Light spoilers ahead for Shrill Season 1.
Two years ago, my best friend told me I shouldn't wear a crop top.
"You can see your stretch marks," she said matter of factly — and that sh*t has stayed with me.
Those well-meaning thoughts she shared when we were about to attend a Palm Springs pool party sit uncomfortably next to another memory I have from middle school when another "well-meaning" friend told me I was pretty, but I was fat.
I know these experiences aren't unique to me, a corn-fed Midwestern girl who grew up on low-fat fads and 100 calorie packs, but I hadn't really seen anything that mirrored them with such a specific tone and nuance until I watched Shrill. On the new Hulu series, Aidy Bryant's Annie is surrounded by loved ones who believe they want the best for her. Unfortunately, most of them don't know how to communicate as much without projecting the fictitious "you must be this thin to be happy" narrative onto Annie and her life. There's her mom, who insists on low-calorie diets and almond snacks to stay satiated; her pseudo-boyfriend Ryan, who doesn't say anything specifically about her size, but makes her climb over the back fence so that he doesn't have to introduce her to his roommates when she leaves his apartment; and her boss, who believes the obesity epidemic is out of hand and seemingly singles her out using coded language to point out her "laziness." The only person who doesn't make Annie feel like a failure for being fat is her best friend and roommate Fran, played by Lolly Adefope.
Fran is far from perfect. She's not super faithful to her partners (though, in her defense, I'm not certain she's in any monogamous relationships), and she holds grudges fiercely and easily. But what she offers Annie is a true example of self-love and celebration that eventually starts to rub off on her friend. Annie's daily life is plagued by reminders that she's fat because, as every woman is all too aware, the world is constantly selling us on the expensive, time-consuming, energy-sucking myth that to be skinny is to be successful. And it's not just from infomercials or social media or Hollywood — it's from the people in our lives who perpetuate the same cyclical ideology over and over again, giving women endless amounts of guilt for eating anything ever and not looking like a Barbie doll.
Fran isn't a sidekick representing The Other, but the voice of reason with a snarky British sense of humor.
But it's Fran who is there to give Annie a pep talk when she finds out she's pregnant and gets an abortion because the morning after pill isn't guaranteed to work for women who weigh more than 175 pounds. It's Fran who tells Annie she deserves better than a guy who eschews condoms because "raw-dogging is his favorite thing." It's Fran who says, "Honey, you're being so mean to yourself!" and "We need to un-train you in thinking of yourself in such a brutal way" in response to Annie's voiced insecurities, instead of suggesting she join a gym or insisting weight loss is some kind of magical cure.
Fran is not the sassy black friend that black actresses are too often asked to embody, either. Instead, she's a self-assured fat black lesbian whose own life issues have nothing to do with any of these singular or intersecting identities. She's not a lesbian because she can't find a man, just like she's not fat because she's a lesbian, or any other variation you could try to finagle into a Venn diagram titled Why This Woman Is Fat and How To Fix Her.
Too often, media depictions of black women, lesbians, and fat women provide these identities as problems to be solved or the sole diversity in a show shoved in to make the lead white character seem cool and cultured. Thankfully, Shrill's writers' room is filled with fat, black, and queer women like Bryant, creator Lindy West, and Samantha Irby. On Shrill, Fran isn't a sidekick representing The Other, but the voice of reason with a snarky British sense of humor. She's sexual but not hypersexualized, and her ability to accept herself is not provided as an "even though" scenario — she's happy with who she is because that is an actual option, despite racism, homophobia, fatphobia, and misogyny. That's not something we've been offered much of in the media, and Shrill nails the proud minority woman who loves herself wholly inside of a world that tries everything to make her feel differently.
As someone who has cycled through the same awful sentiments Annie does in Shrill, I found myself so grateful for the mere presence of Fran — because when you're feeling down or worthless based on how society has made you see yourself, sometimes you need a friend who is going to remind you how truly f*cked that is. I know that my body has nothing to do with my worth; that how much space I take up or how many stretch marks I have don't determine anything other than something about the societal pressure women are made to feel about how much space we take up. But sometimes I let Annie-ish thoughts overwhelm me, and think maybe I would be happier 20 pounds lighter, or if I just cut out carbs and sugar and joy altogether. That if I really loved myself I'd learn to love running even though I loathe it. That if I was lighter or had less cellulite or was just less anything, I'd be better, happier.
Fran is not trying to hear that.
In the first four episodes of Shrill, Fran rolls her eyes at Annie's bland Thin Menu meal plan, throws Annie a party when she publishes her first article, and institutes a "No Ryan" rule in their apartment after it turns out he's got another woman in his self-described "rotation." Fran offers up real talk, but also real love.
During the fifth episode of Shrill, Fran and Annie go to a Fat Babe pool party where it feels like Fran's insistence on Annie's being more kind to herself comes to a head. Fran is wearing a lace-up bathing suit and kimono as they enter a large backyard full of gorgeous fat women in bathing suits and sun hats and big smiles; Annie is wearing black jeans and a button-down shirt. She's noticeably uncomfortable, but Fran knows better than to keep encouraging her to strip down to her one-piece.
Friends can only do so much for us. Eventually, we have to come to decisions on our own. So when there's an all-out dance party with breasts and bellies and thighs and asses all joyfully in motion en masse, Annie can no longer contain the part of herself that Fran has been helping to coax out of her — the part that is buried underneath a deluge of negative, shameful, and punishing things that women, especially women of size, can surrender to believing about themselves.
When Annie started dancing, I started crying. It was unexpected — I'm not super emotional — but it was also so relieving and freeing in a way quite similar to how I felt buying and wearing that crop top before I listened to what anyone else thought about how I looked in it. The Fat Babe pool party inspired Annie to consider investing in a crop top, too, for the first time ever.
Later, when Annie eventually feels defeated yet again by a cruel world of fat-shaming d-bags who just so happened to be born with different genes and pretend they're concerned about her "health," it's Fran whom she vents to about how she's fed up with buying into the "mind prison every woman everywhere has been programmed to believe." Fran just listens to Annie — she gives her the time and the space to come to her conclusion, one that is ultimately more healthy than what she's been made to feel by just about everyone else but Fran.
By the end of Season 1, Fran and Annie are in an argument. They both think the other is selfish and point out each other's flaws — nothing physical, of course. Annie accuses Fran of treating the women she's dating like crap, likening her to Ryan, which cuts deep. Things end on a not-so-ideal note, creating an uneasy tension that begs for resolve in a second season — they're the love story at the heart of Shrill, just like Ilana and Abbi are the platonic romance of Broad City.
But what I emerged with from these first six episodes is something valuable to continue on with in the interim. I've found my own inner Fran that I want to keep on deck for days when I, like Annie, can succumb to self-doubt and anxieties about my body. Those negative ideas can now easily be dissuaded with a quick check-in with Fran, who will tell me to wear the cute crop top, and not give a sh*t about what anybody else thinks.