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Skinny Is Not Magic, But I Still Appreciated Insatiable

Photo: Tina Rowden/Netflix

Earlier this month, Netflix dropped all 12 episodes of its new show Insatiable. Since its release, the dark comedy from producer Lauren Gussis, featuring former Disney Channel star Debby Ryan and Alyssa Milano, has been widely panned by critics, receiving a sad 10 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes. Vulture’s Jen Chaney wrote that Insatiable is an “utter disaster.”

Even before its debut, Insatiable was already a social-media lightning rod. When Netflix released a 90-second trailer, which showed Ryan in a fat suit and presented the show as a Cinderella weight-loss story meets Heathers, a swift and massive backlash ensued. A petition urging Netflix not to air Insatiable, due to perceived fat shaming and fat-phobic stereotypes, gathered over 200,000 signatures.

As a fat woman and someone who writes frequently on the topics of weight, body image, and body positivity, I was curious to see if the content of the show would truly merit the scope of that overwhelmingly negative reaction. Because much of the criticism has focused on potential damage to young people, I watched all 12 episodes of Insatiable with my teen daughter.

When we got to episode five, my daughter said, “I actually really like this.”

“But what is this?” I responded.

It’s not just a weight-loss story. It’s not just a revenge story. It’s not even exactly about rage.

Insatiable has three main plotlines. The first follows Patty Bladell (Ryan), a fat teenager who has her jaw wired shut following an attack in a parking lot and returns to school after a 70-pound weight loss. Patty feels like a loser, but wants to be a winner. Second, there’s Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), a lawyer who dreams of being a successful beauty-pageant coach. Finally, Coralee Armstrong (Milano) is a trashy teen turned southern socialite who longs to join the Junior League.

Although Insatiable does offer some flawed characters filled with rage and revenge, the show is about personal desire. It’s about how the things we think we want can change us, and about what happens when we don’t like the people we become. Gussis told The Hollywood Reporter, “I wanted to tell, in theory, a story where the characters’ desires are deeply rooted in real human emotion, but the things that happen are so crazy that it’s less scary to have a conversation when you know you’re in a world that isn’t quite reality.”

But does Insatiable fat-shame Patty? In my view as a fat woman, no. The show puts a great deal of care into handling that aspect of the story. Patty’s body-image issues are treated with compassion and the character consistently explores the difference between internal and external beauty. Debby Ryan is charming and there were times when her performance really spoke to me and addressed some of the experiences I had as a fat teenager. I, too, sometimes felt that fate had cast me as a loser when I desperately wanted to be a winner.

Is Insatiable perfect in that respect? No. Early in the series, Bob Armstrong announces, “Skinny is magic.” The show has a very conflicted relationship with that statement, sometimes demonstrating how it appears to be true and sometimes exploring how it’s really not. In early episodes, Patty is able to leverage her thin body into an acquittal in the trial concerning her fight with a homeless man. She gains the attention of the school’s hottie, Christian (James Lastovic), and becomes a serious contender in the town’s local beauty pageant, Miss Magic Jesus. But Patty’s relationship with Christian is terrible and terrifying. Her newfound obsession with beauty pageants destroys her life and her preoccupation with revenge causes major damage to her relationship with her best friend, Nonnie (Kimmy Shields).

That conflict — the idea that skinny magic delivers superficial rewards while not necessarily making the ultra-thin and beautiful any happier than the rest of us — isn’t of the show’s making, of course. We’re living in a time when a very dominant part of culture still prizes small female bodies. Overweight women earn less money and are more likely to work in physically demanding jobs. Onscreen, successful fat actresses are few and far between. The body-positive and fat-positive communities are pushing back, and some of that resistance comes in the form of wanting to eliminate stories of people dealing with weight-loss or weight-management issues. Writing for The Guardian, Sofie Hagen spoke for many people in the fat-positive community when she said, “Let’s see a happy fatty.”

While I have read much discussion over how and why Patty Bladell decides to lose weight and whether this is harmful to young viewers, that is not the heart of the Insatiable controversy. It’s ultimately a discussion about whether weight-loss arcs are an acceptable form of storytelling, and there are simply people in the body-positive community who have decided that they are not. I wrote a book, Fat Girl on a Plane, that features a weight-loss arc. Despite the fact that my main character slowly and methodically loses weight via diet and exercise and that I based much of the material on my own personal experience, I was criticized. Kirkus magazine wrote that my book was, “Just another weight-loss arc accidentally portraying fatness as tragic and optional.” I received negative tweets, messages, and online reviews from people who hadn’t read my book but objected to the weight-loss content. One reader emailed me anonymously to say, “I’m sorry that you hate yourself, but the world does not need this book.”

So, what if you’re not a happy fatty and you have a story to tell? This notion that some form of storytelling — stories about a need or a desire to lose weight — will be off limits to fat people feels like one more thing we have to give up. The ability to discuss how you feel about your body will be one more form of thin privilege.

For me, weight-loss arcs like the one featured in Insatiable provide an opportunity to discuss and potentially debunk the cultural myths that surround fatness and weight loss. We’re continually fed “Half Their Size” stories and diet-center commercials full of people who transform their whole lives in 30-second spots. This creates the perception that fatness is a problem that must be solved, that fat people need to be “fixed” in order to lead fulfilling lives. I think Insatiable is relatively successful in tackling that issue. The show is making a real attempt to demonstrate that changing how we look on the outside won’t change how we feel on the inside. Weight loss doesn’t fix Patty Bladell; it breaks her down even more.

Are fat people perfectly represented in Insatiable? Again, no. For me, the biggest misfire in terms of fat representation comes in form of Dee Marshall (Ashley D. Kelley). Dee is one of my favorite characters in the show, and Kelley steals almost every scene she’s in. As a plus-size contestant in Miss Magic Jesus, and later Nonnie’s girlfriend, she is cool, confident, and successful. In the pageant, she has perfect hair, makeup, and wardrobe, aces Bible trivia, and raps and delivers a soundtrack-quality singing performance … but inexplicably manages to not win the crown. In a moment when Insatiable’s creators could have used Kelley’s character to demonstrate genuine fat representation, she instead becomes a disposable human object lesson. Dee appears onscreen every time a statement must be made about how being beautiful does not require being thin, and then she vanishes, reinforcing the idea that fat people must remain in the background.

Viewers that reject weight-loss stories who go on to watch Insatiable will find plenty to dislike. For them, perhaps the controversy around the show has become a drama on its own, a form of resistance to the parts of society that refuse to treat people in large bodies with basic human dignity. But the value of a show like Insatiable is that it starts essential conversations in places where they might not already be happening. Not only have I seen some interesting dialogue open up between teenagers in my life about fat shaming, body shaming, and the pressure they feel to look a certain way, I also suspect that Insatiable’s stars might have a broad enough appeal to take that discussion to parts of popular culture that the body-positive movement has been unable to reach.

Insatiable strives to address itself to both those that society classifies as winners and those it considers losers. Viewers of the show may find that the differences between the two might not be as big as they think.

Kelly deVos is the author of Fat Girl on a Plane.

Skinny Is Not Magic, But I Still Appreciated Insatiable