Can Television Destroy Diet Culture?

Netflix’s Insatiable and AMC’s Dietland both feature fat heroines who are bullied for their body type. But they’re very different shows.


This year marks the 100th anniversary of diet culture as we know it. Compared to the span of human activity and the arc of civilization, the propagation of the idea that fatness should be shamed is a relative blip on the historical calendar. Yes, diets have been around for millennia. Saint Augustine of Hippo dieted. Lord Byron dieted. But diet culture itself—the widespread dissemination of the idea that bodies (specifically female ones) have a civic duty and moral imperative to reduce themselves, with tips for doing so—has its origins in 1918.

That year, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, a UC Berkeley–trained physician, published Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories. In the book, Peters explained the concept of the calorie for the first time. She decried fatness as unpatriotic, declaring that it was “a crime” to hoard food, “a valuable commodity,” by storing vast quantities of it on one’s person in the form of excess weight. She drew comical doodles of blob-shaped people next to stick figures, and cartoon coffins awaiting the obese. She offered regimented diet plans. And she encouraged dieters to fine themselves if they failed to lose weight and donate the money to the Red Cross. “How any one can want to be anything but thin is beyond my intelligence,” Peters wrote. Diet and Health sold 2 million copies over the next two decades. Diet culture was born.

I thought about Peters’s drawings while watching Dietland, Marti Noxon’s AMC series about a reclusive woman named Plum who learns, over the course of 10 episodes, how to reject the world’s conception of her and her body. One of the ways that Dietland conveys Plum’s sense of self-worth is by portraying her in cartoon form, a circular figure shrouded from head to toe in black wearing a downcast, mournful expression. The animated world around her is flat and monochrome; when cartoon Plum moves around it, she’s sometimes accompanied by her own weeping rain cloud.

But at the end of the season’s final episode, animated Plum’s heart begins to glow bright red. The ground beneath her turns yellow. She runs through landscapes of pink trees and color-saturated cityscapes. For 10 episodes, Dietland has shown the ways in which the world tells Plum that she’s the problem: that she’s too large, too greedy, too conspicuously present to people who would rather not see her. In its final moments, Dietland suggests an alternate possibility instead. What if Plum doesn’t need to change at all? What if the world does?

When I interviewed Joy Nash, who plays Plum, earlier this year for a profile of Noxon, one of the emotions she expressed was shock that a role like this one could exist. The show is adapted from a 2015 novel by Sarai Walker, which Nash said was like nothing she’d ever read. Dietland disguises itself as a more familiar kind of novel, the type where the protagonist starts out as an overweight loner. As she reduces in size, her life begins to take form, like a Polaroid coming into focus. At the beginning of Dietland, Plum is saving up for gastric-bypass surgery, directing all her mental space to envisioning the perfect thin woman she’ll become.

But thinness, it turns out, isn’t the point of her story. Dietland is a chaotic, subversive book, and Plum isn’t its sole story. The novel also imagines a guerrilla feminist group named Jennifer taking violent revenge on male abusers, and using terrorist tactics to try to force change on the world. But there are parallels between the members of Jennifer and Plum. In both cases, women are abused and shamed. They’re told that what happens to them is their own fault, and that they’re responsible for protecting themselves. And in both cases, they rebel against that dictum. Jennifer demands that society changes by no longer tacitly endorsing or rewarding bad men. Plum decides that she doesn’t need to cut herself open to fit into the world—she can accept and love herself, and demand the same respect from others.

What Dietland the show presents is similarly revolutionary. Plum isn’t played by a tiny actress in a fat suit; her size isn’t presented as a punch line, à la Fat Monica or Fat Schmidt or Fat Rosemary or any of the myriad gif-able cultural products that have joked about the terrible calamity of fatness. Plum’s body—Nash’s body—isn’t hidden by the camera, but documented both clothed and unclothed. And the show allows Plum to be strikingly beautiful, hypnotic, and almond eyed, even in her most downtrodden moments. The show, Nash told me, forces people to reconsider “who’s interesting, who deserves to be looked at.” But it’s a symptom of a larger movement happening in the world, one reconsidering culture’s relationship with fatness. “I don’t think I would be here at all if this movement wasn’t happening,” Nash said. “I don’t think anyone would be giving a chance to a regular old fat girl.”

The weight-loss industry in the United States is worth $66 billion a year, an amount that’s substantially bigger than the GDP of Costa Rica. At any given time, about one-third of Americans are on a diet. And yet, the adult obesity rate, at 39.8 percent, continues to rise. Kim Kardashian hawks weight-loss lollipops made of sugar and unregulated appetite suppressants, touting their “literally unreal” effectiveness. (If you’re looking for a way to describe the benefits of most weight-loss products sold on the internet, “literally unreal” is as good as any.) Clearly the status quo isn’t working. But hating fatness, it turns out, is a hard habit for culture to break.

If Dietland is symbolic of larger body-positivity movements outside the show, Insatiable (which debuts on Netflix on Friday) is a timely reminder of how popular culture has always treated larger bodies. In some ways, the two shows are similar: Both are about fat women who are persistently humiliated, to the point where they become consumed by rage. But Patty (Debby Ryan) shrugs off her fatness in the first six minutes of Insatiable, after a homeless man berates her and breaks her jaw, forcing her to go on an all-liquid diet. In the blink of an eye she’s a beauty queen, lean and Lolita-esque.

She’s also intent on revenge, which she pursues in a number of absurdly self-damaging ways. Because the point is that she still hates herself, really; her fatness, the show posits, was a symptom of her insecurity. But it’s also explicitly a state to be transcended. “You could be a role model for girls who struggle with their weight,” Bob (Dallas Roberts), a pageant coach, tells Patty. “You could show them what’s possible. You could change them from the inside.”

When the Insatiable trailer debuted in July, it sparked a firestorm of controversy and an online petition signed by hundreds of thousands of people demanding that Netflix cancel the show. “Ahhh yes, a fat girl could never stand up for herself while fat and of course she has to be assaulted and have her mouth wired shut before she becomes her best self, her skinny self,” the author Roxane Gay wrote on Twitter. “Good to know!” The revenge fantasy portion of Patty’s story, wherein she became empowered by her newfound hotness, was what offended most critics. The creator of the series, Lauren Gussis, pleaded with people to judge the show by its merits rather than its trailer. Insatiable was based on her own experiences as a teen with a binge-eating disorder, she told Vanity Fair. Its story is supposed to subvert the idea that weight loss affords happiness, not endorse it.

From the first 12 episodes provided to critics, Gussis’s argument seems to ring true. Patty’s Cinderella story doesn’t bring her happiness—it complicates her life irrevocably. In Dietland, Plum realizes that conforming to archetypal beauty standards doesn’t keep you safe from predators; it turns you into better prey. Thin Patty is perhaps less vulnerable to bullies, but she’s newly exposed to toxic boyfriends and jealous competitors.

The problem is tone. If it weren’t for the text messages flashing up on the screen every other minute, Insatiable would feel exactly like a black comedy from decades ago, caustic and cynical and jubilantly offensive. Along with fatness, it finds punch lines in homosexuality, child molestation, religion, anal cancer, drug addiction, and murder. During one scene, 20 teenagers perform the opening sequence for the pageant, Miss Magic Jesus. “A love so strong, so hard, oh Jesus, you fill me in every single way,” they sing, thrusting their hips. “Sweet, sweet Jesus inside me, oh spirit, please ride me, deep deep deep in my soul.”

Insatiable is supposed to be evilly satirical, blasting through taboos about what can and can’t be funny. Instead, it feels awkwardly retrograde. More than anything, it reminded me of Heathers, the cult 1988 movie about a revenge spree of high-school murders disguised as suicides. For its 30th anniversary this week, some publications revisited the film, analyzing its contemporary relevance as a “black comedy about America’s black soul.” Michael Lehmann, the movie’s director, told the BBC that Heathers was distinctly a product of its time. “No one” now, he said, “would want to make a comedy that touches on high-school violence in that way.”

And yet here’s Insatiable, offering up teen murder and teen drug abuse with the airy, zany tone of John Waters at Sprinkles. The issue isn’t that Insatiable is particularly irresponsible—it doesn’t take itself seriously enough for that. It’s that it’s so old-fashioned. Moreover, Patty’s former fatness isn’t ever really considered on its own terms. It’s likened instead to the insatiable appetites all its characters express: for food, for sex, for drugs, for success, for revenge. In its big, bright world, fatness is just another form of failure. “It gets better,” Bob tells Patty. “Trust me, skinny is magic.” The most depressing part of Insatiable isn’t that Patty’s thinness brings her happiness. It’s that it brings her power.

The most interesting thing about Insatiable is the response it’s drawn. Reviews for the show are almost entirely negative. The petition to cancel its release altogether has more than 225,000 signatures. If it’s not surprising that shows like this one can still get green-lit, it’s more so that critics and audiences will so thoroughly reject a series for being “obscenely cruel.” If fat-shaming still exists in reality, popular culture at least doesn’t have to perpetuate it.

The current moment might offer up sexualized Times Square billboards and Instagram posts that depict women sucking appetite-suppressant lollipops. But it also has the actress Jameela Jamil using her substantial public profile to explain, over and over again, why ad campaigns like that one are so toxic. 2018 has Aidy Bryant set to star in the televised adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill. It has Tess Holliday on the digital cover of Self. And it has Dietland, which for all its labyrinthine subplots is sharply, strikingly thoughtful on the subject of body image and self-esteem. Insatiable’s reception contains its own kind of irony—it’s a long overdue redefinition of who and what deserves to be shamed.