultimately the fat girl can’t win. When Terri gets her own first boyfriend, he eventually knocks her onto a slab of concrete, landing her in a coma with brain damage, before he commits a school shooting. After that, her character just kind of disappears.
I suppose the show was attempting to teach teens a lesson about the warning signs of abuse. But why did the fat girl have to be the victim? All my teenage brain took away from Terri’s plotline was that a fat girl shouldn’t hope for much. Any confidence she can muster must be sanctioned by the gaze of some boy, and that boy will be a disappointment at best — or an abuser at worst. Is that all we can hope for? Is that all we deserve?
Thankfully my own teenage boyfriend was kind, and having him by my side made me feel like one of the lucky ones. Never mind that I was a closeted baby dyke or that I basically zoned out every time he touched me. He was still a boy who liked me — liked me enough to touch me, even. I felt like I’d won.
Fat representation over the years truly hasn’t gotten much better, which is why I was so excited for Hulu’s adaptation of Shrill when the first season premiered last year. I had devoured Lindy West’s memoir when it was published in 2016, thrilled to be reading the words of a woman who, like me, knows what it means to navigate the world in a fat body. (I couldn’t relate to certain aspects of her narrative, but that’s to be expected with personal stories.)
The show, which returned for a second season last month, generally does a commendable job adapting West’s story to that of its protagonist, Annie, played by the very charming Aidy Bryant. But there’s still one big element of the show I can’t get on board with, and he’s a baby in a man’s body named Ryan.
We’re first introduced to Ryan (Luka Jones) as the guy Annie’s hooking up with, even though he hides her from his roommates and makes her leave through the back door — presumably because he’s embarrassed about her size. And it’s not like Ryan is such a catch himself. He’s relatively unkempt, has the emotional maturity of a tween, and struggles to hold down a job. Meanwhile, we see Annie as a growing fireball of tenacity and confidence, working at an alt-weekly, chasing her dreams, and finding her voice.
As Annie blossoms, Ryan barely budges. By the end of Season 1, he stops forcing Annie to use the back door and makes their relationship official, which I think we’re supposed to see as some sort of major win. I’d hoped that when we saw Annie again she’d have already kicked his mediocre ass to the curb, but he’s still bumbling around the second season in far too many going-nowhere scenes — a reminder of who Annie was, not the amazing woman she’s becoming.
As much as Shrill gets right (The wardrobe! The pool party!), the show still gets bogged down in some very disappointing heterosexual tropes. Though fat women have been slowly afforded more complex and interesting stories onscreen, those stories are still so often limited to their love lives — which are still so often depressingly mediocre.
After Terri, there’s been a trickle of fat lady characters on television and in movies I wanted so badly to identify with and look up to, only to find them limited by the same lazy plotlines. There was Lena Dunham’s Hannah on Girls, a character who’s infuriating in many ways (and frankly, not fat, despite how often Dunham was both lauded and shamed for taking her clothes off on camera). Hannah kept chasing after Adam even though he wasn’t weird as in charmingly quirky — he was weird as in weird (and, arguably, borderline abusive).
Must these girls’ stories always end with a man? And if they must, could the men at least be a little dreamier?
More recently, on another HBO show, Kat on Euphoria earned praise all over my social media feeds for finding her confidence as a (again, not very) fat girl — confidence she finds through screwing losers through most of the season and taking money from men online. That’s not to say I don’t wholeheartedly support both of those activities, but once again I’m left wondering why a fat character has to go through the shitty dude phase to prove to herself and the audience that her confidence is earned.
Last year, in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, our protagonist goes on what’s sold to us as a journey of self-improvement — which is really just a journey of weight loss — and her prize at the end is a guy who’s been squatting in a dog-sitting client’s house and appears to have no ambition of his own. Sometimes modern fat heroines manage to secure the affections of men who aren’t total losers — like Dumplin’s Willowdean, or Isn’t It Romantic’s Natalie — but these stories are still selling boyfriends as the fat girl’s ultimate, and only, reward.
Look, I’m genuinely happy we’re starting to see shows and movies starring fat girls that don’t completely revolve around weight loss and sadness (though, unfortunately, we still have those too) — but can we not push the needle just a little further? Must these girls’ stories always end with a man? And if they must, could the men at least be a little dreamier?
The best show of the past year shows us how it’s done. Work in Progress is a semiautobiographical Showtime series about Abby McEnany, a fat, middle-aged butch lesbian with major anxiety, depression, and OCD. In the first episode, Abby decides that when she finishes a particular number of almonds, she’ll kill herself. But just when she is about to give up on her life entirely, she meets a 23-year-old trans guy named Chris (Theo Germaine), who is definitely dreamy. While Chris does have a bit of a manic pixie dream boy thing going on, his character doesn’t exist simply to make Abby feel better about her weight. From the get-go, he is so adorably hung up on Abby, appreciating what she perceives as flaws and joyful in how he pushes her toward new experiences. And sure, Abby goes to Weight Watchers–like meetings, but we’re meant to see them as ridiculous, as punchlines, as another example of how she is lost. The audience knows, even if she doesn’t yet, that her body isn’t what needs fixing.
To its credit, Shrill itself does involve some truly groundbreaking fat representation. The best part of the show isn’t Annie at all, but her roommate, Fran (Lolly Adefope). Fran is black, gay, and fat, and never once is she sorry about it. She picks up a hot lover at the Fat Babe Pool Party in Season 1, and her romantic issues, while aplenty, revolve around hang-ups that have nothing to do with her weight. The most emotional scene for me from the show’s second season is Fran belting “Shallow” at karaoke, having a whole-ass moment of catharsis, no romantic partners in sight, tugging on my heartstrings. Fran is proof that a fat woman can have a story arc without some dude lying in wait to validate her burgeoning confidence.
I love Fran and I love Abby because, yes, they’re queer like me, but also because they’re changing narratives about being fat onscreen. Why is a woman like Fran always the sidekick, never the star? Why must every fat leading lady be grounded in a lack of self-confidence?
Maybe if teenage me had seen a Fran or an Abby, I wouldn’t have seen boys as a reward or as proof that I’m a person who’s worthy of confidence and love. Maybe I could have spared myself some years in the closet, seeking validation from men — because what other kind could a fat girl possibly hope for? More queer representation back then would have helped me, but so would have seeing fat girls of any sexual orientation in stories that didn’t revolve exclusively around heterosexual romance. I can only imagine that fat girls who like men want something better too.
By the end of Shrill’s second season, Annie finally ditches Ryan in a beautiful scene complete with literal fireworks. I’m still rooting for Annie, and I’m still glad Shrill exists. I just hope in Season 3 Annie takes a page from Fran’s book and finds whatever validation she needs from herself. ●