A few nights ago, I watched all three episodes aired so far of AMC’s new show Dietland. It was a great boon on one of those nights I was really feeling the power of the beauty and weight loss industries to trap me, my psyche and my wallet in the grip of the sexist male gaze.
The story follows Plum Kettle, a plus-sized journalist who makes her living ghostwriting responses to letters to the venal, vampiric editor from “lost girls” that feature a lot of cutting and “so much rape.” Plum wants to be a real journalist, and she’s also preparing for gastric bypass surgery. She can neither afford the doctor’s appointments, for which insurance will supposedly reimburse her, nor lose the last 15 pounds her doctor requires to put her under the knife. The multiple scenes of Plum enduring street harassment will raise your blood pressure, along with her experiences of the diet industry. In one scene, she goes to a Waist Watchers meeting, where women “don’t feel good about themselves but are ready to feel good about themselves.” One participant, waltzing in late with green stripes in her hair, declares that she wants to lose weight to deal with back pain, but she feels perfectly fine about herself and gets laid plenty to boot, before waltzing right back out again. This woman, not all the skinny ones, is Plum’s foil.
Plum begins to have these odd encounters with a young woman who leaves her various clues until she finds her way underground to the Beauty Closet. It’s an enormous bunker of beauty run by Julia, ostensibly to provide Daisy Chain staff just the right moisturizer or whatever. But really she’s running an army of spies from down there. Plum also meets Verena Baptist, who is trying to make reparations for her parents’ legacy of weight loss clinics based on starvation, a system Plum used as a teenager. Verena has a plan for Plum that includes getting off her antidepressant and doing other as yet unknown stuff to reclaim her agency, in exchange for $20,000.
Meanwhile, women vigilantes calling themselves Jennifer are killing off rapists, abusers and harassers. In a sly #MeToo reference, when one of Daisy Chain’s fashion photographers is killed off early and some people are trying to remember his name, they keep saying “Terrance, wasn’t it?” For years, models have accused him of harassment and assault, while brands and magazines continued giving him work. Richardson is finally under investigation by the NYPD, and the Condé Naste publications have stopped using him, along with the brands Valentino and Bulgari.
Dietland includes a cast more multiracial than most. The wonderful Tamara Tunie plays Julia. The cast also features Chinese-Hawaiian actor Kelly Hu, and Mya Taylor, the transgender actor from Tangerine. Julianna Margulies, who I miss seeing in ‘The Good Wife,’ plays Kitty Montgomery in all her vapidness.
“I don’t hate myself. The world hates me” is the most truth-filled line I heard in the show. Enabling human beings to be judged by something other than how they look is a revolutionary act. What would it be like if women realized that there was nothing wrong with our bodies and faces except that some man decided they weren’t beautiful? Between them, the U.S weight loss and cosmetics industries are worth more than $130 billion. In addition to the cash we’re shelling out, we spend hours grooming ourselves daily, not to mention the expensive occasional treatments for wrinkles, hair loss and whatever. Men who don’t do this suffer far less for that decision. But if women fail to do it, we lose. A recent study of the correlation between conventional attractiveness and income that included 14,000 people found not only that attractive people made more money (an established finding), but that grooming (hair, makeup, clothes) accounted for almost all of the salary differences among women.
Dietland is a subversive, provocative encouragement for laying bare the true effect of beauty norms, and for raising the possibility of busting through them. Will Plum join Jennifer in killing off gross men, or will she find another path to self-acceptance? I can’t wait to find out.