Shrill, based on Lindy West’s autobiographical collection of essays with the same name, had its six-episode premiere on Hulu last week. For some, there was much fanfare. For others, the show may have flown under the radar. For me, it like a revolution of positivity happening in my living room through the television screen.
Shrill isn’t shy about putting major issues out there. From reproductive rights to workplace biases to bad dating habits, there are lots of big ideas packed into its six short episodes. But perhaps the greatest through line that has struck a chord with viewers (myself included!) is the show’s relationship with body image. Its deeply realistic stories do have the potential to trigger folks in the throes of eating disorders, but for those of us who can handle it, it’s worth checking out.
SNL’s Aidy Bryant stars in Shrill as Annie, a sweet, funny gal who mostly works as the calendar editor at a local Portland online magazine. Annie is instantly lovable with her cute outfits, dry but upbeat wit and banter with her best friend and roommate, Fran. But for as lovable as she is, Annie is confronted by numerous subtle and not-so-subtle messages from society and the people in her life about her weight.
In the pilot episode, she faces the indignity of leaving through her frequent hookup partner’s back door so no one will see her. Soon, she’s enduring messages from her mother about diet plans and the pressure to snack on almonds as though they will fix her every problem (Side note: as a woman who has done multiple go-rounds of a certain “lifestyle” program endorsed by our country’s most beloved media mogul matriarch, I felt the jokes about almonds resonating all the way down in my bones).
But the series’ fourth episode, “Pool,” is where the tone shifts a bit from “Ooof, this body stuff is real” to “Wow, this body stuff is REALLY GREAT!”
Against her boss’s wishes, Annie decides to try writing a profile about an annual body positive pool party. When she and Fran show up to the event, there’s a clear line drawn between them. Fran is decked out in a cute bathing suit, a killer caftan and great sunglasses. She’s ready to party. Annie, however, wears comfy, simple business casual pieces. Though the idea of the pool party fueled something inspiring inside her, she showed up prepared to play the role of a humble observer.
But then, over the next ten to fifteen minutes of the episode, things begin to change for Annie as well as for those of us viewing at home. The pool party is packed with women who are fat, happy and having fun. Annie goes from passive observer, to literally dipping her toes in the water on the edge of the pool, to casually chatting with a partygoer about her super cute and versatile plus-size skirt.
Then, music from a mini speaker starts blaring and a spontaneous poolside dance party kicks up. Annie is pulled in from the edges by her new friend, but quickly returns to the sideline. When the new acquaintance tries again, Annie timidly sways. Following the cues of the women around her, she starts broadly moving to the rhythm, dancing in whatever way she pleases.
Finally, with the glee of a child who is spending the first day of summer break at the local pool, Annie ditches her dowdy office wear and dives in. The camera follows her underwater as she propels herself through the pool. The bodies of larger women playing, dunking and treading water fill the screen around her. The scene is infused with pure, unadulterated joy.
At this moment I, too, felt like I was underwater. But instead of a chlorinated pool, I was immersed in salt water because my face was incredibly wet from the tears that spontaneously burst forth as soon as Annie embraced the true spirit of the onscreen party.
Like Annie and most of the women at that pool party, I am fat. For a long time, that sentence would have scared me or made me sad. But after reading works like Lindy West’s Shrill and Jes Baker’s Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, I learned to be less scared of the truth: that I am a fat woman.
I’ve been that girl on the sidelines before: pool parties, girls’ nights out and other events made me worried that I didn’t belong. But the written word of women like Lindy West and Jes Baker provided the metaphorical invitation to dance at the party, and I was soon on my way to making peace with my body and the way I talk about it. After three years of not owning a swimsuit, I even bought a two-piece suit in the style that is lovingly called a “fatkini.”
In general, the media has not caught up to my more body-positive attitudes, though. We’re often comfortable with giving individual women credit in mass media for being “brave” when they’re honest about their body. But we’re a long way from a television landscape that just allows fat bodies like mine to exist, to be beautiful, to take joy in movement of all kinds.
That’s what’s so transformative and incredible about the “Pool” episode of Shrill: Annie’s joyful swim through the pool has the same effect on viewers that the pool party’s guests had on her. The show’s writers and actors are inviting us all to join them, step into the dance circle, and learn to have a great time no matter our body size.
Shrill is quick to show that fatphobia is still an unfortunate force in society. The episode’s last third demonstrates that Annie’s boss holds some harmful assumptions about fat people. Try as we might, we can’t spend our lives in the bubble of the super-positive pool party. But I would argue there’s still hope to be found in the “Pool” episode of Shrill and Annie’s ongoing love story.
We at Frolic are readers who treat love as a key value in our lives and entertainment. But the “romantic” stories in Shrill don’t usually leave me swooning. The real love story is like the friends-to-lovers and enemies-to-lovers tropes all got smashed up into one human being: Annie. The real love story in Shrill that takes off in “Pool” and continues through the rest of the short season is a love story between Annie and herself. And just like all good love stories, there’s often conflict, confusion and growth found in the plot. One joyful swim at a pool party doesn’t “fix” all of Annie’s hang-ups,
Annie still has a long way to go when it comes to wholly loving her body and respecting herself and her choices, but the fat-positive women in “Pool” offer an invitation to try. It’s like the great inciting incident in a regency romance, when everything changes because of one chance encounter at a ball. And I think Shrill is now furthering the work of inviting all of us to follow our hearts into our own great self-love stories.
So, as a fat babe who is on her own journey, let me extend the invitation to the party: Treat yourself to watching Shrill. Do something unexpectedly kind for yourself this week. Challenge yourself to pursue an activity just because it brings you joy.
Jump in! The water is fine!