You wouldn't necessarily expect "bulimia" and "funny" to be in the same sentence, let alone form the building blocks of a show. But that's exactly what filmmaker and actress Jessie Kahnweiler's new series, "The Skinny" does: find the comedy in a topic as seemingly dark as eating disorders.
"The Skinny," which premieres on Refinery29 on January 27, follows a young feminist YouTuber named Jessie -- "I do hardcore feminist shit. Like, full bush, liberal" -- who lives in LA. She also happens to have an eating disorder, something that informs all of her relationships, most importantly her relationship with herself. The series, though very much a work of fiction, is deeply rooted in Kahnweiler's own experiences. She was bulimic for over a decade and is now in recovery, a process she sees as ongoing, possibly forever.
I spoke to Kahnweiler just after the Sundance premiere of her show this week. She was getting on a bus "drunk on love," and chatted with me about the perceived tension between being a "good" feminist and having eating issues, the need to tell your own story authentically, and why "The Skinny" is about so much more than bulimia.
I know "The Skinny" is somewhat inspired by your own struggles with an eating disorder. What made you want to create a show that touches on those themes with yourself at the center?
As an independent filmmaker it’s just, what are the stories that are not being told? What’s the shit that matters to me and my friends that’s not being depicted in an honest way, whether that’s sexual assault or race or eating disorders? I was bulimic for over 10 years and in recovery now. And I believe that I’m never going to be recovered, it’s always going to be something that’s a part of me. [I wanted to explore] this issue of women’s relationships to their bodies and how that relates to sexuality and food and desire. I was literally searching for a story like that.
Was it scary to create something so personal?
I was really nervous. Part of me felt like, this is the most shameful thing. I can flash my tits, I can say "fuck," I can be that zany clown, but what I was doing with my eating was so shameful that that was the scariest thing to expose. That’s what made me want to do it -- this challenge and the need to see this story told in an authentic way, which is very personal to me but not just my story.
I was this loud, happy, crazy, feminist and I also had this other part of me that was full of shame and self-hate. So, how do those two people co-exist in the same woman?
Do you think what you’re doing with "The Skinny" is different from the depictions of eating disorders on TV and in movies we usually see?
I don’t know if it’s different, but as an out and proud TV addict I was looking for stories that showed eating disorders in a real way. It’s joked around with because people feel really uncomfortable or it’s melodramatic -- like this girl has an eating disorder, and then by Act III three she almost dies and then she’s better. And for me that was not my experience. I was this loud, happy, crazy, feminist and I also had this other part of me that was full of shame and self-hate. So, how do those two people co-exist in the same woman? 'Cause every woman I know is incredibly complicated. So I was really interested in exploring that. I guess [through the show] I'm asking questions to myself. How did this happen? What does this mean? I feel very grateful going through this process of recovery. The show is probably part of that, though it is not actual therapy.
What a novel idea! Women are complicated!
[Laughs] I know, you would think. We have 'Girls,' let’s move on. For some reason -- we show sex and violence and all this crazy stuff on TV and that’s OK, but you show a woman eating an entire pizza and that’s insane. And that’s insane to me, because that perpetuates the cycle of shame. If you don’t see your story, you’re like, 'Well, I’m the only one.' That’s what I thought for 10 years: 'I’m the only one that does this, no one else does this shit with food like I do, and I need to keep it to myself and I need to get better by myself.' Which is total bullshit.
You’ve also spoken about the tension you felt between being a "strong feminist" and having an eating disorder. What is it about food issues -- which pretty much every woman struggles with -- that is seen as being incongruous with our feminist values?
That’s a great question. I really believe that it has everything to do with a lack of female storytellers and the female gaze being represented, which means women telling stories about their own lives and putting themselves as protagonists in their own stories. It’s amazing to have Lena and "Broad City" and Amy Schumer, but if you think about all the TV shows out there, 95 percent [of the time] we’re still seeing a man’s experience. Of course men can write women and women can write men, but I think that when it comes to something like eating and body, I think there just needs to be more. Yes, there’s women. Yes, they’re making art. And, yes, there needs to be a lot fucking more.
Yes, there’s women. Yes, they’re making art. And, yes, there needs to be a lot f**king more.
Most of your work has been online. How do you think the Internet has changed your career trajectory?
I wouldn’t have been able to be an artist before the Internet. No one wanted to make this show. Nobody. Eating disorders are ugly or messy or gross. So, what are we going to do about it? There was something inside of me as an artist that was like, 'I will literally die before I don’t tell this story.' It was bursting out of me. So going on Kickstarter and literally empowering myself, and enlisting Illeana Douglas [who plays Jessie's mom in 'The Skinny'], you get all these little pebbles of hope. You get Illeana Douglas saying yes. You get 10 bucks and an email from a girl saying, 'Oh man I thought I was the only one. Thank you so much for making this show.' OK, that’s a pebble of hope. And you keep rolling that pebble up the hill until it becomes a boulder. And now I’m at Sundance and 'The Skinny' is everyone’s -- it’s not mine anymore.
You've worked with some incredible women, like "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway who is a producer on "The Skinny." How did your collaboration with her come about?
I stalked Jill a few years ago on Facebook. I was really seeking out mentors. And Jill was a really badass storyteller, a really specific true voice. I sought her out and started this relationship where she helped me get this grant from the Jewish Federation and I was able to make a web series. Her thing is just to keep making work. I think a lot of the times in Hollywood it’s like, 'Well, it’s all about people you know.' And, yeah, it’s all about people you know, but you have to make the work. The work is the networking, ultimately. What was really incredible about having Jill involved in the show is that the show is so personal to me, and she really helped me build the structure. Everything is based off emotional truth, and having an adventure and characters learning, growing, changing and fucking up, and because I had her to help me shape the story, it allowed me to take more chances.
A lot has been made about the show’s focus on our fucked up relationships with food. But when I was watching, a lot of other themes jumped out at me -- like the challenges of getting a creative career off the ground, the challenges of navigating relationships and dating, and maintaining boundaries with your parents as you grow up.
Yes. I’m so happy you’re saying that. In structuring the show, it wasn’t the 'bulimia show.' It’s not just, this is what it’s like to be bulimic. Of course that’s really important, but I wanted it to be more of a story. It's about, having an eating disorder, how does it affect my relationships, my relationship to myself, my body. A lot of times, my eating disorder was my best friend and my worst enemy. Really [the show is] about this girl’s journey of becoming a woman and how she reconciles her self-hate. And how she makes meaning of her life. And, hopefully, that’s a universal story.
There’s a moment in the third episode where your character is trying to sell her YouTube series and someone says, "No one likes women that real." That line really really stuck with me. Is that something you’ve actually heard said explicitly -- or is it just kind of implied?
A lot of the show is inspired from these nuggets that happened and then you build on them. That moment specifically, as a woman I feel like either I’m not enough or I feel like I’m too much. And I’m totally internalizing the patriarchy in moments where I’m like, 'Oh my god, I don’t want to take up too much space.' I’ve been told I’m too much my whole life. And I think I was trying to face that and examine that. And there’s no bad guy. I’m not saying that the guy who said that to me is the bad guy. But just, god, where did this [attitude] come from? How can we change it? How does the way society deals with women affect my own relationship with my body? As I’m growing and feeling more comfortable in my body, how does that change how I am as an artist, as a friend, as a girlfriend, as someone who loves the environment and politics? I feel like the most fundamental relationship is my relationship with my body, yet it’s been a journey to get back there -- to the state of being a little kid, where my body was something I used to have fun and not take out all my rage on.
Ultimately, what do you hope other women take away from watching "The Skinny"?
I really hope that it’s an entertaining experience. I know that it can make people kind of feel uncomfortable but I really want it to feel like, it’s OK. The most shameful thing about you, I’ve felt too. That thought? I’ve had it too. The process of making the show, and working with my writers and my editor and Jill, it was a constant process of, 'Me too. Me too.' Women [need] to tell the stories that only they can tell.
Watch a trailer for "The Skinny" below:
Need help? Call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237 or visit their website.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.