Looking back at previous depictions of fat women on screen, you’d be hard pushed to find anything truly positive.
Instead, we are the fat but non-threatening friend; the whale someone pulls when drunk that we’re supposed to laugh at later; the villain whose fatness only adds to your perception of them being disgusting in every way; or maybe the fool, someone chubby but jolly so they’re less painful to look at.
Dietland is doing this differently. Based on the novel by Sarai Walker, it’s a book that sends whispers of greatness through fat acceptance circles – and so the fact an adaptation of it has landed on Amazon Prime is undoubtedly radical.
It features a fat female protagonist called Plum. Plum (Joy Nash) is a writer; or, she’s trying to be. She ghost-writes for the editor (Julianna Margulies) of a teen girls’ magazine in New York, pretending to be the voice of a polished, prejudiced, thin woman communicating with her audience; a woman that fulfils all the stereotypes you might imagine of a magazine editor in New York.
Eventually, Plum comes across Leeta (Erin Darke), an eccentric goth girl who gives her a book named Dietland and a recommendation to visit its author. From there, Plum goes through a transformation to turn from a depressed loser who is full of self-loathing, still clinging to the thin ideal and about to undertake bariatric surgery, to something else entirely.
For me, a fat woman, watching Dietland was like having my flabby, overhanging belly sliced open and the contents spilled out on to the screen. It was a revelation.
Plum is a fully rounded person – with regards to character as well as physicality. She is talented, sure, but doesn’t push herself. She has friends, sure – and even people that fancy her – but she doesn’t realise it. She is funny and fiery whilst also repressed and awkward, but the only thing she can truly focus her energy on is her desire to lose weight.
She buys the red dress of her dreams, 6 sizes too small, and holds it up against herself. She dreams of the days she will fit into it, and only then will people know her by ‘Alicia’, her real name.
She is, completely, a representation of anyone that is a victim of the patriarchal diet culture that we live in.
These scenes are like a playbook of my very own past. This is no coincidence, but finally a representation of the lived experience of fat women on screen where their voice is being centred.
A scene where Plum confronts her recent body liberation with best friend Steven is particularly poignant. He can’t understand why she hates herself so much, as many of our thin friends can’t, and tries to comfort her, as many of our thin friends do, but it’s simply impossible for them to understand the experience of living in a bigger body.
“I’m a stain!”, Plum shouts.
And that is how it can feel sometimes. Like your size and shape is the big, greasy, chocolate covered, deep fried elephant in every room.
(Steven will later challenge Plum’s changed and more self-accepting attitudes by giving his ‘worries about her health’ as the reason – our thin friends, enemies and random Twitter acquaintances do this too. We must call bullshit.)
It is in Plum’s liberation that Dietland delivers its true revelations.
I have spent the past year and a half submerging myself in the world of body positivity, fat acceptance and the fight against diet culture, and so went into Dietland thinking it had nothing to teach me.
I was wrong.
It’s not Plum’s realisation that her body and face are in fact worthy of adornment that hit home for me.
It wasn’t her coming off her anti-depressants and getting her libido back, or having the bravery to go on dates, that really had an impact.
It wasn’t the man who fetishized her for her fatness, or even the later scene in which he rapes her that really surprised me.
The moment that got me, and that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since, was when Plum sits inside an art installation that comprises of a room where the biggest trending porn videos in the world are all projected onto the walls at once. There are images of women being strangled, whipped, violently penetrated and more.
“But these women are all beautiful”, Plum says, turning to her friend.
The reply? “How do you think that’s working out for them?”
Plum had spent her life punishing herself in the pursuit of becoming – as they put it in the show – ‘bangable’. But when she’s shown what that really can mean – aka. a whole new set of problems – she is made to think twice about why we’re all so desperate to achieve it.
Yes, this message is painted in broad strokes, but it’s impactful all the same – and one that’s never been so carefully teased out on our screens in this way.
Dietland, as a piece of television, is far from a masterpiece. Its animated depictions of Plum’s inner narrative is a nice touch and Joy Nash is great in the leading role, but it’s what Dietland is saying that’s much more important than how it’s saying it.
There’s lots of unnecessary characters, some parts that feel more like cliché than the anarchic chaos it was going for, and a whole lot of stuff that is just plain weird – but I don’t care, because as a fat woman, this show made me feel more seen and validated than just about anything else I can remember watching on mainstream television.
So thank you, Dietland, for finally telling a fat woman’s story. May it be the first of many.