After the 2016 presidential election, many of us needed an escape from our dystopian reality, which felt ever more like a twisted version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Few people needed more of an escape than Kate Stayman-London, who served as Hillary Clinton’s lead digital writer during the campaign. Stayman-London considered it a dream job and planned to chronicle the experience in a Bridget Jones–style rom-com novel about life on the campaign trail. “I went in with this idea that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an honor to help elect our first woman president,” she told Bitch.
After Clinton’s loss, however, Stayman-London was too devastated to revisit the campaign—even in fictional form—so she tucked that book idea away and turned to one of her favorite escapist activities: watching The Bachelor, a prime-time reality TV staple, which has run for 25 seasons, spun into a franchise that even includes a singing competition, and been ensnared in controversy—about its commitment to whiteness and tokenism, about its racist leanings, and about its ability to sell a fairy tale that’s built primarily on purity. Like millions of other viewers, Stayman-London found herself obsessed with the franchise, but she also realized that it didn’t exactly reflect her worldview or values. As she watched Nick Viall, the Season 21 Bachelor, propose to Vanessa Grimaldi in 2017, an idea struck her like a bolt of lightning: What if she brought her two loves—The Bachelor and writing—together in a way that reimagined the franchise?
Within 24 hours, Stayman-London had a four-page book proposal that would become One to Watch, a raucous rom-com novel published on July 7, and within two months, she’d sold the book. One to Watch is still as comforting a book as it was for Stayman-London when she wrote the proposal, but most important, the book echoes an important message: The world is fatphobic, and it has seeped into every element of fat people’s lives, including dating. One to Watch introduces us to Bea Schumacher, a successful and widely read plus-size fashion blogger (think Gabi Gregg, Nicolette Mason, or Essie Golden), who writes extensively about the clothes she wears, the industry that creates them, and her experiences of being fat both inside and outside the fashion world. “For us, something as simple as posting an outfit-of-the-day selfie is a political action, and we have to live with all the people who feel entitled to comment on our bodies, to tell us we’re ugly, or unhealthy, or grotesque,” she muses.
By the time we meet Bea, she’s seemingly a world away from the college student who predominantly wore black—almost in an effort to shrink her body—and who had “mastered the art of being large and invisible at the same time—the dark, baggy clothes, the quiet manner, the downward gaze.” During a fateful meeting with a clothing vendor at an open market in Paris, Bea is gifted a dramatic cape that helps her shred her insecurities and step into her power—or so it seems. Online, Bea oozes confidence to her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, but underneath those layers of clothes, she’s struggling to embrace her body in the face of rampant rejection—from strangers on the internet to Ray, the one man she wants but can’t have. Though Bea imagines herself as a “femme fatale in a film noir—a mixture of soft and hard, of danger and intense vulnerability,” the truth is the toxic abuse she’s endured has hardened her, making it nearly impossible for her to let her guard down.
“So many people have this vitriolic hatred of women in the public eye—especially women who have the audacity not to conform to conventional beauty standards—and on social media, they can deliver their hostility directly to our mentions,” Bea says. “I wish I could say it never gets to me, but sometimes it does. It hurts to have strangers echoing the worst things I’ve ever believed about myself.” Stayman-London throws us into Bea’s complicated world, not only giving us a peek into the protagonist’s thoughts, but also allowing us to see how the world reacts to her through text messages, interviews, Instagram comments, and other ways that feel authentic to life in the internet age. We know almost immediately how unsure Bea is about herself, which sets us up perfectly for what happens next: When Ray, who’s engaged, comes to visit her, she sleeps with him, and then spirals when he ghosts her. It leads her to ask herself questions such as, “Am I this pathetic that the second a smart, handsome man shows me attention, no matter how bad he is for me, no matter how deeply I don’t know it, I fall for him anyway?”
Stayman-London knew that Ray had to break Bea’s heart in order to set her on a journey toward being confident enough to reject men who aren’t healthy for her. It was an essential plot element. “With that particular relationship, it’s this combination of a guy in Ray who’s really not good for her and her playing into his ideas about her and her ideas about herself,” Stayman-London said. “He’s an externalization of her own insecurities, which she understands, but she doesn’t know how to break the cycle.” Bea’s heartbreak leaves her so depressed that it’s difficult for her to get out of bed, so we expect her to say no when she’s offered the opportunity to be the first fat woman to star in the Main Squeeze, a Bachelorette-inspired reality show. After all, she’s been critical of the show’s vision of love—white, straight, and thin contestants competing for screen time—but Lauren Mathers, the show’s new executive producer, gives her a sweet offer that’s hard to refuse: Be the next woman 25 men are vying for on prime-time network television and “show America that plus-size women deserve to be the leads in their own stories.”
Though Bea knows that the Main Squeeze “defines what it means for ‘real’ people to find love—except according to its own standards, fat people aren’t real. We aren’t worthy. We don’t even exist,” she bites at the chance, tossing her into an experience she’s not at all prepared for. “If I was going to put a character on a reality dating show, I wanted to put in the character who’s least equipped to handle what she’s about to go through,” Stayman-London said. From the moment Bea agrees to be the next Main Squeeze, it’s a clusterfuck, which is reflective of what it’s like to date as a fat person: Though Bea tells a reporter that “Life isn’t often a fairy tale, even on a show that aims to create one,” she quickly realizes how little of a fairy tale it actually is. There’s one contestant who’s a fetishist and attempts to grope her in a hot tub. Two other contestants slyly refer to Bea as a whale. Another contestant, who’s a personal trainer, suggests putting her on a diet. “I mean, obviously you don’t want to look like that, right?” he asks her. And all of these experiences are broadcast for millions to see, as Lauren pulls strings that result in Bea being continually humiliated to drive ratings.
That creates tension between the two principal women in this book—Bea, who’s fat, and Lauren, who’s thin—who are supposed to be working together to smash perceptions about fat women, but actually have two different aims. “There’s a line where Bea says to Lauren, you have to stop thinking that I’m going to experience these dates the way that you would experience them because men don’t treat me the way that they treat you,” Stayman-London explained. “A lot of thin women have no idea that this is something that fat women go through on a daily basis in their Tinder messages or on dates.” Stayman-London beautifully pulls back the curtain on what fat women in particular endure, not only when attempting to find love, but also in simply existing.
When you’re fat, there’s often a presumption that you should be grateful for every morsel of attention you receive, which creates self-doubt. Does the person genuinely like you or are they a fetishist? Is asking you out a prank? Over time, these experiences can break down a fat person’s ability to trust their instincts and create a need for an emotional wall. It’s self-protective, as we see with Bea who spends the first three weeks of the show inherently assuming that none of the contenders are interested in her. Her defensiveness begins to break down her relationships with her potential suitors, including Asher, a single father who’s also guarded for a number of different reasons; Luc, a French restaurateur who knows how to sweep women off their feet; and Sam, a young man from a wealthy, domineering family who just wants a life partner. We witness Bea second guessing everything these men say, questioning if they’re really interested in her or if they’re just on the show to become famous.
Every perceived slight, including both Sam and Asher declining to spend the night with her during their “overnight” dates in Paris, makes her doubt the experience. Is it all a joke that she’s just not in on? Fatphobia makes us doubt everything we know to be true and allows us to attach intensely to situations, ideas, or people that reflect the unhealthy stories we’ve told ourselves. As the show marches on, with male contestants being kicked off week after week, Bea’s feelings for her remaining suitors deepen and she realizes that “admitting her desires could only compound her humiliation,” but “not admitting them could seal her fate of being alone forever.” She tells her best friend, Maren, that “none of these men seem to understand just how much it could cost her to be open with them.” Vulnerability is dangerous for all marginalized people. It’s especially dangerous for fat people because it can open them up to being hurt.
Stayman-London, a trained playwright, captures all of these tensions through realistic dialogue, almost as if these are conversations we would have in our everyday lives. For instance, when Bea takes some of the contestants to meet her parents, she has a revealing conversation with her mom, Sue, who tells her, “To have been that hurt, to feel that afraid, and to know that the only way you can be really, fully happy is to risk going through it all again? It’s a terrifying choice to make. But if you want to let someone be that close to you, it is the only way.” Bea shrouds herself in armor that allows her to create distance between herself and the avatar she sends out to meet the men who come into her life. It’s so obvious that Luc even tells her that wardrobe is her way of “telling the world the way you want them to see you.”
Throughout these dates, though, that take place everywhere from a mansion in Los Angeles to a swanky hotel in Paris, Bea begins to understand that in order to find a partner, she must commit to loving herself at all costs. “Her arc isn’t about finding a man, her arc is about loving herself,” Stayman-London said. “I love romantic comedies. It’s one of my favorite genres. But you can play within the genre to subvert expectations of women and make commentary on women’s roles in society.” That’s what One to Watch achieves: As we see Bea starting to negotiate real-world emotions—fear, joy, and envy among them—we also see her unravel the distorted beliefs she’s internalized about her self-worth. “There’s this notion that Bea’s going through this whole show where the entire point is to get engaged,” Stayman-London said. “The show makes her realize that she doesn’t need to be with a man if a man isn’t good for her and isn’t making her happy.”
Vulnerability is dangerous for all marginalized people. It’s especially dangerous for fat people because it can open them up to being hurt.
When Bea finally opens up to these men, showing them a more vulnerable side of her, she’s met with a wide range of responses. When Luc comes to her room without the cameras, she interrogates him about his reasoning for being on the show, which she wouldn’t have had the courage to do at the beginning of the show. When Bea casts off Jefferson, a man who resembles her in stature and who she feels obligated to keep around, he turns against her, proclaiming that, “None of the men in this room is remotely interested in you” and that she’s “so desperate for love that you believe any nice thing a man says to you. It’s sad.” Jefferson’s words are inherently cruel, with him saying that 80 pounds are standing between her and marriage—not her career or her “subconsciously trying to protect [her] heart.” If this were the beginning of the book, when Bea was at her most insecure, Jefferson’s hatefulness would’ve destroyed her emotionally.
Jefferson’s vitriol does initially get Bea down, leading her to say that on this show “her existence was one big joke, the set up her fatness and the punch line her loneliness,” but she shakes it off, getting back into the game much more quickly than she did when Ray stopped responding to her text messages. “The whole time she’s on the show, she has this terrible fear that she’s going to end up alone, and if she ends up alone, it’s because she’s fat,” Stayman-London said. “Of course that’s a false narrative. It’s a false narrative that I’ve told myself, that so many of my friends have told themselves, that we use our bodies as this site of trauma and self-blame.” Bea has come far enough to embody the new beliefs she’s developed about what she deserves. After all the pain, the trauma, and the tears, rejecting fatphobia becomes an embrace of the self—a way to choose your own humanity above all else. Bea achieves this, rejecting both of her final suitors, including Ray, who pops up before the finale to confess his love and throw his hat in the ring.
Instead of settling, Bea now sees her own peace of mind as the ultimate prize, which her mom, Sue, expresses as much in a tweet that reads: “She made a bold decision to choose her own happiness in defiance of societal expectations.” During the live reunion taping, Bea goes even a step further, saying, “I don’t have to settle for a relationship that isn’t fully what I want.” From the beginning, Stayman-London knew that Bea would choose herself in Paris, the author’s favorite city and the place where the character first comes out of her shell. “Bea’s journey in the book was not about finding a man but about understanding her beauty, understanding that she deserves a relationship, and understanding that she has the power to choose a relationship that’s right for her,” Stayman-London said. “In choosing no one, because she understands that neither of the two people left at the end are right for her, she’s again coming to her arc being complete.” One to Watch ends with Bea reconnecting with Asher, who she genuinely falls for, moving to New York, and starting her dream job at Teen Vogue. It is a fairy tale, on her terms, with someone who values her, and she hasn’t had to sacrifice her dignity to get it. Bea is free of fear and insecurity, and we, as the readers, get to imagine a new world where fat girls are deserving of every fairy tale afforded to our smaller counterparts.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect that Kate Stayman-London was the lead digital writer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (08/18/2020, 9:42 a.m. PST)