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For Jessie Kahnweiler, finding humor in trauma is cathartic. (Refinery29/Wifey.TV)

"The Skinny"

Can comedian Jessie Kahnweiler make bulimia funny?

By Brigit Katz on February 3, 2016

In late January, Jessie Kahnweiler traveled from California to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival premiere of her new web series The Skinny.

The process of getting The Skinny out into the world had been a tumultuous one; before the series launched on Refinery 29, before Transparent creator Jill Soloway signed on as a producer, Kahnweiler had spent a year unsuccessfully pursuing investors for the project. So, on the eve of The Skinny’s Sundance launch, Kahnweiler was palpably excited. She was pretty terrified, too. “My shame is about to screen at the Sundance Film Festival,” she said in an interview with Women in the World, and then laughed. “It’s really scary.”

Watching The Skinny, it’s easy to understand why Kahnweiler felt nervous about releasing her artistic baby into the arms of the public. The series is an unusually, aggressively honest exploration of eating disorders and all the murky feelings that fuel them. It is also a comedy.

Over the course of ten episodes, The Skinny follows an aspiring filmmaker — also named Jessie — as she navigates career woes, a skeevy boyfriend, an overweening mother, and bulimia. Throughout, Jessie’s sickness is laid bare in all its messiness. We see her binge, purge, abuse laxatives. She shovels cake from a garbage bag into her mouth, and then brings it all up later. These raw, difficult scenes are couched between jokes about overbearing Jewish mothers and hipster-friendly man buns.

The series is not strictly autobiographical, but its most thorny narrative thread was inspired by Kahnweiler’s personal struggles with an eating disorder. “I was bulimic for ten years,” she said. “For years, I’ve been wanting to tell this story, but I haven’t known how.”

Nina Hosseinzdeh, Jessie Kahnweiler, Sadie Calvano and Fabianne Therese in "The Skinny". (Photo by Patrick Gookin/Refinery29/Wifey.TV)
Nina Hosseinzdeh, Jessie Kahnweiler, Sadie Calvano and Fabianne Therese in “The Skinny”. (Photo by Patrick Gookin/Refinery29/Wifey.TV)

Ultimately, Kahnweiler decided that the best way to present her experience was through humor, which is how she usually approaches subjects that command gravitas. The filmmaker got her start on YouTube, where she posted outrageous, politically-charged “woman-on-the-street” videos. In “My Boyfriend is Homeless,” Kahnweiler looked for love on Skid Row. To demonstrate racial prejudice among law enforcement, she tried to get arrested — and failed, even after offering to sell prescription pills to a group of policemen. Kahnweiler also wrote and starred in “Meet My Rapist,” a dark comedy about running into her rapist at an L.A. farmer’s market.

In The Skinny, Kahnweiler tackles bulimia with both insight and irreverence. Jessie’s sickness is never the punch-line (with the notable exception of one laxative-induced poop disaster), but the series deftly skewers the absurdity of the sentiments that drive her to inflict such violence on her body. In one episode, Jessie and her mother (Illeana Douglas) attend a wellness retreat, and Jessie exercises so vigorously that she collapses. When she comes to, an instructor informs her that she has a “sturdy energy.” “Sturdy like I’m fat?” Jessie asks.

For Kahnweiler, finding humor in trauma is cathartic, the ultimate coping mechanism. “Having an eating disorder is hell,” she said. “It’s like a prison in your mind. It’s horrible. There’s nothing funny about that. [But] laughing my ass off about the saddest, most painful shit, that’s just what I’ve always done … My family, that’s how we cope. That’s how we get through life. That’s how we make meaning of stuff. It’s all laughter.”

Be that as it may, Kahnweiler was not met with much enthusiasm when she pitched her bulimia comedy to investors. “Everyone was like, ‘That’s a f***ing terrible idea. Nobody would watch that,’” Kahnweiler said. Her experience is reflected in The Skinny when Jessie screens her comedy videos to a room of corporate bigwigs. “No one likes women that real,” one executive opines.

So Kahnweiler turned to Kickstarter, and raised more than $12,000 to fund the project. Much of the support came from women who had struggled, or are struggling, with eating disorders, and wanted to see their stories portrayed in a realistic way. “Yeah, my mom and her friends donated, but [most of the funding came from] women that e-mailed me, and were like, ‘Hey, here’s ten dollars,’” Kahnweiler said. “[The Skinny] is being supported by a network of women that deals with this too.”

After the success of the campaign, Kahnweiler sent a spec episode of The Skinny to Jill Soloway, who connected Kahnweiler with Refinery29 and agreed to produce the series with her production company. This big-name backing allowed Kahnweiler to work with a comprehensive production team for the first time (“My cat is my producer on all my old [videos]”). Soloway’s guidance was particularly invaluable. “What Jill really gave me was a structure,” Kahnweiler said. “She’s crazy good at story telling.”

Then, as she is wont to do, Kahnweiler dropped some bulimia-inspired wordplay into the conversation. “I don’t want [The Skinny] to just literally barf my emotions out onto the world. I wanted it to be a structured story.”

Spencer Hill and Jessie Kahnweiler in "The Skinny". (Photo by Patrick Gookin Refinery29/Wifey.TV)
Spencer Hill and Jessie Kahnweiler in “The Skinny”. (Photo by Patrick Gookin Refinery29/Wifey.TV)

Central to The Skinny’s narrative is the gradual framing of bulimia as a complicated psychological illness that is only superficially connected to weight. Jessie is brassy and overweening, but still emotionally fragile. Her eating disorder emerges as a visceral expression of her insecurities, and is set off by distinct triggers: a flailing relationship, repeated rejections, fights with her mother. “One of our swan-song goals with the show is to be like, ‘It’s not about weight,’” Kahnweiler said. “That’s a part of it, but an eating disorder is a way of controlling and managing, and literally killing off parts of yourself. Especially with bulimia, it’s really about purging your emotions.”

Kahnweiler also set out to dismantle perceptions of what someone with an eating disorder “looks like.” Jessie is not waifish, or fragile, or overwhelmingly preoccupied with food and fitness. As her mother puts it in one episode, “Honey, you’re not bulimic. You’re beautiful, and you’re happy, and you’re successful. And you’re tan.”

Because of stereotypes like these, it took Kahnweiler many years to realize that she was living with a very real, very damaging case of bulimia. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really have an eating disorder because I’m a feminist, I’m this loud Jewish girl. I just don’t fit the bill,’” she said. “I was throwing up for ten years before I said the word ‘bulimic’ out loud. There was a disconnect in my brain that was such a deep form of denial.”

Three years into recovery, Kahnweiler has learned to reconcile — or perhaps just to accept — the varied and conflicting facets of her identity. “You can be a feminist and you can also be worried about your love handles,” she explained. “It’s all okay, as long as we’re talking about it.”

Storytelling, Kahnweiler says, is one of the more effective ways to raise awareness about the realities and complexities of eating disorders, which affect some 20 million women in the United States. Her determination to honestly portray these women’s experiences has driven Kahnweiler to forge ahead with The Skinny — even after her ideas for the show were denigrated and dismissed, even though the series lays bare her deepest insecurities.

“I am so scared,” she reiterated as the interview drew to a close. “And yeah, I should be. Because that means it matters. Every single day, I get emails and Facebook messages from other women telling me their stories. So there’s not a second where I could ever say I’m alone with it.”