What I Learned From Playing A Brutal Fat-Shamer On TV

While I would never call someone else a “fat bitch,” I had been calling myself one most of my life.
In between shooting scenes in Portland.
In between shooting scenes in Portland.

“Fuck you, you fat bitch!”  

I read this on my phone while at a stoplight at Sunset and Vine. It was a line for an audition I had the next day. I was supposed to audition for the role of a fat-shaming trainer named “Toned Tanya” in the new Hulu series “Shrill,” based on the memoir by Lindy West and starring Aidy Bryant.  

My first thought was that there was absolutely no way I could say those words to anyone, and I couldn’t go on this audition. I assumed my plethora of issues around weight and body image would render me too encumbered to play someone who seemed so free in her ability to dole out damage. 

I also couldn’t quite find this character: My read felt too grounded, too bland. Still, I decided to go. Maybe something magical would help me find “Toned Tanya.”

The flyer on set for Toned Tanya’s training
The flyer on set for Toned Tanya’s training

When I got to the audition, it was like I had accidentally stumbled into the backstage area of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show during the “Victoria Sport” section. Gorgeous, thin women with high ponytails and tightly sculpted midriffs pantomimed their lines and reapplied their lip plumper. The role also needed an actress with an intimidating vibe, and the room was dripping with “bad bitch” energy. If someone wanted to do an experiment on how to make a woman feel insecure, they could drop them down in this room. By the time I was called to go in, I felt like a sponge that had been soaking in a bowl of “I’m not good enough.” 

I fiddled with the waistband of my Lululemons and sucked in when I got in the room. The first line came out of my mouth and I was somehow different: Stewing in my insecurity for the last 20 minutes had made me want to feel better than someone. The lines were flowing effortlessly until I said the line, “Fuck you, you fat bitch!” 

I couldn’t help but back off the intensity of it. They told me to go further with it, to be more cruel and fly off the handle. I got angrier, but couldn’t really get all the way there. They asked me to come back the next day and go further. I kept telling myself it wouldn’t be the worst thing if it turned out I was “too nice” to play this role. 

Aidy and I in the coffee shop scene.
Aidy and I in the coffee shop scene.

That turned out to not be the case. I booked it, and they asked me to come to the table read.

I got to the table read and immediately started stress-eating from the box of beautiful glazed doughnuts with “Shrill” written on them. I was also trying to find a way to make sure everyone there could see that I was not the hypervigilant non-doughnut-eating asshole that my character was. I kept the doughnuts near me the whole time.

My place at the table during the table read.
My place at the table during the table read.

I saw a smiling face heading toward me. It was Aidy and she was coming over to give me a hug. Her kindness felt like it surrounded me in a cloud of relaxed acceptance. She complimented my audition tape and thanked me for doing the show. (Was this really happening?!) 

I told her how awful I felt about calling her character a “fat bitch” and that I would never say that to someone in real life. It felt important to me to establish myself as different from my character. She reassured me that she wanted me to really go for it, to give her something to go off of so that her character could have her own revelation. 

I took my place at the table and felt my body get tense. Table reads are the first time an episode is read out loud by the whole cast, and sometimes people get fired after them. I knew that if I was going to get the ax it would be because I couldn’t go far enough with the line, so I decided I was going to be an angry fat-shaming bitch. I was filled with fear at the idea of letting myself be seen this way, even if I was acting. 

Finally, it was time:


I yelled across the table at Aidy. I had really taken the lid off it. It felt like I blasted all air out of the room. For a few moments, no one spoke. I felt a heaviness, a feeling that collectively as a group we had exposed the ugliness of something usually hidden. 

The actor next to me connected with my darting eyes and said “Good job,” with a nod. I appreciated it, because I felt like I wanted to curl up in the corner and disintegrate. 

I didn’t want to call Aidy’s character fat, because somehow that felt worse than calling her almost anything else. That in itself was a wake-up call. How was it that calling someone fat was somehow worse than calling them stupid, selfish or disgraceful? Asking myself this brought me into some of the darkest corners of my mind, which were also the most fertile environments for finding Tanya’s thoughts. 

While I would never call someone else a “fat bitch,” I had been calling myself one most of my life. Sadly, fat-shaming self-talk has been a huge part of my own inner dialogue.

I have always been terrified of “getting fat.” While I do not have a fear or dislike of fat people, I am intensely scared of becoming fat myself. This is fatphobia. I, who had thought I was far too sensitive about weight to be hurtful to someone else about theirs, was actually harboring one of the beliefs that perpetuate fat-shaming: that being fat is undeniably bad. 

When I was 13, I started counting my calories and weighing myself multiple times a day. I had a ballet instructor who told me regularly that I didn’t have the “body for ballet,” and it killed me because all I wanted to do was to become a professional ballerina.

Dancing at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., when I was 13.
Dancing at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., when I was 13.

My problems progressed into anorexia, and I lived in a perpetual state of miserable starvation. I would pull at my body in the mirror, thinking to myself, “You’re so fat.” I would use pictures of celebrities in magazines to shame myself into starving even harder, thinking, “They would never let themselves look like you.” I’d literally pray for weight loss.  

If I even thought about skipping a workout, I would think to myself, “You don’t get to do that, you fat ass.” I lost almost 20 pounds that first year, and my disordered eating and exercise bulimia came with me into my 20s. I was deeply frustrated and angry: I was angry that some other people seemed to achieve thinness so much more easily, angry that I had to be so hungry just to feel pretty and good enough. My worst fear was getting fat.

Tanya was the personification of the cruelest voice in my head.

I have done a lot of work to try to untangle some of my own deep-seated beliefs that I need to be thinner in order to be acceptable to myself, but I made the choice that Tanya has not done that work. She is who I used to be, who I had to be in order to get through the miserable days of being hungry, working out constantly and never feeling good in my body. I needed all my misery to be FOR something, I needed it to be true that being thin was what everyone wanted to be. 

Doing excessive amounts of yoga on vacation, photographed by my husband.
Doing excessive amounts of yoga on vacation, photographed by my husband.

When Annie writes her off, I made the decision that for Tanya this hits something much deeper. It’s as if Annie is saying Tanya’s life’s work is for nothing, or her religion is bullshit. Annie is feeling content in the body she is in, and for Tanya this feels like a personal attack. The subtext to what Tanya is saying is, “If I don’t get to be happy in my body, neither do you! Especially not you.” 

Tanya has also made herself an authority in the fitness world, where for certain people, body obsession can cleanly be repackaged as virtuous vigilance. A war on fat is kept alive by the idea that we are just “becoming our best selves.” I should probably add here that I am a fitness instructor in real life as well as an actor. 

Being in the fitness world, and also growing up female in America, it sometimes feels like people view being fat as the worst thing a woman can be. All around us there is messaging encouraging us to lose, freeze or burn fat, and tabloids are constantly tracking who has gained weight as if it were something shameful they were trying to get away with. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone wail, “I am so FAT,” with a look of misery and hopelessness.

I’ve said this too and am not proud. Meanwhile, there is a community of people out there reclaiming the word “fat,” as a simple descriptor they’re proud to call themselves.  

Soon we were shooting the show in Portland. Nothing I did had prepared me to yell “Fuck you, you fat bitch!” over and over again in front of a crowd of onlookers. After about five takes, the line got changed to “I was just trying to help you, you fat bitch.” Tanya was earnestly trying to help according to her own messed-up values system. 

This softening of the line directed my attention to my own issues, and it made me feel like a tormented 13-year-old all over again. When I said this to Aidy, there were tears welling up in my eyes.

It was clear to me in this moment that hurt people hurt people. I saw a beautiful happy person who was not thin, and I called her a “fat bitch,” but somewhere inside Tanya’s brain or mine there was also a deep jealousy for this woman who seemed to have accepted herself and rejected a belief we held up so high that being thin was imperative. 

Aidy Bryant and I after we finished shooting.
Aidy Bryant and I after we finished shooting.

When we wrapped, Lindy West gave me a long hug and said “Thank you.” It felt odd to be thanked for doing something so cruel, but I understood that seeing this moment on TV would change a lot of people’s understanding of how insidious and hurtful fat-shaming can be. 

What I learned is how naive I was to think that my feelings about my own body had nothing to do with how I felt about anyone else’s, and that ultimately I was part of the problem.  

I have since made a pact with myself to stop saying unkind things about my body, and to stop commiserating with others when they do so. Amazingly, I find that my own inner critic gets weaker the less I buy into what she’s saying. 

At Rise Nation in Los Angeles.
At Rise Nation in Los Angeles.

I’m proud to work at a fitness studio that prioritizes actual physical fitness over body aesthetics, and it is my goal every time I teach to create an experience that focuses on harnessing personal power, rather than losing inches or body fat. I am also more careful with the authority I previously didn’t even know I yielded; I am mindful of my responses when clients tell me they think they need to lose weight, or that they have really fallen off their fitness game. I try to remind them that they are wonderful just as they are, regardless of their weight or fitness level. I truly believe that our bodies are just one piece of our whole being, and I try to make my class reflect that belief. In my class and in my life, I’ve made the choice to not contribute to the fat-shaming culture that has tortured me for so many years.

Lindy West has said that with “Shrill,” she and Aidy wanted to make the show they needed when they were younger. For me, playing the embodiment of the negging inner critic who was developed in my youth was exactly what I needed to see how ugly she was, and to stop giving her power. I needed this show now, and playing Tanya allowed me to begin the process of shedding one of the heaviest parts of myself.

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