The Real Effect Of ‘Insatiable’s Fat-To-Thin Narrative, According to 3 Fat Activists

by Samantha Puc
Annette Brown/Netflix

By now, you may have heard about the controversy surrounding Netflix’s Insatiablethe trailer alone caused an outcry that spawned both a viral hashtag (#NotYourBefore) and a Change.org petition lobbying for its cancellation. The series, which stars former Disney star Debby Ryan, follows Patty (Ryan), a bullied teenager who suddenly becomes skinny after she has her jaw wired shut. The treatment is not for her weight, but for her broken jaw; after she punches a homeless man who tries to take her candy bar, he hits back. Patty is so unrecognizable in her thin body that classmates who have tortured her for years think she’s the new girl, and the show sets this up as the premise for a “dark, twisted revenge comedy” in which Patty seeks revenge against everyone who’s ever made her feel lesser for taking up more space.

All 12 episodes of Insatiable are now streaming on Netflix, but when the trailer first hit social media, people immediately took issue with two things: the before-and-after, fat-to-skinny plot, and the fact that Ryan wears a fat suit. Combined, these two elements of Insatiable launched a wave of criticism, especially from the fat community, members of which accused the show of rampant fat-shaming. Jude Valentin, an activist, photographer, and content creator, reacted to the trailer by creating the #NotYourBefore hashtag mentioned above, which she tells me is “a place for fat people to go and share their selfies … a community and a place of solidarity.”

After the series launch on August 10, show creator Lauren Gussis tells Bustle over email that this hashtag indicates that Patty’s story is meant to represent everyone, which she said was not her intention. “For me, body positivity is all about acknowledging that each of us are individuals, with our own individual bodies,” she says. “I was not using other people’s bodies as a before. I was telling a single story of a specific character, Patty, who was heavy, and then suddenly she wasn’t. That is her before — her origin story. Not anybody else’s. In my opinion, saying that Patty’s story is anything other than her own flies in the face of the idea of individuality and specificity.”

Cindy Holland, Netflix’s Original Series Vice President, defended Insatiable at the 2018 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour before the series’ release. According to The Cut, Holland said that people who have so far signed a petition asking Netflix not to release the series had misinterpreted its message. At the time of publication, that number is at nearly 230,000 signatures.

“Ultimately, the message of the show is that what is most important is that you feel comfortable in your own self. Fat-shaming itself, that criticism, is embedded in the DNA of the show,” Holland said.

In an effort to break down exactly why Insatiable evoked such an intense response, I reached out to several members of the fat community and asked them if they would be willing to watch the series themselves and discuss it with me for this piece. Reactions were mixed. She’s All Fat podcast co-hosts April K. Quioh and Sophia Carter-Kahn turned me down, because they believed that watching the series would be too triggering. Others did not respond to my requests at all. However, I did get positive responses from three people: Valentin, Comfy Fat blogger and activist J Aprileo, and YouTuber, content creator, writer, and activist Annie Segarra.

"The triggers [sneaked] in like smoke through a crack in the door and I found myself not eating due to intrusive thoughts and then binge eating in attempts to silence them."

All three watched the show in an effort to understand the media that they had initially critiqued based only on its trailer, though they had various tolerance levels for the content. Valentin said that she watched all of it, “because I have a tragic flaw of having to follow through with things once I've started them.” Aprileo and Segarra watched through episodes four and five, respectively, and Segarra said she was filled in on what happened in the rest of the season so she could more accurately speak to the series as a whole. For Segarra, having to tap out after a handful of episodes was an unexpected side effect.

“Honestly, I thought I was OK to watch and critique the show, as I figured it would have elements that triggered my eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder, intrusive thoughts, and felt prepared with warning,” Segarra says. “However, the triggers [sneaked] in like smoke through a crack in the door and I found myself not eating due to intrusive thoughts and then binge eating in attempts to silence them.”

Segarra adds that although she finds Insatiable problematic, the show did initially draw her in. “The structure of the storytelling was intriguing enough that I constantly wanted to see where they were going with certain things, which is also in a way what made this show dangerous for me to watch,” she says. “I logically know that being fat does not equate to [being] ugly or worthless but it’s what the show communicated to me throughout and I didn’t get a break from it because it intrigued me, which triggered my mental illness.”

Annette Brown/Netflix

Though Valentin finished the series, she describes having a visceral reaction to it the whole way through. “[Watching made me feel] uncomfortable. Very, very uncomfortable,” Valentin says. “There are plenty of points throughout the show where I yelled ‘yikes’ out loud.” While Gussis has defended some of the show’s more problematic aspects as satire, Valentin adds that she struggled to identify the tone Insatiable was trying to achieve. “Usually satire has a designated audience or niche, but even after finishing the series I was still confused,” she says. “The whole second half of the season was so different and obscure that it felt like I was watching two different shows.”

In an August 10 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gussis said she wrote the show in this manner to show “the reality of what still happens [to fat people]” even in a world where “the things that happen are so crazy that it’s less scary to have a conversation.”

She added, “I am drawing from a long history of people who show the truth about what's broken about the system in order to comment on how the system needs to change. … I just want to show what the damage is and how that can play out into the dark abyss of the truth. I think that is the history of satire, and I think that that kind of stuff does make people mad, but I think if we only show the bright and shiny version we can't actually dig out the wound and clean it up. So I'm trying to dig out the wound.”

Aprileo says that for them, the series didn’t hit any specific triggers because it was “so poorly done.” They add, “However, I’m concerned for young folks who may watch this show and not be able to see through it. Pair this show with the societal pressures afforded to middle and high school aged youth and it’ll serve as confirmation to them for the fatphobic narratives they’ve already been learning.”

Aprileo’s concern for younger audiences is rooted in the fact that Ryan is a former Disney star with a sizable following. “I remember loving certain actors from Disney, as a kid, and wanting to watch any movie that they were in outside of Disney,” they say. “There’s no doubt in my mind that young people are going to want to follow her in Insatiable, which is a really scary thought to me.”

"I think what is being missed is the fact that every single character in the show is misguided, on purpose."

Gussis also tells Bustle that she “respect[s] everyone’s opinion” now that the show is out and reviews — many of them negative — are pouring in. At the time of publication, Insatiable boasts just a 15 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“I can understand why the show is hitting some hot buttons — they are issues I care about, too,” Gussis says. “But I think what is being missed is the fact that every single character in the show is misguided, on purpose. They represent the unsound values that still very much exist and drive our behavior in our culture, despite our greatest hopes and intentions. They represent the dangers of narcissism and myopic thinking. And each character demonstrates that it is so much easier and more familiar to point fingers at the other characters about how messed up they are, instead of finding ways to make positive improvements within themselves.”

The problem with the show’s framing of its characters and the issues they explore, according to Segarra, is that Insatiable also damages representation for other marginalized groups, including people with disabilities. “Finding out that a ‘faking disability’ subplot appeared in this show infuriated me,” Segarra says. “I am exhausted with this story, particularly as an ambulatory wheelchair user. … People think because I can get up from my wheelchair that I am ‘faking’ needing it and this isn’t isolated. A lot of people do not know that ambulatory wheelchair users exist and it can lead disabled people like myself to be at risk of harassment and violence.”

Tina Rowden/Netflix

Segarra refers to a mid-season storyline where Dixie Sinclair (Irene Choi), an adopted Asian teenager who is positioned as a villain, falls off a high platform while trying to fight Patty for a faux pageantry title and crown. She returns to school some days later in a wheelchair and neck brace, only to later reveal that she’s faking her paralysis.

“I mean, the people who are the bullies in this show are villains,” Gussis told The Hollywood Reporter. “Like, there's no part of me that has made anybody a hero whose [behavior is bad]. Dixie Sinclair, who's the worst of the fat shamers in the show, is a horrible person who has been raised by a horrible person. She gets her comeuppance. I think that in terms of punishing the people in the show who are the worst, they get their comeuppance. There's no part of me that's condoning that behavior.”

This “comeuppance,” as Gussis put it, comes to a head during the scene when Dixie reveals she’s faking her injury. Later, she and her mother fall so far from their status at the start of the show that they are living out of their car. The risk of violence toward ambulatory wheelchair users is aggravated, Segarra says, because of plot lines like this one. “[These] ‘faking disability’ narratives are far more common than the authentic representation of ambulatory wheelchair users,” she says. “There are so many disabilities that require the use of wheelchairs but they are practically never represented.”

"The people who take in these messages and learn from these kinds of media, they become the adults discriminating against us within policy."

Aprileo also notes that Insatiable features several subplots that rely on negative stereotypes of many marginalized groups, not just fat people. “Insatiable upholds stereotypes that LGBTQ people are predatory, people experiencing homelessness are violent and scary, white women save Asian girls by adopting them and erasing their racial identities, etc.,” they say. “Contributing to these attitudes about marginalized people only further upholds systems of oppression. The people who take in these messages and learn from these kinds of media, they become the adults discriminating against us within policy. We as marginalized folks also internalize that sh*t and learn to devalue ourselves based on these identities and our perceived standing in society.”

“This is not just about what people might think or misconceptions… this is also about how [marginalized] people are at risk of violence and discrimination based on these prejudices,” Segarra adds.

Had the Insatiable writers left out the fat-to-thin plot, she says the show could have worked much better. “It could just be a story about a pageant girl from the get-go discovering that she isn’t the best person and has some growing to do,” Segarra says. “Throwing marginalized people under the bus did not have to happen in order for this story to happen.”

Annette Brown/Netflix

Valentin also thinks the show could work in a different format. “I wish Patty stayed fat. I wish Patty was taught how to love herself,” she says. She adds that a character who appears in the back half of the season, Dee (a fat, black lesbian who becomes a love interest for Patty’s best friend Nonnie), “is redeemable, but she feels out of place throughout the course of the show. It's obvious that she's supposed to be the ‘saving grace,’ a fat girl who doesn't care about your opinion of her and her body and [who] does pageants. Why couldn't we just have a show about Dee?”

Gussis tells Bustle, “In terms of the trope of ‘fat girl turns thin’, it’s one that has been around for years. And the promise of a new life post weight loss has not yet been removed from our society. Diet culture, lap bands, trainers, supplements — they’re all prevalent. Which is why I felt it was important to show this trope as a starting point, as a way to make a commentary on it. Yes, the story starts in a place we have seen before. But it doesn’t end up in a familiar place. It’s a cautionary tale about believing the promise of the ‘fat turned thin’ fairy tale.”

In her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gussis said that ultimately, Patty discovers that being thin doesn’t make her a good person. She said that to change how people — fat, thin, whatever — are viewed in society, work has to start from within. “I think the next step is talking about the idea that it's an inside job, right?” she said. “Like, where the series ends is the time Patty comes to terms with the fact that it doesn't matter what her outside looks like unless she cleans up the insides. I think we need to get her there. I think her journey of like, ‘OK, if I'm going to be beautiful, I need to start from the inside out’ and really taking her on that journey.”

When challenged on how that statement could be interpreted as Gussis putting the onus of responsibility on fat people to be happy with themselves so they won’t be bullied, Gussis said, “I'm not making a general statement about fat people. I just think that for every single person in the show, it's an inside job and that's how we evolve as humans and that's how we become better people and that's how we get to know each other.”

"I created the hashtag #NotYourBefore to exclusively subvert this and expose people to the lives of fat people who are living their best lives."

Valentin says that regardless of Gussis’ intentions, media does not exist in a vacuum. “I don't think it's irrational for people to internalize the before and after plot,” she says. “In the show, Patty and others perpetuate the stereotype that your life doesn't actually begin until you lose weight. And this stereotype is actually how people view fat individuals. They think we all live miserable, sad lives, waiting for our prince charming (or a homeless man punching us in the jaw) to save us. I created the hashtag #NotYourBefore to exclusively subvert this and expose people to the lives of fat people who are living their best lives.”

Before the series release, Gussis said she wrote Insatiable the way she did as a form of catharsis, per Vanity Fair. “I think that once people see the show, they will understand how deeply I understand all of the things they’re actually upset about,” she said. “I have so much compassion for everyone who has feelings about this issue. I want this to be a starting point for a conversation. I had a lot of mentors who encouraged me to tell my stories. I encourage other people to tell their story.”

“I have a lot of empathy as a fellow creator; it takes so much time and labor to put a project like this together,” Segarra says, regarding how Netflix (and by extension, Gussis) has handled the backlash so far. “I want them to say something like there is a big metaphor I’m missing or something, but even if it were, it doesn’t change how harmful it is. I know the intention was probably not to be harmful, but I still don’t understand. And intention does not negate impact; if you didn’t know that match and gas would start a fire, your ignorance does not bring back what you burned down.”

Aprileo adds, “They had a chance to be truly revolutionary by accurately portraying the beautiful, complex, interesting story of a fat person as a holistic character, and they failed.”

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.