The Skinny's Jessie Kahnweiler Talks Bulimia: "I Was Trying To Write My Way Out Of It"

Photo: Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images.
Jessie Kahnweiler is taking the project she says she is "most terrified of" to the Sundance Film Festival. "I’m just excited to [tell people], 'Here’s my fucking shame, and it got into Sundance,'" she told Refinery29.

Kahnweiler's semi-autobiographical series, The Skinny, debuts at the festival in Park City, UT today before streaming January 27 right here on R29. The show, which is produced by Jill Soloway's Wifey.TV and Refinery29, follows a character named Jessie who makes provocative YouTube videos and has bulimia — not unlike Kahnweiler herself. (She is currently in recovery for an eating disorder.) The filmmaker, 30, created The Skinny, stars in it, and directed all six episodes.

The show is another blisteringly honest project from Kahnweiler, who made the short film Meet My Rapist and the documentary Jessie Gets Arrested, in which she actually tried to get arrested to demonstrate her white privilege.

Kahnweiler stopped by our offices recently and sat for a chat.

Why did you decide to do this series?
"I got the idea to shoot this about three years ago. I had been pretty new in my eating disorder recovery; I was bulimic for 10 years. Looking back on it, it’s kind of sad. I would write scripts about girls with eating disorders, but I still totally had one. I was really trying to write my way out of it. I’m a TV addict — I think that’s how culturally we absorb things. I was just so maddened at why this wasn’t being shown in media. Because we talk about sex and violence, and I can’t watch a show without a prostitute getting raped, but a girl eating is totally radical. And I’m an independent filmmaker so any time I do a short or anything it’s like, what do I have to tell? Because it’s going to take every single favor, every single freebie, every single weekend; I’m going to lose any boyfriend that I have to this project, so it better be fucking worth it."
Eating disorders have gotten the after-school special treatment…
"Lifetime movie…and also joking. When I’m watching any kind of network sitcom, it’s like, da da da da da is going to go throw up. I don’t think people know how to talk about it — [they are] somebody from the outside trying to figure out how to talk about it, and it’s not really working. It’s like when someone makes a rape joke, and you’re like, have you been raped?"

Was writing it a reaction to anything you had seen in terms of how eating disorders have been treated on TV?
"I never saw my story on-screen, so that just reinforced the shame of [thinking] I can’t talk about it. It was a personal challenge for myself. Could I pull this off? Could I make a show about eating disorders? When I pitched it, everyone was like, 'Don’t make that. Nobody wants to watch that; that’s gross.' To me, that’s my fuel. I'm just like, okay, fucking bring it on, let me try to do it. Jill Soloway — she always drops these truth bombs — was like, 'You should be scared. If you’re not scared when you’re making something, then it’s not fucking worth it.' I was like, oh, I’m terrified. I used that as a barometer."

Everyone was like, 'Don’t make that. Nobody wants to watch that; that’s gross.' That’s my fuel.

Jessie Kahnweiler
How did you want to introduce Jessie’s bulimia?
"Dude. It was so frustrating — like banging my head up against the wall. I didn’t want to make something like, here’s the problem, it becomes so big that it’s the only thing in my life, then you hit rock bottom, then you get better, then the credits roll. I was bulimic for over 10 years, but within that time I made fucking documentaries and went to Vietnam. I fell in love. I graduated from college. I also had this big, beautiful life. The eating disorder would manifest in all these different ways. I got sexually assaulted, and then the eating disorder sprung up. And then I would be fine, quote-unquote, for a couple of years, handling it. I really wanted to show this experience in a real way. I wanted to give this character a big, juicy, fucking complicated life."

I wanted to ask about the rape scene in the show...
"So you think it’s a rape? I've been asking people, because some people are like, 'Oh my god that rape is so horrible,' and some people are like, 'Hot sex!' I’m like, this is great."

I’m so surprised there's the other reaction.
"Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I do want it to spark a larger conversation, but it was a rape. That’s how I filmed it, that’s how we wrote it. But obviously it was blurry. I’ve had sexual situations like that. For me, it really goes back to the body. A huge part of having this eating disorder is I was disconnected from my body. So getting into sexual situations where I can’t even feel myself in my body, but I’m so concerned about how I look, or what’s hanging out, or I’m just so filled with self- hatred I’m literally physically disconnected. So that is something we’re going to explore hopefully with more seasons of the show. But people that do think it’s hot sex, I would never be like, you’re wrong."
You've explored this before with Meet My Rapist. What was it like performing that scene?
"It was so hard, but it was awesome. I had my little ritual, meditated, allowed myself to feel how vulnerable it was. We storyboarded it. I physically practiced the moves... In the beginning, it’s flirting, it’s seduction; then it’s power, then it’s frozen... I don't really enjoy watching it, I didn’t enjoy editing it, but I believe in it. I believe it’s important to show it."

You are telling a very personal story, but do you have any concerns about the representation of eating disorders?
"I of course would never want to trigger anyone, I wouldn’t want to misrepresent anyone. All I have is my experience. I’ve done a lot of research. My story is a story. I am not claiming the eating disorder experience. I think there should be more books and films, and more people should tell their stories. My ex-boyfriend was like, 'You’re like tapioca. Not everyone likes tapioca pudding.' And I’m like, yeah, some people don’t. But some people fucking love it."

More from TV