Editor’s Note: Sarah Conley is a writer, marketing consultant and style influencer at Rascal Honey. Her writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, TIME, Glamour and The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @imsarahconley. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
On paper, the story of a 30-something millennial woman finding her way in the world, embracing her sexuality and learning to love her body sounds a lot like the formula for any successful piece of media from the past five years.
The reality of “Shrill,” the acclaimed six-episode show streaming now on Hulu, is far more nuanced, empowering and charming than that simple description might lead you to believe. Among many other things, “Shrill” is first and foremost a fat-positive series starring, written and produced by an intersectional and body-diverse team.
Fat. F-a-t. FAT. Roll the word around in your mouth until you can comfortably accept that fat is a truthful adjective devoid of intention, a movement popularized by fat acceptance activists in an effort to reclaim the word. “Fat” and “millennial” share the same double-edged sword, being both factual descriptions and frequently used as a pejorative hurled at a subset of women as though we’re blithely unaware of the truth. Aidy Bryant is a fat millennial woman, as is Annie, the main character she portrays on the show.
The audience never gets an explanation for Annie’s weight, nor is one necessary to appreciate all the wonderful characteristics that make her a heroine worth rooting for. Instead, “Shrill” shifts the focus to Annie’s relationship with her body and how it impacts her relationship with everyone she encounters – a revolutionary move in today’s culture. It’s through this lens that we see Annie’s awakening as she begins to celebrate herself, connect with her body, and re-establish the personal boundaries that people previously disrespected.
Audiences don’t fall in love with Annie because of a traumatic backstory or life-altering head injury – both frequent manipulations used by screenwriters to make fat characters palatable (“I Feel Pretty,” “Drop Dead Diva”). We fall in love with her because for many of us, we finally see ourselves fully represented on screen. “Shrill” was made for those of us whose stories have sat in the shadows for decades, yearning to be validated by the mainstream. It’s astonishing that the average American woman is a size 16/18 and yet American media still relegates her inclusion to punchlines, background characters and cautionary tales.
“Shrill” is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Lindy West (also a fat millennial woman, if you’re keeping score), who is best known for chronicling the confrontation of one particularly nasty troll for Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life.”
Within mere seconds of the first episode of “Shrill,” viewers are greeted by a shot of Bryant’s cellulite-dappled thighs in full view. These are real fat lady thighs, not performatively fat thighs that have been sculpted by targeted workouts and diet plans in order to stay “curvy.”
As we get to know Annie, it doesn’t take many social interactions to realize that she has been consistently making herself smaller in order to make everyone else more comfortable. She makes self-deprecating jokes, makes excuses for people who mistreat her and even begrudgingly eats meals from a diet meal plan purchased by her mother that her best friend describes as looking like a “stillborn puppy.”
Annie’s journey takes her through a series of experiences that are universally relatable to anyone living in a plus size body. The overbearing health-conscious relative, unsolicited public fat shaming, and size discrimination in the workplace are representative of some of the near-daily challenges fat people endure. However confident and self-possessed Annie might seem in later episodes, she still turns to her community, represented by the plus size women who surround her, to help her navigate.
The show reiterates the importance of community when talking about plus size fashion, particularly in one episode that has generated strong response since the show debuted: The pool party episode. The plus-size community has a long history of body-positive pool parties like the one featured in the episode. Although modern pool parties have been hosted by plus size influencers like Marie Denee and Essie Golden, these events have been held since the 1970s in locations throughout the country. Other offline events, like theCURVYcon and The Curvy Fashionista Style Expo have also grown from the need to create an offline community.
The pool party episode perfectly captures the experience of going to a plus size event for the first time. Initial hesitation gives way to curiosity, new connections, and before long, the freedom from judgment leads to genuine celebration. Every scene during the party is filled with bodies in a wide array of shapes and sizes in swimsuits, freely enjoying themselves and one another without the slightest hint of societal pressure. Their carefree spirit is contagious and eventually Annie joins them to dance to Ariana Grande’s song “One Last Time.” As she throws her hair back and forth to the beat, the pure joy in her movement is undeniable.
Annie is beautifully flawed, as we all are, and she’s doing the best she can. She’s trying to make sense of living in a body that society has largely determined to be unwanted, layered along with the challenges of being a young woman. In an era when concern-trolling fat people outweighs genuine support, “Shrill” is a much-needed love letter to loving your body, standing up for yourself, and the power of community. For once, it feels like we’re actually winning.