So much of the joy of watching Hulu's Shrill is witnessing Annie’s (Aidy Bryant) journey toward unabashed confidence. It's not that Annie's life is perfect — her pseudo-boyfriend is a noncommittal man-child, her boss is dismissive of her ideas, and her best friend's tough-love approach to her insecurities can sometimes be a lot. But Annie's growth truly begins once she examines the close relationships in her life and realizes who’s championing or hindering her success. But one of the most complicated relationships on Shrill is between Annie and her mom Vera, played by Saturday Night Live alum Julia Sweeney. Their interactions show just how complex the conversation about body image can be between mothers and daughters.
Annie’s relationship with her mom is predominately loving and supportive, but it’s hard to ignore the passive-aggressive miscommunication the both engage in, especially when it comes to addressing Annie’s weight. Every piece of well-intentioned but unsolicited advice from Vera, whether it’s about how wonderful the “Thin Diet” pre-packaged diet plan meals are, or how great it is to exercise, seems like an unnecessary dig from Annie’s perspective. One of the most powerful moments of Aidy Bryant’s performance takes place in Episode 4, when Annie tearfully recalls how long she’s been struggling with body image issues. Seared into Annie’s mind is a distinct childhood memory of her mom giving her a bowl of Special K cereal instead of the dinner the rest of the family was eating “so that I could have boys like me.”
It’s a heartbreaking and realistic moment that undoubtedly hits close to home for many women. Mother-daughter relationships are often complicated minefields of nudging and boundary-testing. For every outfit worn by a 16-year-old to get a reaction from her mom, there’s a mother’s “You’re wearing that?” coupled with a look of concern and disapproval as she walks out the door. Mothers, who are typically dealing with body image issues of their own, know the challenges of going through life as a woman. While their intentions may be to protect their daughters, they can sometimes inadvertently end up causing additional pressure and confusion.
All of this comes to a head so realistically in Shrill. After Vera reads Annie’s viral “Hello, I’m Fat” essay, which mentions Annie’s frustrations with her mom, the resulting fight showcases how emotionally charged conversations about weight can be — even among mothers and daughters who have an otherwise good relationship. Vera was understandably blindsided by how publicly Annie chose to address their issues, saying that Annie should have come to talk to her, but now “the whole world is reading about it.” And Annie can’t help but feel that her mom has always focused more on what people will think rather than on what Annie’s actual experience has been like. There’s a significant distance between their perspectives, in no small part due to how long they went without addressing the topic head-on. Because of society’s insistence on equating thinness to beauty, talking about a person’s weight never feels like it’s just a discussion about health.
Feeling uncomfortable with your body, and by extension, yourself, isn’t something that just happens one day. It’s a learned behavior, the result of absorbing millions of media messages, picking up on adult conversations, and dealing with comments from classmates. For most of my childhood, my mom and my friends’ moms were constantly trying out new diets, dreading trips to the beach, and avoiding being in photographs. It just seemed like the natural rite of passage for women—you had to be physically perfect in order to start enjoying life.
For most young girls, their mothers are their first female role models, and it’s inevitable that the way your mother approaches body image and self-confidence will impact the way you view the same issues. And kids start mirroring this behavior long before they fully understand what it means in the context of their lives. A report by Common Sense Media found that 5- to 8-year-old children who sensed their mothers’ body dissatisfaction were more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies. Of course, some of those children will grow up to have children of their own, and thus the cycle repeats itself.
Entire industries would collapse if women decided it was okay to embrace themselves the way they are and stopped striving for some sanitized version of physical perfection.
It takes a significant amount of effort and reflection to realize that just because these are the messages you’ve taken in your entire life, it doesn’t mean that you can’t work toward changing your current mindset. Annie’s “metamorphosis,” as her best friend Fran calls it, finally happens when she realizes there’s really no need to keep up this exhausting effort to make other people comfortable.
We still have so far to go as a society when it comes to being truly size-inclusive and accepting of all different body types. The body positivity movement is growing, but hashtags on Instagram and ad campaigns for clothing brands won’t be enough to change how highly our society values being thin above all else. Entire industries would collapse if women decided it was okay to embrace themselves the way they are and stopped striving for some sanitized version of physical perfection.
And maybe we’ll reach that point sooner than we think. Annie’s decision to reclaim her time and stop tiptoeing through her life wishing she looked differently represents what so many women in her generation are choosing to do: Saying, “Here I am, take it or leave it.” Just imagine the ripple effect it could have if we can get to a point where that’s the way most women view themselves and their bodies. Maybe we’d be able to parent differently and stop the cycle of passing on our body insecurities to our children. Maybe we’d be able to show the next generation that you can demand better treatment, no matter what size you are. The world can, and should, choose to catch up to women like Annie. In the meantime, she’s going after the life she wants.