Radical Bodies“Dietland” Author Sarai Walker On Her Taboo-Busting Book’s Journey To TV

Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in AMC’s Dietland

Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in AMC’s Dietland

Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in AMC’s Dietland (Photo credit: Patrick Harbron/AMC)

When a hardcover book called Dietland arrived at Bitch Media’s headquarters in 2015, it quickly traveled around the office from reader to reader with effusive praise. Sarai Walker’s relentlessly absorbing novel—part mystery, part manifesto—brimmed with sly, relatable takes on perennial feminist obsessions (like the influence of women’s media and the facile, empty promises of the diet and beauty industries) but added an explosive premise: What if women just stopped doing all the shit we’ve been told we need to do and fought the hell back?

Plum Kettle, the book’s protagonist, ghostwrites an advice column for the glamorous, formidable editor-in-chief of Daisy Chain magazine, Kitty; when she’s not working, she’s simply waiting to start a new life as a thinner person. Plum has spent years in a constant cycle of dieting and frustration, but believes that once she gets the bariatric surgery she’s been saving for, she’ll have a brand-new body to go with the new clothes and new name she’s already picked out.

But things get weird as Plum finds herself befriended by a group of seductively confident feminists and as an even more mysterious group ramps up a violent campaign against rapists, harassers, and creeps. In a year that’s seen a reckoning with systemic, tacitly approved sexual misconduct, Dietland’s prescience is impossible to ignore. As it debuts on AMC as a TV series, you could easily assume the show (created by Marti Noxon, whose slate of critically acclaimed projects includes UnREAL and the 2016 film To The Bone, the latter based in part on Noxon’s own longtime struggle with disordered eating) was made to capitalize on #MeToo. And though it wasn’t, the show’s willingness to engage with difficult, complex subjects—not least of which is women’s anger—feels deeply resonant right now.

Bitch recently talked to Walker about the book’s journey to the small screen, its embrace of difficult women, and whether it’s possible to neutralize a three-letter word that still carries a wealth of judgment.

How much involvement did you have with adapting Dietland for television?

Well, I didn’t write any of the scripts, but I came out [to Los Angeles] and worked in the writers’ room and got to help shape them. Once the show went into production, I really didn’t have much involvement at all.

How do you feel about the casting? Do the characters—especially Plum (Joy Nash)—feel like the people you wrote?

They do. I think my biggest fear about casting was that we were going to get a lead who was going to all of a sudden lose a lot of weight or become [an] advocate of diet culture and kind of undermine the show. Joy is a well-known fat activist; I think we got really lucky that not only did we find a great actress who is an actual person and who’s not, you know, “Hollywood fat,” but [also one] who personally is aligned with the book. That’s really important, and it was probably hard to find someone that fit all of those criteria.

My favorite thing about the book was that it foregrounded and allowed for anger in a way that mainstream feminism often doesn’t, and I’m excited about the TV show doing that as well. But it’s interesting that it has come along at a time when we are having a lot more conversations about misogyny and how women react to it. And what is the appropriate way to react to it? Why can’t women show anger when we’re harmed? I’m really fascinated by how reactions to Dietland might play out because of the cultural context.

SW: It’s interesting how with a book or a TV show, people react to [them] depending on what’s happening in the culture at that moment; that really influences how it’s perceived. So when Dietland was published three years ago, I got a lot of people asking, “Why are these women so angry?” And, to me as the author, “Why are you so angry?” And I do wonder, if the book was published right now, whether people would ask that question. Not that there’s not still a taboo against women’s anger—there is, and that’ll take ages to eradicate. But there’s so much more female anger [that’s] very visible in the culture right now; I think maybe people wouldn’t ask that question, or wouldn’t be taken aback by the anger in the book.

But I think the thing about the anger is—and I might be going off here…

Go off!

Well, I talk about this a lot, about how Fight Club influenced Dietland. Fight Club has got all sorts of problems, especially from a feminist perspective, but, you know, it’s a story about anger. As the film starts, the protagonist is turning his anger inward, toward himself. He’s depressed, he’s got all this horrible angst, he can’t sleep. But as the [narrative] goes on, he turns that anger outward, toward society.

That’s what made me think about how women mostly turn our anger inward on ourselves, and it manifests as self-hatred—in particular a hatred of the body. You know, like: Oh, if I could just fix myself everything would be better. So with Dietland, I was like: What would that kind of anger look like if it were turned outward?

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 11.48.03 AM.png

head shot of author Sarai Walker

Author Sarai Walker | photo by Theresa Lee

For me that’s what made the book so satisfying: Even imagining that kind of outward anger in women is so taboo. We expect, and we certainly tolerate, men taking their anger and turning it on others.  That’s acceptable in a way that a woman publicly saying, for instance, “Yeah, I do hate my rapist, I think he’​​​​​​​s a terrible person, I want horrible things to happen to him,” still isn’t. We’ve seen this a lot in the context of #MeToo, where women expressing anger that is rightfully theirs is seen as somehow going too far.

That reminds me: Have you seen I Feel Pretty?

I have not. I read Virgie Tovar’s critique of it, which I thought was really interesting.

It’​​​​​​​s fascinating to me that it seems to be falling flat, and audiences just kind of aren’​​​​​​​t having it. Could it be that we’re finally done with Hollywood trying to mine comedy from the idea that a woman who’s not a size 0 can be happy with herself?

SW: Hollywood has such a disordered view of what women look like. And a movie like this is basically projecting that view onto the rest of America. And I think this time, people are kinda like: What? Amy Schumer’s character supposed to be this large, unattractive woman, but it just didn’t fly. I think you’re right that the reaction to it shows a kind of increased consciousness about these issues.

Do you feel that the rise of non-network TV where writers and creators have the chance to be a little more experimental is changing the way fatness is represented on television?

I think the bigger issue is more diversity of women characters, not whether they’re fat or not. There are just more characters. And streaming and the fact that there are more outlets for shows in general [has meant] more opportunities for women behind the cameras—showrunners and writers and directors—and for them to tell [a wider range of] stories about women. There seems to be a lot more space for that on TV now, whether it’s fat women or any other women that we normally don’t see in pop culture. I hope this is changing: There’s Julie Murphy’s novel Dumplin’ that’s been adapted for film. Lindy West’s memoir is being adapted for TV. So maybe we’re turning a corner and it’s not going to be remarkable to see a fat woman on TV. Maybe [Dietland] will be the start of a new wave. But I don’t know yet if that’s the case.

One of the things I wanted to get your take on is the body-positivity movement and the rhetoric that’s developed around it, especially on Instagram—the way that “body positivity” has become a buzz phrase that co-opts from the fat-acceptance movement but doesn’t really move the needle on how we think about and actually make space for bodies culturally and publicly.

I’ve had people do interviews with me, or write articles about me, and they’ll refer to me as “body positive,” when I’ve never used that term. And I do think a lot of actual fat activists have been critiquing this idea—and I’m learning from them—that the radical [roots] of fat positivity are being co-opted by a movement that really privileges young, thin, white women, most of [whom] already embody the ideals of our culture.

I don’t want to say that just because you’re thin and young that you don’t suffer [with body image and self-esteem]. But “body positivity” [is so] much different if you’re a fat woman, especially a fat woman of color, so I do think it’s a problem that someone like Jennifer Lawrence becomes the face of body positivity, or even Amy Schumer. Even Weight Watchers [has tried] to co-opt body positivity. We can see how capitalism has absorbed the message of body positivity just to make money off it.

Fat positivity is just very, very threatening to people. That’s what I saw when Dietland was published. There is nothing more threatening than a happy fat woman.

Right. It becomes about the individual, about individual people being like, “I used to be insecure about my body, but now I’m body positive.” As opposed to fat positivity or Health At Every Size where the message is “Fat people deserve the same human and civil rights as anyone else.”

A lot of body-positive people are actually quite fat-shaming because of the emphasis on “clean eating” and all of these wellness things; there’s all sorts of problems there. But fat positivity is just very, very threatening to people. That’s what I saw when Dietland was published. I mean, it was just constant, people just freaking out. There is nothing more threatening than a happy fat woman. We think we live in a world where there aren’t a lot of taboos: Well, fat is a taboo, and it’s a deep one. So yes, I do think it’s a shame that body positivity is watering down what started out as something really radical.

We continue to hear about how the weight-loss industry is a racket and promotes unrealistic expectations with regimens that are unsustainable. I mean, there are cover stories about this in mainstream magazines. And they just get ignored in favor of the same old narratives about diets and health that have been going around for decades, even as research emphasizes that dieting can actually be harmful.

In Dietland, I compared dieting to religion. It’s an ideology that’s not [necessarily] rational: I want to believe [it] works, so I believe it and no evidence is going to convince me that it doesn’t. That’s why people keep going back to it. If you bought a car from a car company and it broke down right away, and then you bought the same kind of car and it broke down, you’d be like, “Okay, I’m not going to buy that car anymore.” But with dieting, even though it doesn’t work for most people long-term, they’ll keep going back to it because they blame themselves. The ideology of it is [that] it’s me; it’s that I can’t live up to it. [Dieting] is very much the mentality of a religion, and that’s how I make sense of it.

There’s more…
Bitch’s B-Hive members get exclusive content, including Bitch magazine in print. Membership starts at 99 cents a week and helps support Bitch’s critical feminist analysis.

Join Today

When Dietland came out, you wrote a piece in the New York Times about the word “fat” and the idea that it shouldn’t have shame or morality attached to it because it’s just a descriptor like “tall” or “short.” Has the project of destigmatizing the word gained any traction over the years?

It’s hard when you’re an activist because you surround yourself with other people who think like you. I kind of reclaimed the word “fat” for myself, which I learned from other fat activists. So it became something I didn’t even think about; now I describe myself that way, whereas in the past I never would have. But when the book was published and I went out there into the world and, [into] the media, people freaked out about the word and wouldn’t say it. And I was like, “Oh, okay. I get it.” My enlightenment about this was not translating to society as a whole.

I do think that there more people who are seeing fat differently, but mainstream society still sees fat as something bad, and the word as a bad word. My experience of talking about Dietland for three years is that, you know, it’s still quite niche to talk in a fat-positive way. It’s been demoralizing, in a lot of ways, promoting the book.

I see the term “fat shaming” pop up in surprising places, though. If there’s a photo of the president looking chunky and Twitter is making fun of it, more people than I would expect respond like, “You know what? There’s a lot to criticize the president about, but let’s not make it about his weight.” And the people saying this are not people who are necessarily engaged in organized fat activism.

I think you’re right [that] the term “fat shaming” is one of the ways we hear “fat” used, and that people are comfortable using it. I guess I think people might be willing to call out fat shaming because they see fat people as an oppressed group—[but] I don’t know if they would engage in fat positivity. I think that’s a different step. Even on the Left, you [still] have these ideas that fat is negative and that, you know, people who are fat are [that] way through their own fault and should try and change it. That idea can still be there even if people are calling out fat shaming.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another novel, and I’ve been finishing up a pitch for a TV show. We were just talking about [how on] TV, there are more avenues for women now and that sort of thing. [With the show I’m writing], it’s really interesting because it’s quite a radical show, and I think even a couple of years ago no one would have even read past the first paragraph of my pitch. But now it’s like—there could be a lot of interest in it, I hope. The show is about gender and about women doing certain things that used to be taboo; now we’re clamoring for that.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

by Andi Zeisler
View profile »

Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.