Between Khloé Kardashian’s Revenge Body and voyeuristic TLC trash My 600-lb Life, TV shows about people losing weight to get what they want are having a (totally unnecessary) moment. But just when I thought we had pushed this tired narrative to its limits, in came Netflix’s Insatiable.
The new Netflix 12-part series by Dexter writer and producer Lauren Gussis is a supposed dark comedy that tells the story of former fat girl, Patty, played by 25-year-old Debby Ryan. Once dubbed “Fatty Patty” by her classmates, she loses a bunch of weight after getting punched in the face and having her jaw wired shut. Newly-thin, Patty uses her hot new bod to get revenge on her bullies by winning a beauty pageant, getting a boyfriend, losing her virginity and wearing a bikini. You know, all those things that fat women can’t do. *Insert tired eye roll here*
As if the plot summary wasn’t enough, the trailer, which was released on July 19, was even worse—and prompted backlash from the body positive community.
Body positivity and fat acceptance are starting to gain real traction—plus size lines are rapidly popping up, advertisements are starting to represent diverse bodies and fat stigma is finally being taken seriously—so a show like this seems regressive, even if it is supposedly a Heathers-style dark comedy. More than 220,000 people have signed a Change.org petition to stop the show from airing. As people rioted over the extremely fat phobic messaging, Gussis urged us to give the show a chance, tweeting her own story of bully-related trauma.
Gussis’s message seemed heartfelt and sincere. The rage she describes is a reaction I have felt so many times—a misplaced anger at my body, at my failure to lose weight and at the people who tormented me as a kid and teenager. But it was hard to take this message to heart given that she also used problematic language in the marketing of Insatiable. I admit—I’ve used the term “binge” lightly to describe my unhealthy obsession with consuming TV in massive quantities, but when your show is meant to make people take eating disorders and trauma seriously, using that kind of charged language isn’t cool. One of her only Tweets, apart from her statement, reads: “Feeling hangry? Satisfy your craving! Binge insatiable on @Netflix on AUGUST 10!
#hangry #donut #insatiable.” Ugh.
My social media feeds were filled with criticism and calls to boycott Insatiable after the trailer dropped, but I decided to give it a try myself. As a long-time fatty, I figure I have a pretty—pun intended—well-rounded view of the sitch. While the show succeeds in satirizing certain topics with its over-the-top storylines about polyamory, toxic mother-daughter relationships, sexuality and the ridiculousness of pageant shows, it fails on the show’s main theme: tackling body image and self esteem.
Before we get into the series, let’s get one thing straight: fat suits belong in 2001, the year Shallow Hal—a film about a man falling in love with a fat-suit-wearing Gwyneth Paltrow—was released. Putting a thin woman in a fat suit is such a clichéd slap in the face for women who actually are fat because FYI, fat bodies aren’t costumes. Body acceptance advocate Dana Suchow said it best on Instagram, writing: “If this type of transformation is nearly impossible in real life, maybe it shouldn’t be shown as possible on television.” Crazier transformations have happened on TV, I know, but this isn’t The Incredible Hulk—this is a real woman’s body and its transformation, being portrayed as possible when it’s absolutely not.
Pushing aside from the immediate sting from the fat suit in the trailer, I dove into the series. From the very beginning, we’re fed a sad montage of Patty as a fat girl, equating her sexual desirability with being thin. “While my classmates were out losing their virginity, I was at home stuffing another hole,” her voiceover says as she shoves a finger full of whipped cream into her mouth, sitting beside BFF Nonnie (Kimmy Shields). After spending the summer with her jaw wired shut—which meant she couldn’t binge eat—we hear Patty daydreaming over what she could do with her new life now that she’s thin. She can finally “be a former fatty that turned into a brain, or an athlete or a princess.” While the circumstance is over the top, the show presents a very clear message that to be attractive, one must be thin and the fastest way to get there is to stop eating. We cannot expect young, impressionable women to understand this as satire because it’s not. Going to extreme lengths to lose weight is very much a reality for many women.
The series poses another problem in its sexualization of 17-year-old Patty from the minute she “becomes attractive.” While her pageant coach Bob (Dallas Roberts) was once disgusted by her appearance, he’s immediately overtaken by her beauty when he sees her physical transformation. Throughout the series, Patty becomes a sexual target for men—both her age and much older—and her former male bullies now fawn over her every move. This dramatic shift in treatment seems to say that fat women cannot be victims of sexual objectification or violence, perpetuating the misperception that sexual violence in linked to appearance.
That said, about halfway through the series, I was surprised to find that Insatiable had some redeeming scenes. In arguably the most important one, we see Nonnie comforting a thin Patty, who is sitting in a changing room, wearing a red bikini and sobbing because she feels fat and, thus, ugly. “When you’re mad at yourself about something, you always decide that you’re fat,” Nonnie says, hugging her. “You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met, even before you got thin.” Patty responds in an all-too-familiar way, saying “I don’t see it.” We don’t often seen these pure moments between young women reflected on TV, and we sure as hell don’t have enough Nonnies, who has the insight to call bullshit on Patty’s self-hating mantra.
Gussis explained to Vanity Fair that she wants people to see that losing weight and seeking revenge just made Patty an angry, raging menace. That may have been the intention, but (*spoiler alert*) Patty gets everything she wanted post-weight loss: male attention, sex, pageant success and admiration. At that age, I would’ve done anything to be thin. I tried not eating, no matter how irritable it made me. I tried overexercising to counteract my binges, no matter how exhausted I felt. The truth is, many women (between 600,000 and 990,000 Canadians according to a 2014 report) struggle with disordered eating—whether it be binge eating, anorexia, bulimia or a combination—and anyone who’s been there knows that nothing can stand in the way of the end goal.
While the series demonstrated that strength and overcoming years of trauma and bullying comes from within, it did nothing to show or even poke fun at how society’s perception of beauty and fat bodies needs to change. The growth was expected of Patty, not of anyone else—not her bullies, not the guys she hooked up with, not her pageant coach. The only enduring beacon of hope was Nonnie, who always loved her friend no matter what.
Sure, Insatiable is not as bad as it seemed it would be by the trailer. It has redeeming scenes that give us an opportunity to reflect on our own beliefs. But it’s only as strong as the viewer’s self-awareness. And let’s be honest—this is not the story we need. Young people need to see the fat girl succeed in ways not measured by calories, sexual encounters or pounds lost. Nothing is gained when the message is that magic happens when skinny happens—no matter how OTT the story is. The series promised to “satisfy your cravings,” but Insatiable just left a bad taste in my mouth.
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