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The Unbearable Weight of Fatphobia: A Conversation with Samantha Irby

“I don’t wanna have to teach a lesson on Health At Every Size just to get through every conversation in my day. I’m just trying to live my life.”

This interview contains spoilers for season one of Hulu’s “Shrill” and contains discussion of fatphobic/fat antagonistic language and diet culture, as well as mention of disordered eating and self-harm.

The irreverent Samantha Irby, writer of “New Year, Same Trash,” “Meaty,” “We Are Never Meeting In Real Life,” and the bitches gotta eat blog, graciously lets me pick her brain and sing her praises about that great episode of “Shrill” she wrote. In “Pool,” the fourth episode of the recently premiered first season of the Hulu original based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, the main character, Annie (Aidy Bryant), attends a fat babe pool party where she has a helluva good time after some initial moments of trepidation. Annie is an awkward as fuck, but ambitiously optimistic young professional in a fruitless relationship with a giant man-child and a tenuous relationship with her fat body. Sam and I spend some time laughing at how—in our younger, more naive and less confident years—we once had unfortunate situationships with guys like Ryan (Luka Jones), who uses a sleeping bag as a comforter and refuses to get a second pillow for Annie because, apparently, he’s her pillow. Gag. Sam once knew a guy who had one lonely, thin bar of crusty soap fused to his bathroom sink, and I once knew a guy who only slept on air mattresses. Neither of us really want to answer the inevitable questions about this part of our lives because we don’t want to deal with the answers, but the long and short of it is that, as fat Black women, we were told that we didn’t deserve anything more than the absolute bare minimum we were given and we hadn’t unlearned that lie yet.

I change the subject to something less embarrassing and we both share our amusement at and acute awareness of Annie’s indubitable whiteness throughout the many situations in which she finds herself, like that one huge, unmissable illegal thing she does in the final episode of the season that would almost certainly get us shot—“Not my Black ass!” is Sam’s sentiment and I am inclined to agree, wholeheartedly. Soon, we begin pouring over our mutual adoration for Annie’s roommate, the gorgeous and hilarious Fran (Lolly Adefope), and the other Black characters on the show, Amadi (Ian Owens) and Lamar (Akemnji Ndifornyen). We are both hopeful that, as “Shrill” moves forward, we will see more significant storylines unfold for them. Less centering of Annie’s whiteness and more focus on the Black characters surrounding her, especially Fran. If the show is truly intent on exploring the many ways in which fatphobia manifests in the daily lives of fat people, then it should also include race and sexuality in its endeavors, because these identities undeniably color how we experience body terrorism. Focusing more on Fran, an unapologetically queer Black woman presents a perfect opportunity to do so. Our fingers are crossed.

I ask Sam what it was like to bring her brand of humor to “Shrill” and she responds, “I’m glad I didn’t fuck it up!” We chuckle at this outburst, but we both know how much truth there is behind it. I have the distinct privilege to know Sam as a wonderfully boisterous, profane, and morbid queer Black writer and provocateur. While “Shrill” has its absurdist charms, it’s not quite as absurd as the work Sam usually produces.

“This [episode] is not the full me… This is not the real raw, disgusting, anxiety-plagued humor of Sam Irby… I mean, I am a horrifying shit-goblin… But there was something nice about restraining myself to fit the vibe of the show… They gave me such a beautiful fucking thing to write and I’m not such a monster that I would think, ‘You know what I should do? Turn this beautiful pool party into a Hell’s gate shit-storm!’ I really wanted to honor it.” Writing “Pool” was a new experience for her and she never expected that the episode would make as much of an impact as it did.

Starved

Fat pool parties have been happening since the 1970s, and it’s a shame that more people don’t know or acknowledge this fact. There have been several major events in the past few years, like Essie Golden’s “Golden Confidence,” Torrid’s “These Curves,” and the independent “Swim Thick.” These parties are a way for fat people to convene and feel comfortable in spaces that are normally especially hostile towards us. When “Shrill” first dropped, the majority of the praise was for the episode penned by Sam, specifically for its vision of so many unbothered fat babes eating, drinking, dancing, selfie-ing, and relaxing poolside, just enjoying themselves without the prying eyes and loud mouths of fatphobes.

Scene from Hulu’s “Shrill”

“I had no idea people would respond like this,” she tells me. “As we were shooting it, just seeing how beautiful it was and how happy everyone seemed, I was like, ‘Oh, this is great! This is dope!’ But I didn’t know people were going to be this excited about it.”

Not only is Sam in disbelief about how much viewers love the episode, but also at the fact that Hulu allowed them to even shoot it in the first place. “Fat girls in bikinis is something you just don’t see,” she says, and she and I are both indignant about it. It’s true that Hulu took a risk when they allowed the “Shrill” team to create this, and more platforms should take these kinds of risks, because it shouldn’t be risky to portray fat people like this in the first place.

“One of the reasons they are [so excited] is because we’re so starved for it,” Sam remarks to me, with even more righteous indignation. “But why?! Why is this so out of the ordinary when there are so many of us?… It shouldn’t be remarkable to see a normal thing like that on TV, but it is!”

Starved. It’s the perfect word to describe my experience in a fat body, and many other people’s as well. And I don’t just mean starved for food via dieting, fasting, disordered eating, or self-harm. Foregoing meals is certainly an issue, so much so that variations of “You are allowed to eat” have become common affirmations and reminders in fat positive spaces. But fat people are starved in so many different ways. A lot of us are not being sustained in various parts of our lives because we’re told that we don’t deserve any form of sustenance—not the comfort of food or emotional support or intimacies or touch, not friendship, not love, not humanity. So many fat people are starving, but a fatphobic world will never recognize our starvation as something that should be satiated, because we are already too abundant in its eyes, taking up too much space, consuming too much.

“Because, to them, all we do it take,” Sam agrees. “And all we do is soak up all the resources, and all we do is consume… It’s in every part of life, someone telling us that we’re too much.”

“You have your own constant internal monologue, in addition to whatever the people you care about think, and sometimes the people you care about are the worst offenders.”

Fatphobia makes it impossible for others to see the legitimacy in our hunger, for anything, because they already view us as inherently greedy. To them, anything that we want is merely an extension of our gluttonous appetites—which we all must undoubtedly have—not a natural, valid, human desire. Whether it be for food, or love, or space, or touch, or pleasure. Anything we want is always already too much.

Merry-Go-Round

“We are constantly besieged… There’s always someone shouting things at you, like, ‘Drink a glass of water before you eat!’ It becomes the soundtrack to your life.” Sam regards this phenomenon as a persistent drumbeat. It’s the undercurrent that fat people are forced to know quite well. The cadence seeps into our brains, a sickening and unrelenting metronome. This is the reality of existing in a fat body. Too many of us can relate to Annie’s experience with Ryan, sexual partners too embarrassed to be seen with us or be honest about being attracted to us. We know what it’s like to be accosted by personal trainers at coffee shops (or on dating apps, in my experience) or to be called some variation of “fat bitch!” by an angry thin person. We’ve read and heard the kind of bullshit Annie’s boss spouts, the dog-whistle microaggressions about our “sloppiness” and assumptions made about what must surely be our poor work ethic. These are common parts of everyday experiences for fat people.

Sam laments to me, “You have your own constant internal monologue, in addition to whatever the people you care about think, and sometimes the people you care about are the worst offenders.” And, of course, I already know this, but it’s validating to hear Sam share this thought with me. At the same time, it’s upsetting to know that it’s been her experience, too. This constant degrading often comes from the people we love the most.

Non-fat people don’t understand that fatphobia is perpetual, and I’m not being at all hyperbolic. It is literally constantly happening to us and around us—if not directly, then indirectly. We hear fat antagonistic sentiments from relatives, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, strangers on the street and on the internet. We hear it from kids, from pop culture icons, in memes, in music, in movies, on television, etc. The dieting and weight-loss advertisements and commercials, the countless thinspiration blogs plastered with fat-shaming quotes, the many “What’s your excuse?” campaigns. The idea that everyone should always, always be working towards being thinner. Even within “social justice” circles, I’ve seen people participate in fatphobia or let it slide.

But let’s be clear, this is about far more than just hurt feelings and humiliation. This kind of body terrorism means that fat people get denied jobs, housing, affordable and adequate healthcare, and various other services simply because other people don’t like our bodies. Fatphobia is why there are people who think Eric Garner could have survived being choked to death if he hadn’t been fat. Fatphobia is why there are people who think the worst thing about the current U.S. president is his fatness, rather than his white supremacist nationalism, fascism, stochastic terrorism, and genocidal endeavors towards a white ethnostate.

We’re expected to simply endure body terrorism because people think we deserve it, that it will force us to become thin.

Everywhere we turn, everywhere we go, we are reminded about how much people hate us and our bodies, and how much they think we should hate ourselves and our bodies, too. We are continually told, in one way or another, that we are not allowed to take up this space and that we will not be valuable unless we shrink. For many of us, this has been happening our entire lives, or for the vast majority of it. It’s deeply dehumanizing and demoralizing, but for a lot of fatphobic people, that’s exactly the point. They think we don’t deserve to have a good relationship with our bodies. They think we don’t deserve any other kind of existence. They often think we don’t deserve to exist at all.

This episode is the first time Annie finally gets fully and rightfully angry, and explodes instead of just shrugging off the antagonisms we see her experience from so many people around her. She rants to her friends about her fatphobic boss: “He implied that I need to be less fat to do good work. God, and it’s like, isn’t it already bad enough that he is constantly writing about the obesity epidemic like it’s this abstract, far away thing? When it’s, like, that’s me. You know? Like, I’m the obesity epidemic… You don’t think the whole world isn’t constantly telling me that I’m a fat piece of shit who doesn’t try hard? Every fucking magazine, and commercial, and weird, targeted ads telling me to freeze my fat off or to drink a tea so that I’ll shit my brain out my ass?”

I understand why it took her so long. We are not allowed to get angry about fatphobia. We’re expected to simply endure body terrorism because people think we deserve it, that it will force us to become thin. During her rant, Annie remembers how it started as early as the 4th grade, when her mom suggested she eat cereal for dinner instead of the hearty food she had cooked for the rest of the family. I ask Sam about the process of writing this scene.

“That scene is almost exactly how I wrote it. It was much longer,” she chuckles. “They were like, ‘Sam, this show is only 22 minutes.’… I wrote it thinking about those old commercials that would tell you to replace dinner with a bowl of Special K… I just channeled all those things that you don’t have any control over seeing that get into your mind and start to shape how you feel about yourself, despite your actual achievements and accomplishments… I decided that Annie needed to explode and say all of this.”

“I don’t wanna have to teach a lesson on Health At Every Size just to get through every conversation in my day. I’m just trying to live my life.”

Annie calls it a “mind prison.” She talks about all the time, and energy, and money, and pain she’s spent years putting into not being fat anymore to appease the world around her. None of it has worked and none of it has been worth it. The same is true for so many fat people, but a lot of us don’t know any other kind of existence. A lot of us cannot fathom how to get off this merry-go-round. So, around and around we go.

Sanctuary

There is such a stark contrast between Annie’s experience at the pool party and her experience in the rest of the world, and this difference is especially highlighted in this episode. The aggressiveness of diet culture, the concern trolling, the equating of thinness with health, Annie’s “sloppiness” being alluded to by her boss and his insinuation that she will never be successful as long as she is fat—all of these things become amplified in juxtaposition with the blissful moments we see when Annie is at the pool party, surrounded by people whose bodies look like hers. It really brings home the fact that non-fat people treat us like shit.

Speaking about her pool party experience, Annie says, “[A]t that event today… there were so many people just like, living in their bodies and enjoying their their life, and that shit was un-fuckin’-believable to me.”

Scene from Hulu’s “Shrill”

One particularly resonant aspect that’s focused on in this episode is Annie’s dynamic with her mother, which feels reflective of my relationship with my own. She’s been instrumental in the cultivation of Annie’s strained relationship with her own body, but she refuses to admit that her policing of her daughter’s body and food intake from such a young age, which has continued into adulthood, has been damaging and unfair. In fact, when she tries to talk to her about it, both of her parents chastise her and storm out of the room, completely stonewalling her and leaving their role in her life experience unexamined.

“[Annie’s mom] is a person who has been shaped by the society she grew up in and now she thinks she’s helping her daughter or she’s saving her daughter from some future heartbreak by constantly getting on her about what she’s eating,” Sam explains. “It’s so hard to fight against someone who says they’re coming to you from a place of caring about your health. It’s hard to be like, ‘Okay, bitch, but you don’t.’ Or ‘Okay, let me re-educate you.’ Because it’s not our job to educate people either. I don’t wanna have to teach a lesson on Health At Every Size just to get through every conversation in my day. I’m just trying to live my life.”

If you are not fat, you have a responsibility to the fat people in your lives, and to yourselves, especially if you call yourself body positive.

It’s hard because there is risk involved in talking about fatphobia and in attempting to correct the people around us on their dehumanizing and views and actions towards us. Whenever we talk about how absolutely pervasive this fatphobic culture is and how non-fat people actively participate in it, we get gaslighted by those committed to misunderstanding the fact that fatphobia is systemic and getting your feelings hurt is not. Talking about fatphobia often only makes us the target of even more fat antagonism. Talking about it can prove dangerous for us, like it did for Annie.

“I will never understand someone demanding the right to fuck with you,” Sam says in exasperation. She and I spend a long time talking about “Pool” and our experiences as people with larger bodies, but there is so much we don’t get to say. We don’t even mention what this kind of existence does to people’s mental, spiritual, and physical health. We don’t get to discuss how fat fetishists prey on us, how some people pursue relationships and friendships with us just to abuse us, just to feel better about themselves standing next to us. We don’t talk about how race, gender, sexuality, orientation, ability, shape, and even height create multiple additional factors. We leave a lot of things unaddressed, but we acknowledge that they are there. These things go unsaid, not because we discount them, but because there are just too many of them and because we are exhausted.

Fat people are exhausted, from just trying to survive this onslaught (and any other oppressions related to our identities), and we shouldn’t have to be the only people combating fatphobia. If you are not fat, you have a responsibility to the fat people in your lives, and to yourselves, especially if you call yourself body positive. Challenge fatphobia and give fat people space when we need it. We deserve a reprieve. Time away from being inundated with all the ways that people feel entitled to our space, entitled to touch us and comment on our bodies. We need these moments, these bubbles, these exclusive spaces with fat people just existing in our fat bodies and it being considered completely normal and, yes, even worth celebrating. We need time away from the microaggressions, the outright attacks, the forced diet talk. We deserve to have sanctuary. We deserve fat pool parties and so much more.

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Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.

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