Girls Like Us

© Channel 4, UK

There is a scene in the third episode of My Mad Fat Diary where the main character, Rae (Sharon Rooney), stands in the bathroom staring at herself in the mirror. “I am a body dysmorphic without the dysmorphic,” she says in voiceover. “I. Am. Fat.” She reaches behind her head and parts the hair at the back of her neck to reveal a zipper. She unzips her fat suit and pulls it off, belly-first. Her outer layer falls away and she steps out fit and strong, leaving a Rae-shaped puddle on the floor. Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” plays as the thin, beautiful Rae drags her fat outside, stuffs it in a rubbish bin, and sets it on fire. The flames blaze as Thom Yorke sings, “If I could be who you wanted/If I could be who you wanted all the time.” Back in the bathroom, tears fall on the scale as the real Rae weighs herself yet again.

This is what it feels like to be a teenager living in a fat body. This is what it feels like to want so badly to divorce yourself from the exterior weighing you down. I cried the first time I saw this scene, and get chills every time I rewatch it because it’s all so familiar: the self-hatred; the claustrophobia of being stuck in your own body; the feeling that you would do anything, you would starve yourself, hurt yourself, and throw yourself away if it meant things would change.

Also familiar, if you were born in the same era as Rae and I, is Thom Yorke’s saddest songs scoring your mad, fat, teenage angst. My Mad Fat Diary starts in 1996 on the day Rae is released from the hospital after a four-month stay in the psychiatric ward. “I’m 16, I weigh 16 ½ stone, and I live in Lincolnshire,” she says. “My interests include music, veggin’ out, and finding a fit boy – no, any boy – to quench my ever-growing horn.” Rae is fat. She is certifiably mad. She’s also sharp, funny, boy crazy, and flawed. Rae is a fully-realized teenage girl in the late 1990’s, and the first time I watched My Mad Fat Diary, I felt understood in a way I never before had by a movie or television show. Here is a main character so much like me that I feel nostalgic watching her life: Rae talking to a cut-out picture of Damon Albarn taped to the back of her mirror; Rae fantasizing about punching her best friend for hurting her feelings yet again; Rae patiently listening to her mom talk about the new fad diet she’s trying; Rae crying in shame after accidentally saying something cruel, and punishing herself with food.

Rae is a binge eater. “A bulimic without the purge,” as she says. When she returns home from the hospital, the cupboard her mother keeps stocked with snacks becomes the physical embodiment of her disorder, a horror movie monster terrorizing her in her own home. In another viscerally familiar scene, after being humiliated by the town bully, Rae opens the cupboard doors and sits at the kitchen table methodically unwrapping sweet after sweet. There is no pleasure in the binge. It’s a form of self harm that leaves less violent scarring while having the same effect: this is what I deserve. To eat until it hurts, and to live in the body it creates.

Some of the most painful moments of recognition come in Rae’s relationship with her mother Linda (Claire Rushbrook). Linda loves her daughter, but she doesn’t always do what’s best for her. The day she picks up Rae from the hospital, where she’s been treated for self-harm and disordered eating, Linda immediately starts talking about her latest diet: alphabetized eating, where each week she can only have food that starts with the same letter of the alphabet. The next week, her diet will be color-coded, and liquid-only the next. We quickly see that Rae didn’t just happen into her troubled relationship with food.

For fat girls like Rae and me, food neurosis is inextricably tied to mom stuff. I love my mother but at times I still feel angry about the messages I internalized as a kid. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know my fat body was wrong; in part because she felt her own body was wrong if it looked at all fat. I was taken to sessions with a nutritionist who sent me home with sugar-free hard candies to replace the sweets she was certain I was sneaking (I always favored salty stuff, and it had never occurred to me to “sneak”), and food classes at the local hospital where I naively bragged about exceeding my recommended servings of grain for the week. I was weighed-in and caliper-pinched by strangers, and praised for “making good choices” as if eating was a test instead of a daily necessity of life. I remember drinking Diet Coke by the pool while my mom and her friends tried on their matching green bikinis and talked about how fat they felt. Nobody did it on purpose, but I was taught to feel ashamed of the body I woke up in every day.

When I go home now, there are still diet foods in the cupboard. Nutritional shakes that come with their own special shaker cups. Frozen single-serving meals tucked between tubs of artificially-sweetened frogurt. Various meal-replacement bars. It’s not enough to blame our mothers for the damage they hand down, especially after we grow up and realize we’re all women living in the same woman-hating world. Disordered eating is a beast that lingers, stalking generation after generation of women made to believe they are wrong just the way they are.

Thankfully, My Mad Fat Diary lets Rae thrive despite her troubles. For every scene of her crying in the bathroom, eyeing the cupboard full of snacks, or jealously glaring at thinner girls, there’s one of her overcoming her anxieties and living life. Shortly after her hospital release, she reconnects with an old friend, the hot, popular Chloe (Jodie Comer), who invites her down to the pub to hang out with “the gang.” The gang includes a trio of cute boys, and Rae knows this is her chance to redefine herself, newly healthy, newly free. “All I had to do was just BE NORMAL,” she writes in her diary. After an awkward start, she remembers her superpower: music. She strolls confidently to the jukebox and takes time to select the perfect jam. It’s the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” She’s in.

On a very basic level, My Mad Fat Diary is special to me because Rae is 16 when I was 16, obsessed with the music I was obsessed with at that age, crushing on boys I would have crushed on, living a full, fat, teenaged life. I’ve never seen a movie or TV show that so accurately portrays my own teenage experience, and not in a “stuff only 90’s kids can understand” way, but in a visceral, gut-punching, “stuff only fat girls who grew up hating themselves, learned to hurt themselves, coped through self-deprecating humor and rock ‘n’ roll and healed through therapy and a lot of false starts can understand” way. My Mad Fat Diary, in particular the first six-episode series, is the first full exploration of a fat teenage girl I’ve ever seen, and I’m so grateful it exists. I wish I had seen it sooner. It’s one of those viewing experiences I simultaneously want to share with the world and jealously guard because if the person I share it with doesn’t like it, if they reject it, then ultimately maybe they will reject me (see how this stuff lingers?).

I hope it’s easier for fat teenagers today than it was for girls like Rae and me. It seems like it must be. They have access to shows like My Mad Fat Diary. They have Melissa McCarthy becoming a movie star. They have Lindy West, Rookie Magazine, and all the other voices speaking out about fat acceptance and self-care. I often think that if this stuff had been around more when I was a teen, I might have learned to love myself a whole lot sooner. I would have had voices telling me I was worthy, even cool, and I would have believed them. Of course, the truth is I did have encouraging voices, here and there, but they were often drowned out by the parade of bullshit about what a girl should look like and how a girl should act, and a learned self-loathing so intense I still struggle to keep it at bay.

When Rae starts making real progress in therapy, her therapist asks her to consider herself as a child. Would you tell that little girl that it’s her fault her father left and her mother made mistakes? Would you tell her she’s fat, ugly, and undeserving of love? Of course not. You would tell her, You are enough. You would tell her, You are cool as shit. You would tell her, Yeah, Oasis is fun, and Radiohead is deep, but Blur will hold up best of all (at least that’s what I think, and like Rae, music is my superpower). It took me until my late 20’s to start figuring this stuff out. I’m 33 now, and it’s still hard work to be generous and understanding towards the cool-as-shit fat kid I once was, and the cool-as-shit fat adult I am now.

Rae gets to start her healing in accelerated TV time, but that doesn’t mean she figures it all out. She has 18 funny, wrenching, wonderful episodes’ worth of ups and downs (episodes that can be tough to find in the U.S., but are frequently uploaded to YouTube and other streaming sites). Rae is not the token fat friend I’m used to seeing in shows about teenagers; she’s the main character, the romantic lead, and the hero I’m grateful to have. She shouts at her therapist, “I drink pints! I’m loud! I swear! I tell jokes!” Never have I rooted for a character to get what she wants so hard as I root for mad, fat, noisy, funny, brilliant Rae. She lives in her body, even when it’s hard. For fat girls like us, there’s no other choice.