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When someone mentions eating disorders, what comes to mind?
Is it salads? Laxatives? Karen Carpenter? Maybe a high-cheeked supermodel walking the runway for New York Fashion Week? Or Victoria’s Secret’s youngest set of bony hips, lying on the shores of Ibiza in a low-rise bikini? What about an emaciated young girl flipping through an old issue of Vanity Fair, comparing her body to the Dior lipstick model’s before she even knows matte from gloss?
As any person might admit, the idea of an eating disorder conjures up images similar to at least one of the above. And while these images don’t overtly falsify what addictions such as bulimia or anorexia look like, they’re far from comprehensive. Worse, such depictions of sad, skinny women, staring longingly at a piece of pizza or slinking away to the bathroom after eating a french fry in order to look good for a photo shoot, have sometimes glorified these diseases.
The way eating disorders and body image in general are portrayed both in mainstream media and in Hollywood is part of a much larger narrative — one that Jessie Kahnweiler, creator and star of new Web series “The Skinny,” means to change.
“I was really frustrated at the lack of eating disorder stories that were honestly depicted, because I’m this loud, Jewish feminist with a moustache who speaks her mind, but, you know, I also struggle so much with pain and self-hate,” Kahnweiler said after the series premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “I think there was this self-perpetuating cycle of shame because I wasn’t really seeing — and I’m a TV addict — I wasn’t really seeing stories that I could relate to and that I could connect with.
“So I wrote a pilot and no one in Hollywood wanted to make it, because a girl shitting on a lawn isn’t sexy, I guess.”
Then, in producer and co-star Illeana Douglas, she found someone who did. They shot the spec pilot and went to Kickstarter to campaign for funding.
“I sent it to [Jill] Soloway and [Rebecca] Odes and [Andrea] Sperling at Wifey.TV, and they were like, ‘Come Sol-oway with us.’ ”
“The Skinny” blows the gates wide open to the possibilities for female-driven content. It’s a dark comedy about bulimia produced by Refinery 29 in partnership with Wifey.TV, a platform founded by Soloway and Odes to provide a creative space for women to “be the subject, not the object.”
“Being able to find out how it feels to be yourself, and then share that with the camera,” Soloway said of the show during the Q-and-A. “In a world where basically nobody cares, Sundance does.
“To me, the thematic feeling of the relationship to the body, especially in terms of what comes into it, and in [Kahnweiler’s] case, what comes out of it, as I was watching, it felt to me like such a response in some ways to this male-dominated world where porn is obsessed with what comes out of men.”
That women are censored from every angle, judged on the ability to comply with the behavioral guidelines of a patriarchal society, is old news. Even attempts to free women from censorship are subject to censorship. Some elements of the truth are appropriate for a mass audience while other elements simply aren’t sexy enough to share. Jennifer Lawrence can talk about cheeseburgers and her disdain for exercise all she wants — because she looks like Jennifer Lawrence. Meanwhile, Melissa McCarthy has built her career off of self-deprecating fat jokes. Embracing shows like “Broad City” and “Inside Amy Schumer” is great, but how high are the stakes if the characters are clowns?
There’s another side to this coin. Strong women and positive body image has become a highly marketable brand, and brands are, by necessity, exclusive. Words like “diversity” and “feminism,” words that are meant to champion inclusivity, can sometimes connote exclusivity. Someone with an eating disorder and feelings of self-hate surely isn’t a feminist. Feminists never doubt themselves and they don’t care what men think of them. Feminists don’t stare at cellulite in the mirror, and they certainly have never taken a laxative. The morning before the Sundance premiere, I spoke with Kahnweiler about the colliding forces of empowerment and insecurity that led her to write “The Skinny,” as well as how creating her own Jewish identity equipped her with the resilience to go toward these very personal questions instead of away from them.
She greeted me with a hearty, “Shalom!” There’s a disarming quality to Kahnweiler that, when talking to her, makes it easy to forget she’s quickly becoming one of the strongest voices in feminism today.
“I work from a place from my gut,” she said. “It’s always like, I have a question — and this is the Jewishness of me — it’s about, what am I obsessing over? What’s keeping me up at night? How is it possible that I am this strong feminist with an incredible support system and also have this side of me who is rooted in pain?
“My favorite thing about Judaism is that the holiest person in the Torah isn’t the perfect man, it’s the man who falls and rises.”
“The Skinny,” available on refinery29.com, is a series of six episodes each averaging 10 minutes in length. Kahnweiler said the smaller platform allows her to maintain creative control and not be tied to the standard half-hour or one-hour format.
“It’s not gonna be wrapped up in a bow at the end of Season 1,” she said. “The best questions don’t have answers … I’m so grateful to be part of a culture that is based on asking questions.”
Kahnweiler also touched on the move away from Judaism by young adults, or at least Jewish participation, which has long been measured in tangibles such as synagogue membership and the number of congregants showing up for Shabbat services. It seems every week, community nonprofits are partnering to create a new initiative or a temple is introducing a young leadership program to bring Gen. Y back into the fold. Canters play guitars and take off their shoes and sing about peace and love and trees, and the whole thing just feels …
“… Insincere,” Kahnweiler said, finishing my sentence.
“I have to talk about the Six Points Fellowship. Judaism is like a desperate boyfriend who’s like, ‘Oh my God, please love me!’ and you’re like, ‘Shut up.’ The Six Points Fellowship brought together 12 types of artists who were asked to make an art project that expressed yourself in a Jewish way.
“Judaism is an experience, it’s an active experience. Going to Israel, going to the Western Wall, meeting Holocaust survivors … Six Points allowed me to create my own Jewish identity, it wasn’t forced down my throat. By the end, we had 12 completely different projects, but all so Jewish.”
Be it her feminism or her Judaism, Kahnweiler creates an avenue to tailor these guiding principles to her own personal journey.
“I mean, I love latkes, but I’m not gonna find my Judaism at a latke night.”