To the writers of ”Insatiable”
From a fat high schooler who stayed fat.
Note: this piece contains discussion of eating disorders.
I do not remember the first time I saw an actor in a fat suit, but I was 21 years old when I turned on Tyra Banks’ talk show. Only barely a legal adult, I had already spent over a decade of my young life dieting.
I was 330 pounds, and desperate to lose weight. I had, at that tender age, already tried Atkins, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, prozac, fat camp and fen-phen, a weight loss drug banned by the FDA for causing heart failure.
I had opted out of going to any of the residential colleges to which I had applied, instead heading to a local commuter school. The massive institution held the promise of anonymity, a welcome change after being so conspicuously anxious and fat in high school. Just while I lose weight, I told myself. Then I’ll transfer. Then my real life can begin.
I waited and waited for the weight loss and the real life I was certain it would bring. But the weight loss never came. Now, famed supermodel Tyra Banks was doing a show on the stigma faced by fat people. I still told myself I was going to become thin — I had to become thin — and the show would serve as motivation for my goal. Like the too-small clothing that hung in my closet, this episode would scare me thin.
I watched the show in an empty house, away from others’ reactions and judgments. Tyra announced that she had donned a fat suit as a “social experiment.” She wore shabby, baggy clothing, a crocheted shawl, and painfully unfashionable tinted glasses. She donned a hidden camera and filmed passersby gawking at her on the street, strangers insulting her, blind dates saying they couldn’t fathom bringing her home.
After her undercover footage played, the camera returned us to the studio, where Tyra sat flanked by two fat women, ostensibly brought on the show to share their own experiences. But just the sight of that undercover footage had Tyra in tears, wrought with emotion after one day in a fat suit that she readily peeled off. The fat women consoled her, their hands on her back, as she wept on stage.
She had spent one day in a padded suit. One day absorbing fat hate. These women had spent a lifetime with it. Still, the supermodel needed comforting. So the fat women did what fat women are expected to do. They comforted a thin woman in distress, terrified of what would become of her if she ever looked like them.
Tyra Banks was one of many to wear a fat suit around the turn of the millennium. I was in my late teens and early twenties, struggling mightily against the body that had always been hopelessly mine, stubbornly resistant to the many changes I tried to force upon it. From The Nutty Professor to Friends, fat suits were everywhere. Often, the only fat people in movies or on TV were those caricatured by thin actors in meticulously crafted fat suits.
The many characters portrayed by actors in fat suits offered few options for a young fat woman. Some were hopeless, pitiful befores who couldn’t get a date, couldn’t make friends, couldn’t connect to anyone. They were painfully uncool, even hopeless, redeemed only by their inevitable weight loss. Only becoming thin made their stories worth telling.
Others were the gluttonous punchlines of Norbit and Austin Powers, blissfully unaware of how disgusting they were in their two piece swimsuits, repulsive in their voracious appetites for food and sex. Shallow Hal, which seemed to fancy itself the most high-minded of fat suit portrayals, asserted that only a man under hypnosis could find a fat woman attractive, provided he couldn’t see her actual body. His attraction to her was played for laughs, a stick-thin woman throwing plus sized panties to an eager man in her bed to peals of audience laughter. Who could want that?
Whoever these fat suit characters were, the message to me as a young fat woman was clear. If I stayed fat, I was destined to be the butt of every joke, categorically undesirable and unlovable, a social pariah who was lucky to have any friends at all. I learned that I was repulsive, no matter how I dressed, what I accomplished, or who I was. I learned that my personhood would always be overshadowed by my body. I learned that my only redemption could come from getting thin. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to get thin.
But what I was too young to realize was that none of these stories — not one — had been written by a fat adult. These narratives were borne not of experience, but of sheer imagination. Every last one was a thin person’s fantasy, in which fat bodies were simply plot devices, a convenient shorthand to prop up the virtue of thinness. As I grew older, I came to understand that these many thin writers, actors and directors needed to believe that fat people were lonely, isolated, oblivious, awkward, hopeless and helpless. They needed to believe that they, as thin people, had done what fat people could not. They needed to believe that their bodies weren’t simply bodies, but trophies for their work to outsmart fatness. They longed to believe that they were stronger, smarter, more determined, more tenacious and more hardworking than the fat people they depicted.
These weren’t stories of the failures of fat people. They were stories about the supremacy of thinness.
These thin fantasies held up ghoulish faux-realities of life as a fat person, grounded in little more than their own imaginations. And there was no counterbalance, no alternative narrative, nowhere to turn from the desperation, isolation, and bleakness of fat lives as invented by thin people.
Today, some thirteen years later, so little has changed. At 34, watching the trailer for your show, I felt myself recede beneath my broad, soft skin. I felt a shrinking, some shame-induced reduction of my unimaginably fat body. I felt trapped again, like I did at 21, tied to a future I never wanted, never requested, never planned.
At 34, once again, my story was not mine to tell. Instead, it was slipping back into the morality tale that thin people had imagined for bodies like mine.
What stung about Tyra Banks’ portrayal wasn’t the words of strangers. It was her shock, and the shock of the media, the audience, the many thin people who watched in what felt like mock disturbance. I remember watching their faces, thinking about how much those audience members resembled thin people who had tossed such casual cruelties my way.
I remember feeling certain, right down to my bones, that they had said something terrible about a fat family member or friend. She shouldn’t be wearing that. Poor girl will never find a man looking that way. Why are so many thin women with so many disgusting, huge, potbellied men?
How short their memories. How cruel their impulses.
I do not know if you have been fat.
Not if you have felt as though you were fat, as nearly every woman has. Not if you were called fat by cruel classmates or an thoughtless ex. But if you have been fat. Inarguably fat. Undeniably fat.
I do not know if you have felt the sting of shopping with thinner friends, endlessly perusing racks of headbands and handbags so you don’t have to tell them that nothing in their stores will fit you. I do not know if a doctor or a has turned you away, refusing to treat you until you lose some weight. I do not know if you have sat in a job interview, certain that you won’t be hired to be a hostess at a restaurant or a retail clerk because we’re trying to sell an image here.
I do not know if a fellow passenger on a plane has complained loudly about sitting next to you, or if you have been escorted off that plane, stranded in some strange city, all because of your size. I do not know if you have felt the sear of shame for the body that has always been yours, now on ruthless display in front of hundreds of passengers.
I do not know if you have asked for better treatment from those in your life, only to be met with a towering wall of resentful indifference. Just lose weight. It’s simple: calories in, calories out. I do not know if you recall the feeling of asking for a modicum of dignity only to be met with staggering, judgmental condescension.
I do not know if you have wrestled an eating disorder to the ground, pinning it momentarily before its might overtakes you again. I do not know if you fantasized, as I did, about wiring your jaw shut, leaving your body to wither. I do not know if you have daydreamed of malnutrition, desperate for the kind of body that affords respect, dignity, even eye contact.
I do not know you, and I cannot know your personal story. That is yours alone, and not mine to expect or anyone else’s to demand. I do not know your story, but I do know mine. I am a fat woman. I don’t feel fat, I am fat. My body mass index categorizes me as super morbidly obese. Until last year, my size wasn’t carried by most plus size stores. I carry my own seatbelt extender on to planes. And when thin people reach for a fantastical weight, an unthinkably high number, the size they imagine is mine.
I know that 85% of American employers won’t consider hiring a fat woman. I know that fat survivors of sexual violence are less likely to be believed, and that even judges tell us we should be flattered by the “attention.” And I know that fat patients get worse health care due to pervasive bias against our bodies, even amongst the doctors tasked with treating us.
I know that discrimination against fat people is real. And I know that decades of harmful media portrayals haven’t helped alleviate that.
I know that while systemic discrimination is a major force in the lives of many fat people, including myself, it doesn’t make up the whole of our lives. I am a lifelong fat woman, yes, but I am also a respected professional in my day job, and a trusted leader in my field. I am a high achiever, often to a fault. I am a former competitive swimmer — and I was fat when I did that, too. I wear what I want, and as I get older, I have only occasional concern for whether or not it will invite more street harassment or hidden camera stares into my life. As a 350-pound woman, I date people of all genders and sizes, finding comfort in arms of partners that are fat and thin, muscular and slight. I have an extraordinary family who loves me deeply, and a family of friends stretching across a dozen states. I live with the impacts of anti-fat bias, yes. And I also live a charmed, technicolor life.
I have never seen a fat life like mine on screen. I have not seen fat people recklessly, happily in love, as I have been. I have not seen thin partners struggle to accept their own attraction to fat people. I have not seen fat people getting promoted, getting fired, working hard, succeeding. I have only seen fat people fail. Anything else, I have learned, is reserved for the penitent thin.
I have only known one fat kid in my life who lost significant amounts of weight, absent surgery, and kept it off. Most of us don’t know many former fat people who have gotten, and stayed, thin. That’s because, in 97% of cases, dieters gain back what little weight they lose — and often more. A growing body of research shows that drastic dieting can permanently damage our metabolisms, our bodies fighting us at every turn to return to the stasis they have so long known. Major weight loss through sheer force of will is, while possible, an extreme minority of cases. But in movies and TV shows, it is one of the only fat stories we see.
I have never seen the real life of a fat person on screen. I have only seen fat stories written by thin writers, acted by thin actors, directed by thin directors. At every turn, thin people control the stories about fatness that are told on the biggest stages, amplified with the biggest speakers, broadcast with the strongest antennae. And often, they tell the stories that make them feel best: stories that lift thinness up not as one of many natural body types, but as a badge of honor, earned only by those strong and smart enough to tame the wilds of their bodies.
I do not expect painstaking detail, documentary-style slice-of-life stories of real fat people told with clinical precision. I just long for a story — any story — other than the one narrative offered up by the limited thin imaginations of fat lives.
Like any other Netflix subscriber, I have not seen your show in its entirety. As of my writing, I have seen the trailer, the only publicly released preview of the show itself. I know the sting of pouring my whole self into a creative project, only to find that — too late — it has hurt someone else. I have no desire to compound that sting for you, or stand in prejudgment of your work.
But as I watched the trailer, a heavy exhaustion settled into my bones. Thirteen years since that episode of Tyra, and here we are again. A fat girl as a pitiable before, reduced to a plot device. The myth of calories in, calories out. The erasure of the lives of the millions of fat kids who become fat adults. The fantasy of fat failure and thin triumph. And the goddamn fat suit.
I do not know where Insatiable will take its conceit. It may offer some small moments of reflection and redemption, as so many fat suit performances do. But I do know that every time, every single time I have seen a fat suit used, I have seen myself parodied, flattened, disregarded, reduced. I have seen my own body used as a punchline, a morality tale, and most often, as implicit congratulations for thin people. Mine is the body they dread, the fate they have avoided.
I also know that despite the rise of the deeply flawed body positivity movement, media representation of fat people remains painfully thin. So your representation of fat people in Insatiable, whatever it may be, will be visited upon me in my daily life. Most thin people do not ask me about myself, presumably afraid to dig around in what they assume are the dark and depressing details of the life of a very fat woman. In the absence of those open conversations, they will make profound and often wrongheaded assumptions about my life based on the handful of fat narratives made available to them in movies and TV.
I have not seen your show in its entirety, nor has anyone I know. Still, two acquaintances have already joked with me about getting my jaw wired shut. Sounds pretty good, huh?
I know that your show focuses on a fat teen who emotionally overeats as a salve for her sexless, miserable, terrified life. I know that the lead actress, a thin woman, dons a fat suit, and I know the narratives that reliably spring from that troubled prop.
I do not know if fat adults were involved in the creation of this show in any meaningful way, but I know that nearly every fat person I have spoken to has felt at best stung by its premise, and at worst, reminded of the depths of fat hate that triggered their eating disorders, depression, or suicide attempts.
I know that whether you want to or not, you are telling a story that will be visited upon me and millions of other fat people around the world, many of whom have lived with the trauma and abuse that comes not just from feeling as if they are fat, but from being an actually fat person in a world that is terrified and disdainful of bodies as large as ours.
I do not know how you are responding to the many reactions to your show’s trailer on social media. But I hope that you are able to hear the pain and frustration of fat women, exhausted at being told that our only path to worthiness, happiness and centrality in our own lives is to shrink, endlessly shrink, until we are less and less and less and eventually nothing at all. I hope that even in the hurt and shock of backlash, you can find your way to some conversation, some curiosity, some grounding in the real lives of the fat people you are depicting in Insatiable.
I do not know you, and you do not know me. But whether you want to or not, you are telling my story, and you’re doing it on a larger stage than I have ever had.
I just hope you won’t forget me.
Like this post? There are more like it, including Your fat friend doesn’t feel fat and What it’s like to be that fat person sitting next to you on the plane. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Twitter and Facebook.