September 6th, 2016
A gallery exhibit of previously unreleased early photos of Amy Winehouse, looking happy and “full of hope,” opens in London on September 13, the day before what would have been the singer’s 33rd birthday.
Celebrations and explorations of her life have continued to emerge since her death five years ago—most notably Amy, the critically acclaimed 2015 documentary. The film portrays the singer’s struggles with drugs and fame; she reportedly used heroin and crack cocaine, and was found by an inquest to have died of alcohol poisoning.
But Amy has been criticized for failing to highlight the role Winehouse’s eating disorder played in her struggles and her eventual death. Her brother, Alex, has said that “what really killed her was the bulimia.”
One such critic is filmmaker Jessie Kahnweiler. She wrote, directed and stars in the web series The Skinny, which tackles bulimia with humor, pathos and rare honesty. Produced by Refinery29 and Jill Soloway‘s Wifey.tv, the six-part dramedy premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was the only web series to land a coveted spot.
Based on Kahnweiler’s own life, the series is about addiction in multiple, intersecting forms, and follows a few days in the life of “Jessie,” a Jewish wannabe YouTube star, as she binges, purges, drinks and uses drugs, has sex, gets dumped, and befriends a younger social media powerhouse and her crew.
The first episode of The Skinny is below, and you can watch the rest here.
Kahnweiler is just getting out of a pool when I call her, giving the impression of a carefree LA life. She comes across as warm, open and funny—a little like “Jessie.” But over the course of the conversation, it became clear that she’s also perceptive and direct.
Including on the topic of the film Amy.
“Amy,” Kahnweiler tells me, “was inspiring.” But she also found it incomplete.
“I felt like they talked about the drug addiction and all that stuff so much,” she says, “but there are scenes of her binging in the documentary that are not talked about [in the film]. This perpetuates the idea that addiction’s just about alcohol and drugs, and you should just be able to get a handle on your ‘weird eating thing.’”
While watching the film, Kahnweiler says she thought “about all the times I did drugs and drank.” For her, “the eating disorder was what they call my ‘core addiction.’ Whenever I did coke or drank it would all be about losing weight or controlling weight, or using alcohol (or men) to replace food.”
It’s unclear whether that was also the case with Winehouse. But Kahnweiler urgently wanted to know things that the movie didn’t address, like, “How did her eating disorder affect her depression?”
She’s not alone in finding the issue under-exposed. “We all knew she was doing it,” Alex Winehouse told the Guardian, “but it’s almost impossible [to tackle], especially if you’re not talking about it. It’s a real dark, dark issue.”
And in a comprehensive essay for Pitchfork, titled “We Need to Talk about Amy Winehouse’s Eating Disorder and Its Role in her Death,” Kayleigh Hughes took a similar position. She described a scene in Amy where “A teenaged Winehouse, snacking with her friends, laments between mouthfuls that she’s a pig and she cannot help herself. In a voiceover during this sequence, the singer’s mother Janis Winehouse recounts the moment a young Amy tells her mother about discovering a great new ‘diet’—eating and then vomiting […Her mother] muses that she essentially ignored the statement and forgot about it, thinking it was a silly teen girl activity that Amy would soon grow out of.”
Hughes wrote that “this casual dismissal—the first mention of Amy Winehouse’s eating disorder—is wrenching, and comes almost halfway into the film. For many viewers, this may be the first they have ever heard about Winehouse’s eating disorder. As well-documented as her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction were, the tiny little fact of her severe, untreated, decade-long eating disorder was rarely mentioned.”
Hughes acknowledged that Winehouse’s official cause of death was alcohol poisoning, but argued that “this can be understood as the equivalent of someone with AIDS who has died of complications from pneumonia. Similar to the way HIV compromises a body’s ability to fight infections, bulimia damages the body to the point where it is no longer able to keep up basic functions and is more susceptible to external threats.”
The Skinny refuses to collude in the kind of cultural dismissal of eating disorders of which Amy stands accused. Neither does it treat bulimia in a narrowly-focused, after-school-special fashion. Instead, over the course of six short episodes, it gets at the interwoven, interactive relationships with drugs, alcohol, food, love, sex, relationships, and technology experienced by one woman.
That’s realistic in that there are clear correlations between problematic relationships with drugs, alcohol and food, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Statistics vary across studies, but they report that up to 50 percent of people with eating disorders “abuse alcohol or illicit drugs”—far more than the 9 percent figure among the general population. And around 35 percent of alcohol or illicit drug “abusers” have eating disorders, compared with 3 percent of the general population.
Another thing that feels different about The Skinny is its funny yet emotionally resonant approach to bulimia. It’s not a pure dark comedy, with bulimia as a punchline, nor is it purely tragic. I ask Kahnweiler what inspired her.
“There’s a Henry Jaglom movie from 1990 called Eating,” she says. It was made by “this white dude,” but nevertheless, it’s “amazing.”
She describes it as a “‘a day in the life’ about this woman’s dinner party in LA.”
“I remember seeing that,” she says, “and thinking that no one has ever said this stuff out loud about food, and talked so openly about body image. It wasn’t a documentary but it kind of feels like one. That really inspired me when I was still really in my addiction. I was obsessed with it—on a deeper level, it made me feel like I’m not alone, I’m not crazy … it was a really realistic portrayal.”
Though the clothing and decor are cheerfully late-20th century, many of the sentiments in Eating are entirely contemporary.
In one scene, a French ingénue, who attracts the jealousy of the other women for her thin Gallic sexiness, admits that she has made herself throw up after eating. She says that it’s hard for her to admit, because “…you can say I’m an alcoholic or a drug addict, and that’s ok, its kind of interesting. But just saying ‘I have an eating disorder’— it’s so unattractive, it’s so disturbing. I was never able to say that to anyone.”
I ask Kahnweiler if there will be a second season of The Skinny. “I’m developing it right now for TV, as a longer form,” she says, “but still thinking about whether or not I’ll do a second season of the web series. There are different forms it could take, which is really exciting.”
Meanwhile she’s “working on another series which I can’t officially announce yet, but it has to do with motherhood, and infertility and boundaries and shame—it’s gonna be really funny!” We laugh. It makes sense, though. I can see her applying The Skinny‘s tragicomic approach to the topics of infertility and motherhood, which, like bulimia, are hyper-gendered and involve weight, bodies and societal expectations. And in an interesting parallel, Jaglom’s second film in his “women trilogy” after Eating is called Babyfever; you can guess what it’s about. (The third in the series is Going Shopping).
But the new project will be further from Kahweiler’s personal experience.
“I’ve never been pregnant,” she says, “but I’ve definitely felt like I wanted to belong and would do anything to belong. So I’m taking that emotional truth and building a story around that. In some ways it’s awesome writing about your own life, and in some ways it’s harder. [With writing about your own life] you think—’does anyone care about this?’ I tell other writers to go to therapy so you can sort it out first.”
While working on The Skinny, which did deal with issues so close to her own life, she found it helpful to surround herself “with people who can call me on my blind spots. One of my biggest strengths,” she says, “is actually knowing what my weaknesses are.”
I ask her what they are. “Trying to go for the joke,” she answers, “without necessarily having an emotional truth to back that up. Focusing on ‘moments—like when you see a movie and think ‘oh there were good moments in that.’ But I need to work at coming back to ‘what is the story?’”
One aspect of her story that was important to her was showing that in her experience, “when you have an eating disorder it’s not just depression. I had a full life.”
Her goal was “to show the reality of what I went through—which is really sad, and beautiful. But also fun.”
It does look fun, at times. When the “likes” are coming in [when one of “Jessie’s” videos go viral], the blissful expression on her face is similar to the one she has after vomiting or masturbating. When I say that she conveys a lot through that recurring facial expression, she responds that she’s “had a lot of experience!”
And where does technology addiction, if that’s what it is, come in? “The internet is a huge relationship in my own life—getting all the comments—both for good and for bad.”
Kahnweiler says that if she didn’t have a “core base of some kind of spirituality or soul or something deeper,” she “can really get fucked up in that stuff.” She says she’s “very prone to it,” and feels like she has “an addictive personality.”
I wonder whether the new attention she has received for making the show fed into the very addiction it depicts. “There’s been a couple show-within-a-show moments,” she laughs. “When I’m getting all this love, it feels good, like maybe I am queen of the world! Then it goes away and it’s like ‘what is my life?’”
TV is a great medium for her to tell her particular addiction story, she explains, because there’s a lot of space to unfold a saga without a neat ending. “You see so many addiction narratives and the character is better after 90 minutes,” she says. “That is definitely not my story.”
Read more from The Influence:
Instead, the Skinny shows the interactive ebb and flow of relapse and recovery both within and around Jessie. At one point Cole (Jessie’s on-off boyfriend) gets out of rehab and says “My sobriety is the most important thing to me right now.” She responds, “Well you’re the most important thing to me.”
“I’ve had a lot of experience on both ends,” Kahnweiler says. “I’ve been close to many different addicts and also in recovery myself.”
When it’s someone else entering recovery, she says, there’s a fear that they will change. And “they can be kind of annoying, those smug people in recovery—it can be annoying! It is selfish. If you’ve ever been an relationship with an addict, they’re like, ‘I’m sorry I can’t do that—I’m an addict.’ And it’s like, that’s not an excuse to be an asshole!”
But coming at it from the other side, as someone in recovery herself, she says “it’s like, maybe I do need to be selfish right now. And I’m sorry that I can’t be the person that you need me to be in order to feel okay.”
She says that she “doesn’t have the answers, [but] wanted to represent that struggle in the show.”
Kahnweiler has said that “bulimia is something I’m going to have forever.” I ask her why.
“Light question!” she jokes. Then she explains that she’s not currently “actively engaging in bulimia, in terms of binging and purging” (though that period of her life lasted 10 years). But she does “believe it’s an addiction, in that there’s stuff that I need to do every single day to protect myself and keep my health.” Her list includes support groups, therapy, meditation, yoga, making sure she eats three meals a day and doesn’t skip meals, and practicing “self-care, self-love and service to others.”
“I don’t want to get into the habit of thinking I can rest on my laurels,” she says. “The bulimia is a symptom, and the core issue was just feeling terrified of my own mind, not feeling comfortable in my own skin. That was a way to distract and control.”
I ask her if she has any advice for people wondering if they have a problematic relationship with food.
“For so many years,” she says, “I thought that because I’m not super skinny or because I’m not throwing up 50 times a day I’m not sick enough. I had this idea about what it meant to have an eating disorder, and that kept me really silent and ashamed.” Her weight, she says, “hasn’t changed since recovery.” But her mental state has.
“I know it sounds cheesy,” she says, “but there is so much help out there. You can find help anywhere in the internet age—you can find help on instagram. We partnered with the National Eating Disorder Association for The Skinny—they’re a great organization.”
For people suffering yet wondering if they actually need help, Kahnweiler says: “If you think, ‘I’m not sick enough,’ maybe re-frame it as: ‘I deserve to be happy.’”