In April 2005, I rode a train from Boston to New York for one purpose: to attend the famed Fat Girl Flea Market, a massive bargain sale of donated plus-size clothing to benefit a fat-positive activist organization.
The flea was in its third year, and I was so excited to finally be there and do some heavy shopping. But as I walked in, something else happened.
I looked around at the wide-open space of the community center, crammed with tables heaped with clothing, and I saw bodies that looked like mine. People laughing and sharing their finds, smiling, sweating ... it felt like an oven in there, between the lack of air conditioning and the press of bodies, but it didn’t matter. I felt at home in a way that was unfamiliar to me. I felt like I was normal here.
But it was when I took a few dresses into the fitting room ― really, just a big open corner of the space blocked off from the rest of the flea with fabric screens ― that I had the real epiphany. The fitting room had zero privacy and was simply filled with fat women in varying states of undress, trying on clothes, trading items with other folks, and giving kind and supportive feedback to one another.
Directly in front of me, a woman roughly my size was modeling a very snug, body-conscious knit dress, while the people around her enthused about how fantastic she looked. And I thought, Wow, she does look fantastic. And I thought, I could never wear a dress that tight. And I thought, Wait, why wouldn’t I, though?
Hulu’s series “Shrill,” based on the best-selling book by Lindy West and starring Aidy Bryant, has drawn a lot of positive attention since its release on March 15. Much of this praise focuses on the series’ fourth episode, written by Samantha Irby, in which protagonist Annie attends a “Fat Babe Pool Party” and experiences a bit of an internal revolution in her own ongoing struggle with self-esteem.
As Annie and her friend Fran first enter the pool party venue, they are met by a sea of hardly dressed fat women frolicking shame-free in the sunshine, voluminous bellies and thighs and arms bared without a shred of apology. Their astonishment at the sight is palpable.
“I thought, 'Wow, she does look fantastic'. And I thought, 'I could never wear a dress that tight.' And I thought, 'Wait, why wouldn’t I, though?'”
A little history: Fat-positive pool parties have been happening since the 1970s, when the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance began hosting them as part of its annual conference. Moving into the ’00s, these events and their attendance grew, boosted by the internet and blogging as methods to organize and spread the word.
By the mid-’00s, several years into my own activism on this subject, fat-positive pool parties were common enough that I’d started to question their value, not having been to one myself yet. Were they actually activism? Or were they just, y’know, a party? Did anything important happen there, really? Or was it just an excuse to have fun?
It was true that everyone I knew who’d had the experience spoke in starry-eyed, rapturous tones about the magic of the thing, the relief and joy and pleasure of being in a space with bodies like yours — but absent the usual shame and remorse and, well, enforced modesty often demanded of fatting around the everyday world in a nonstandard, abnormal, unacceptable body.
People did impassioned spoken-word performances about fat pool parties, wrote wonderful poems, shared breathless blog posts by the dozens. And still, I wondered at the tangible value of it all.
In retrospect, I marvel at how willing I was to dismiss these events on the basis of their “just” being fun, as though fun is not meaningful; as though fun has no worthwhile purpose for people who often have legitimate trauma from any and all experiences that involve wearing a swimsuit, people who often have spent most of their lives believing they were not allowed to wear a swimsuit, that they were not allowed to be outside and in plain sight with any flesh exposed, that swimming itself was taboo to them, that their bodies are horrors that must always be hidden.
I marvel at my willingness to believe that fat women “just” having fun, in a pool, could be anything but radical as fuck.
The pool party scene in “Shrill” bears this out not only in its words and action but in how the whole scene was shot. (I am zeroing in on fat women specifically here because that is the focus of the episode, but it’s important to note that fat people benefit from this unapologetic representation regardless of gender.)
The episode’s director, Shaka King, told Refinery29, “I remember Aidy saying, ‘I want to see thighs. And stomachs. Don’t be afraid to really show these women’s bodies.’”
According to Refinery29:
When his directing team got “squirrelish” about really zooming in on those curves, [King] set them straight. “I said, ‘Really focus on these parts of their bodies that people try not to look at.’”
That people try not to look at. The forbidden zones.
This is crucial to the episode because this is what actually happens in these spaces: Fat women are allowed to stare, allowed to soak up the deeply validating sight of flesh they don’t ordinarily get to see except on their own bodies, and maybe not even then. Maybe they don’t allow themselves to look.
In the years since 2005 and my first exposure to the life-changing magic of being surrounded by half-naked fat women, I have attended many similar events. I’ve been part of groups of voluptuous Lycra-clad women invading the beaches with our not-sorry fattery; I’ve enjoyed private pools taken over by proudly fat people, by day and night, and felt the purest bliss and connectedness to my body. I’ve shared hot tubs with old friends and with fully nude fat women I’d just met. I learned to crave spaces where fat bodies could exist shamelessly.
Every single one felt like a burden being lifted, just for a little while, the relief of the empowerment to just be, without worry about what anyone else might think.
And a few minutes into the pool party interlude in “Shrill,” I found myself suddenly and inexplicably crying. Crying really hard. It happened without warning. It took me a minute to realize that I was crying because I was witnessing the sacred thing I had felt, that I had sought out so often, and not only that ― everyone else could witness it now, too. It didn’t exist only in my mind, in my memory. It was right there, on a screen. It was a fake story about fake people at a fake party but somehow it was also preternaturally real.
When you are a member of a group with little positive representation in the media, or just the world, there is indisputable magic in seeing yourself, but not yourself.
In “Shrill,” Annie enters the pool party and is, at first, overwhelmed, so much that she can barely hold eye contact, because these women, who are they? How are they doing this? They must know some secret still obscured to her. But as the afternoon passes and her comfort grows, Annie’s expression changes: She sees the women having fun around her, but she doesn’t see them as impossible creatures. She sees herself. She sees the kind of self-assuredness she wants for herself. She sees women at home in their bodies, bodies that look like hers, which necessarily means she could also find that home in her body, just as it is.
And that is the transformative power of truly positive representation for any marginalized group of people. It helps to release us from shame, to wash away the sense of being the other and the outsider, to imagine a world in which that shame has ceased to be. There is no word for it other than magic.