A Shrill Call for Acceptance Instead of Idealization

By Tara Phipps

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Media has always been the main source for creating and standardizing social norms. Whether it be a magazine displaying photoshopped women at sizes that are impossible to achieve, or eight-pack abs in Old Spice commercials, the media has fabricated boxed ideas of “beautiful” and “ugly” and has been sorting people into these two categories for decades.

Plenty of people in the real world find the idealized woman to be something of comedic value- unreachable and impractical- but the amount of people that fall victim to the expectations is too many for a generation supposed to be built on feminism and acceptance. Kathrynn Pounders, an assistant professor for UT’s advertising school, has done research on perception of the idealized woman, and one study entitled “Consumer Response to Plus-Size Models in the Mainstream Media” highlights reactions over the Sport Illustrated cover of Ashley Graham. Some found this magazine cover empowering, and a great step forward, but others found it upsetting, saying the magazine was “glamorizing unhealthy, morbidly obese women”. Ashley Graham is 5’9, weighing in at 201 pounds. That’s a BMI of 29.7, which classifies her as “overweight”. Not obese- especially not morbidly. She also eats a balanced diet and works out regularly. Doesn’t sound unhealthy to me.

Yet society has become so fixated on the “Victoria’s Secret” body shape, anything average is “morbidly obese”. When researching the norms for Victoria’s Secret models, I read an article on the Guardian by Jenny Stevens that touches on the obsessive exercise the models partake in and the strict weight and body requirements to be a part of the VS team. It’s upsetting to find such strict regulations placed on young women. This is not a knock on the models, because they are all beautiful and working hard to make a name in their career field, but it is a knock on the company. A size zero can be beautiful but so can a size 10 or 20. The media should stop pretending that overweight women don’t exist. We do. And we’ve been struggling for years, stuck in a constant battle of feeling like we deserve to be the lead girl in a movie, and ashamed just for existing.

But the media never seemed to care.

So, when I first clicked on the Hulu Original, Shrill, I figured I was walking into a weight-loss inspo show, complete with Zumba montages and meal-prep sequences. What I got instead was Annie Easton (played by Aidy Bryant), a plus-sized woman who doesn’t need to “get toned with Tanya” because she is confident in her own skin.

Of course, in the first few episodes we don’t see this. We watch her struggle with her weight, with the woman on the inside coming to terms with the woman on the outside. There’s a journey of acceptance, of self-love, of realizing she’s worth so much more than what the mean girls say she is.

I’m ashamed to say that my first thought to her acceptance for herself was: “This can’t be right”. It didn’t compute in my mind that someone could be happy in their own skin when society constantly berated them. When society constantly berated me.

My BMI is 32. I’ve been overweight since middle school- which means I’ve hated myself for just about that long. I’ve felt inadequate. I’ve felt the desperate need to please the people that come into my life out of fear that the way I look would be enough of a reason for them to leave me one day. I have every comment anyone’s ever said about my weight burned into my skull. I’m scared to date guys that weigh less than me. I’m terrified of bikinis. I’m petrified by the thought that people look at me and see the extra weight on my body before they ever really see me.

I’m entirely too self-aware of what box the media placed me in.

So imagine my surprise when I’m lying down on my plastic bed in my tiny dorm, watching a show all about how it’s okay to be me. To be overweight and know my worth. To love myself and every extra pound that comes along with me. Shrill’s first season is only six episodes- about 30 minutes a piece- but those three hours were enough to awake an entire conversation within myself I’ve never been able to have. Watching Annie Easton strut the streets with confidence and self-love was one of the most impactful moments of my life.

(Disclaimer: spoilers below)

When it comes to relationships, Annie did in three episodes what most people can’t do in 3 years- she realized her boyfriend should do just as much for her as she does for him. In the beginning, I watched Ryan write the rules, from insisting on unsafe sex to making sure the “relationship” stay a secret. At this point, Annie is struggling with herself, both inside and out, and is complacent. Ryan enjoys their little rendezvouses while Annie is left unhappy and wanting more. But that all changes very quickly. With her friends to build her up, Annie realizes she has the true assets in the relationship so she can decide what they do and when they do it. After Ryan stands her up the first time, she tells him to never talk to her again. Their relationship is rocky throughout the entire show, but watching Annie change the rules on him is the kind of representation I’ve personally missed all my life.

But even with friends to build her up enough to set boundaries in her relationship, I’d argue the most impactful moment is not a heart-to-heart with Fran, but the Fat Babe Pool Party she attends. At this party, Annie goes from a woman in a button-down and jeans, nervous to show up in a bathing suit, to a fierce queen who dances with the rest of the party and jumps into the pool, without an ounce of anxiety, in her one-piece. At the party, Annie sees fat rolls, cellulite, and most importantly; women having fun. They’re in bikinis, uncaring of how they’re perceived as they enjoy the sunshine and the water. It’s an inspiring moment for Annie, and an even more inspiring moment for me. Watching so many people enjoy themselves without looking over their shoulder because of an exposed belly gave me the same confidence-boost it gave Annie. It was the first time I saw so many people together and didn’t get the feeling they were all judging one another.

Shows like Shrill need to be around. I’m just glad media is finally realizing their mistakes and representing a huge percentage of the population. Aidy Bryant is pathing a way for a media revolution, where women of all body types can be successful.I’m not at a point yet where I have Annie’s confidence, but I know as more shows come along like this it will slowly build up the love media and society has been tearing down for girls like me for years. Shrill is one of the most important messages I’ve ever watched, and as media shifts to a place of acceptance instead of boxes, I cannot wait to see what the progressive producers on the show, and producers like them, create.