Activists Talk Netflix's Fatphobia in 'Insatiable'

Activists Talk Netflix's Fatphobia in 'Insatiable'

Netflix's new show Insatiable, is a revenge tale of a teenage girl who loses weight after getting punched in the face by a homeless guy and uses her new found attractiveness to exact revenge on her bullies. The show, which stars Debby Ryan alongside Alyssa Milano and Dallas Roberts, has been getting a lot of buzz since the release of its first trailer for its toxic portrayal of fat women. The upcoming series, which is billed as a 'Comedy,' has drawn sharp criticism for its body-shaming premise.

A petition calling for the cancellation of the show has already gathered over 210,000 signatures as of today. The petition warns of the potential damage that a series like Insatiable could have on teenage girls who are struggling with their bodies and self-image. The petition's popularity has even prompted Netflix to respond with a statement saying "Ultimately, the message of the show is that what is most important is that you feel comfortable in your own self. Fat-shaming itself, that criticism, is embedded in the DNA of the show." Netflix historically has a bad track record in dealing with issues of mental health with 13 Reasons Why and To The Bone drawing sharp criticism for their indelicate handling of suicide and anorexia, respectively. Activists fear that Insatiable could negatively impact and trigger individuals with eating disorders when it airs August 10th.

In a culture that prizes thinness as the absolute beauty standard, a show that depicts magically losing weight to be a cure-all to life's problems presents a dangerous precedent. The past 10 years have seen America focus on treating an obesity epidemic, notably taken up as a cause by former First Lady Michelle Obama, but neglecting to address the stigma that accompanies being overweight. There have been recent strides towards body positivity in the fashion industry with companies like America Eagle and ASOS launching campaigns that focus on serving all body types.

In order keep the dialogue open, we sat down with four body positive activists to better understand how Insatiable fails in its portrayal and what the industry needs to learn in order to make meaningful strides. They include: Libby Monaghan who is a 34 year old blogger from McPherson, Kansas, Suma Jane Dark who is a 31 year old photographer and fashion blogger responsible for the viral #dropthetowel campaign in 2015, Sheila Lopez, a 30 year old plus-size fitness and active-wear model who studied film at the University of Texas, and Tori Spainhour, a New York based writer and longtime fat activist.

What were your initial reactions to seeing the trailer for Insatiable?

Libby Monaghan: Okay, so my very first most initial, three-seconds-in reaction was, "what kind of low budget fat suit am I looking at right here?" Like, it makes me wonder if anyone working on the project has ever seen a fat person in real life. In a more thoughtful way, though, seeing the trailer for Insatiable hit me in the same place where I was pained when I learned about how Weight Watchers was offering free memberships to teenagers this summer. It just made me want to run back to my younger teenage self and hug her and tell her that she's okay and it's going to get better and there's nothing wrong with loving who she is as she is and we're going to get through this. Thirty-five year old me is very protective over fifteen year old me because I remember how badly I wanted to be thin and how I would stop at nothing to just be seen as normal. The scary part of this trailer, for me, wasn't so much that the concept was particularly new. This is an old story told a hundred different boring ways. But what hurt the very most for me was that it took an actual physical assault from a grown man to put the main character in the position to lose weight in the first place. Like, just bare bones, it took violence from a man to solve this girl's problem. So not only does the show remind us that we, as fat people, are hilarious and the butt of the joke and vindictive and angry but also it reminds us of the lack of safety that we live with.

Sheila Lopez: So, first thoughts on the trailer were that this is so typical of what we see in Hollywood. Here is an "ugly duckling" or "fatty" who could have it all if she just lost weight and got pretty, happy ending and all. It sends the message that your happiness is dependent upon your physical appearance and your acceptance of society's beauty standards cause there's no way someone could be happy and fat right? What's more is that instead or creating a character that rises above the people who have body-shamed her and bullied her, her focus is now on revenge, on them instead of her goals, her aspirations, her future. I want to see a proud, fat, smart, character that thrives. That's the kind of characters we need to see in tv shows, movies.

L: Yes!! She doesn't have any dreams or aspirations aside from seeking revenge--truly centering thinness and thin feelings rather than showing a fat person who feels whole with or without the opinions of those people who hate her.

SL: Exactly! That's such a dangerous visual to see a woman assaulted, a teenager, and we're just supposed to be like, "but tA-DA!!! Look how great she looks now!!" And, about fat people being the butt of jokes, we gotta stop having fat characters like this. Seriously! It's such an insult and only perpetuates the idea that it's okay to poke fun at fat people.

L: And poking fun at fat people in entertainment leads to discrimination, a lack of safety and resources in everyday life. It feels little but the consequences are monumental for real people.

In what ways does Insatiable fail to portray fat people in a positive light?

SL: It sends a horrible message to teenage girls overall. I mean this is going to the be shows core audience. we are the people out here living in fat bodies. We are the ones that face this discrimination. The people who created this show, the cast, they don't know what it's like to live in a fat body clearly.

L: That's it. The only consequences they have to live with is how much they're getting paid. Where as WE are the ones out here bearing the brunt of it.

Tori Spainhour: Another thing that is EXTREMELY damaging that I immediately noticed right at the jump is that this "fat" girl loses weight by being given an effective eating disorder. Her jaw is wired shut so she cannot eat. Which is CRAZY. I've seen so many shows poke fun at fat women because we are so often the joke and not seen as more than a one dimensional character, but I think this is the first time I've seen a show just be like "oh yeah she has an eating disorder and her life gets better" because that's such a fucked up message to send.

SL: the message is basically "stop eating and you'll loose weight"!! that's so dangerous. I remember as a teenager dealing with an eating disorder. So many young women do, and this is not okay to send this message.I developed an eating disorder at 9 years old that plagued me throughout my teenage years and to see someone just make it into a joke is so wild to me? It's so cruel and damaging-- its triggering for folks who've had eating disorders and it's damaging for younger women who might look at this show as something that they can relate to.

L: Its so blatant. It goes back to that thing where people don't believe that a fat person could possibly have an eating disorder. But so many of us have battled with that for sure.

TS: And the belief that like "oh want to solve your fatness? Just emaciate yourself and people will like you, you'll be healthier in the end." Because fatness is inherently seen as a problem to solve.

Suma Jane Dark: I was kind of shocked to see a fat suit in 2018- I really thought that culturally we were beyond that. And I feel like the younger generation that this show is targeting is definitely more cognizant of social issues than this premise is giving them credit for. Teenagers aren't looking for more of the same played out crap that Hollywood has been giving them since forever. They're politically active, educated, and not looking for something so regressive.

L: it comes down to the fact that it's actually not hard to be fat. It's hard to be fat in a world that can't stand it.

SJD: The fact that the main character has to sustain violence to effectively be given an eating disorder (having her jaw wired shut) is so insidious, too. I developed an eating disorder (ED) as a child and found community among other folks with EDs on forums and websites that are banned now. We used to discuss ways to self harm that would prevent eating all the time. The things people did to lose a few pounds were heartbreaking. And it wasn't some dark edge of the internet, we were just normal teenage and high school girls. I feel like this premise is in the same vein. It's glorifying a traumatic, unhealthy, and frankly misogynistic approach to rapid weight loss. Are most people going to watch this and say "I hope people punch me in the face so that I can have my jaw wired shut and lose weight?" No. But does it plant a seed in people's minds that could lead to self harm or encourage folks with EDs to seek out dangerous methods they can do themselves? I think so.

L: I knew a girl in school who fell off a jungle gym and broke her jaw and it was wired shut for months and I was so mad at/ jealous of her because I really believed that it was my key to freedom. Which is so fucked up, truly. But at the time when I was trying to come up with ways to break my own jaw--it felt so normal. Like a viable solution.

SJD: And the fact that her "weight loss journey" bullshit culminates in her fixating on revenge is really a great metaphor for how empty diet culture is in general, albeit surely without the creators intending it to be so. What is the end of the line for buying stock in hating yourself and spending all of your energy changing yourself for some empty ideal? Bitterness, pain, anger? Justifiably so because it's a huge waste of time and personal potential. She doesn't gain anything, she hurts herself and others. But for other people watching who haven't come to a place of self love and acceptance, that isn't the message that will be received. For people in a lot of pain, maybe her story looks like she lost weight and gained some control and power in her life. They won't see the institutional blocks to that self-actualization. They will take it out on themselves.

What would you like to see about the way the industry portrays fat people? What kind of stories would you like to see them tell?

SJD: I literally live for this genre of movies from the 80s and 90s- the whole wild makeover-abundant, super stylized, distilled universe of teen angst and redemption is still captivating and rewarding to watch as an adult. But culturally, we are beyond this particular narrative and the genre should be updated to reflect that. Let her stay fat. Cast a fat actress and ditch the fat suit. Let her go on a journey in a fat body. Make it campy and wild and bloody if that's what the story calls for, but do it in a way that doesn't take our values for granted. That would be groundbreaking and I'd watch the heck out of that!

L: I would love to see a story about a fat person just living their life without constant preoccupation with their weight. A fat person who can fall in love or have a fulfilling career or anything like that without always talking about how life would be better if they were thinner. My favorite character/ someone I haven't seen often in entertainment is Donna from Parks and Recreation--played by Retta. Also on Dietland, I feel like they do a great job of showcasing the microaggressions that fat people encounter regularly.

SJD: I would love to see a show with fat characters portrayed as normal people, because that's what we are. We are the majority of the population. We work in every industry, fall in love, go all kinds of places, and have just as many interesting stories to be told as thin people. I would love to watch a coming of age series where the lead is fat and it isn't a big deal. Maybe it's never mentioned at all. I think some shows like Dietland and My Mad Fat Diary have done a good job showing positive representations of fat people but the stories still very much focus on weight. I want the narrative to shift away from our weight and onto our lives and stories. I want to see fat bodies normalized in media because we are normal. I don't think that a weight loss or weight acceptance journey are the most important stories to tell in a person's life. I want to see the horizon expanded tremendously.

Photo via Netflix