Bulimia Comedy 'The Skinny' Aims to Conquer Television's Last Taboo
No topic is too personal or too embarrassing for Jesse Kahnweiler. The 30-year-old L.A.-based filmmaker is best known for her autobiographical films about coming to terms with her rapist, hiring a boyfriend via a casting call, and finding her G-spot by polling strangers on the street.
But the hardest subject to tackle—both in her own life and on film—was her eating disorder, which she hid from her closest friends, roommates, and boyfriends for years. It's now the subject of her latest project, The Skinny, an episodic series in which she plays a "feisty, free-spirited Jewish girl," also named Jessie, who struggles with an unhealthy relationship—not with another person but with food.
"As someone who's had bulimia, nobody ever talks about it. And that's exactly why The Skinny needs to exist," she says in a video for The Skinny's Kickstarter, which launched Sunday and aims to raise $10,000 to cover the cost of postproduction on the pilot, which is expected to premiere online in the spring.
The Skinny comes at a time when television is increasingly portraying true-to-life characters who take recreational drugs, explore their sexuality, have abortions, and transition from one gender to another—all of which are portrayed by various characters in Transparent, the Amazon show created by Kahnweiler's friend and mentor, Jill Soloway.
But even with the wealth of boundary-pushing, female-centric programs like Comedy Central's Broad City and HBO's Girls—in which the main character battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder—Kahnweiler says that producers were "repelled" when she pitched them a show with an eating disorder at its center.
Turned down by network executives, she decided to make the pilot herself, shooting in her Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles. She enlisted seasoned TV actor Illeana Douglas, best known for her role as the quirky art teacher in the movie Ghost World, to play her mother. (Kickstarter backers who donate $3,000 or more can score a pastrami lunch date with Douglas.)
To make The Skinny, Kahnweiler first had to acknowledge what she was afraid to talk about for years. "I didn't feel like I had a problem because I wasn't thin enough. Nobody did," she says. "It's such a secret, personal thing; it was a mental thing."
Besides, Kahnweiler says, eating disorders are stigmatized in a way that, thanks to an accepted rehab culture, drug or alcohol addictions no longer are. Anorexia and bulimia, meanwhile, are often dismissed as "bored, insecure suburban-white-girl problems," she says.
Contrary to the stereotype, eating disorders aren't just a white suburban problem. A 2009 study published by the Institute of Economic Policy at USC found that black teenagers were more than 50 percent more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, and teens from low-income families were 153 percent more likely to be bulimic than girls from wealthy families.
Then there's the other fallacy: that eating disorders can be overcome simply by diet and exercise, which might explain why only one in 10 people with an eating disorder receives treatment for it, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
"At least in my experience, [I thought], 'I can get this under control,' " Kahnweiler says. That is, until she couldn't. The moment of realization came two years ago during the drive back from an artist's retreat, when she told a friend that she'd recovered from bulimia all by herself. Then she got home, ate everything in her fridge, and threw it all up. That's when she knew she needed professional help.
After undergoing rehabilitation and countless therapy sessions, Kahnweiler is finally ready to make comedy out of what was once her deepest secret. "I feel like it's so much bigger than me," she says of The Skinny, which she insists isn't all doom and gloom—it's also about the search for love and the universal quest for self-acceptance.
"My face is going to be on this poster and whatever, but I have yet to meet one girl who doesn't have some sort of relationship with food and body image," she says.
Kahnweiler, who's in recovery, says she still struggles with food, which made shooting The Skinny all the more nerve-racking. When she wondered whether she was "OK" enough to go through with it, she remembered the advice Soloway had given her: Make the movie now.