A little more than a year ago, Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a long and heart-wrenching article for the New York Times about her lifelong entanglement with the weight loss industry.
“Each time we did the eating exercise, I would cry. ‘‘What is going on for you?’’ the leader would ask. But it was the same answer every time: I am 41, I would say. I am 41 and accomplished and a beloved wife and a good mother and a hard worker and a contributor to society and I am learning how to eat a goddamned raisin. How did this all go so wrong for me?”
I was reminded of this re-reading Dietland recently, another searing piece of writing that features a fat heroine frequently confronted with measuring her self-worth. What I didn’t remember was that soon everyone would know about Plum Kettle, as Dietland was about to premiere as a series on AMC. I was fascinated to see what would happen. Because I know the sorts of responses that fat women on the internet inspire---and now everyone was going to see one on TV. Plum and I are both ghostwriters in the fashion industry who spend our days pretending to be other thin and fashionable women. We’re both fat. Both of us exist in an industry where fatness is something to fear and eradicate, rather than embrace. For me, Dietland was more than a quick read. It’s personal.
Breaking Taboos on Television:
Watching Dietland has been an exercise in gleeful disbelief for me. As Plum (played by Joy Nash) gets dressed, the camera unflinchingly focuses on her stretch marks and cellulite. In another episode, she lays in bed sick with a wholly exposed stomach from her t-shirt riding up. In another scene, Plum pays a doctor to tell her that she's too fat for weight loss surgery because she's too morbidly obese to qualify. The real shame she feels as she pays out of pocket for this humiliation is visceral and familiar to any fat person who has ever been to a doctor’s office. Other scenes depict the realistically blurred lines between diets and disordered eating, along with the potential repercussions of more extreme weight loss solutions. The scene where Eulayla Baptist hawks her miracle diet while wearing a diaper due to a gastric bypass complication expresses volumes in mere seconds.
Sarai Walker Image Marion Ettlinger
The Fuckability Factor:
While the heroine of Dietland is plus-sized, the rest of the book is made up of women who are not. What they all tend to have in common is their rallying cry of unfuckability. Through circumstances or by choice, the women in Dietland mostly reject the male gaze and revel in it. Both the television show and the novel make it clear that there are many ways to fail out of “fuckability,” whether by accident or by choice. The women who are conventionally attractive work hard to maintain it, to the point where they find their lives are not their own.
I had concerns after reading the book that television would tone down this aspect. But AMC and showrunner Marti Noxon seem to have leaned into that in a big way. The show launched with the opening of an associated Etsy store that was selling “Fat Shamer’s Tears” mugs and tote bags emblazoned with “Unfuckable.”
Riots Not Diets:
Dietland is about many things. But the heart of the story is about women who have become so filled with rage that they can’t hide it anymore. There’s a criminal aspect to it (Jennifer’s kidnapping and killing of men is definitely on the wrong side of the law) but also a social one. “Nice” women are feminist but not too feminist. “Good” fatties can wear beautiful clothes and talk about acceptance, but they can't be angry about how society treats them. Bad women are the ones who speak up and take up space.
Both the television show and the novel argue that to some degree, accepting oneself also means being able to be truly angry about how society operates. Anger becomes a path to enlightenment, especially in an era where #metoo has put men’s bad behavior under scrutiny. This view is what makes the fact that AMC is adapting this novel even more remarkable: angry women will never be socially acceptable at any weight.
Dietland's Joy Nash & Julianna Margulies Image AMC
Tips For The Uninitiated:
If you haven’t read the book and want to watch the show, be aware that it has a relatively slow and slightly confusing setup. Stick with it until episode four or so to get a sense for the show as a whole before you give up. The book also frequently deals with intense violence and graphic pornography, although none of it is gratuitous and all of it is in service of the story.
Even if you don’t make it through the whole thing, putting yourself in Plum’s shoes for a few episodes is an eye-opening experience for those who are not plus-size or female. In fact, it’s a wake-up call that we all need.
Are you watching Dietland or have you read the book? What's your view of the way it portrays women and the beauty industry?