The Creator Of The Skinny On Purge Scenes, Likable Characters & More

Photographed by Patrick Gookin.
Premiering today, The Skinny is the funniest show about an eating disorder we’ve seen. But let’s make one thing clear — the jokes do not capitalize on main character Jessie’s bulimia. Instead, we find plenty to laugh at in her all-too-familiar search for love, friendship, and YouTube fame. That's creator Jessie Kahnweiler's (who also plays Jessie) goal: to show how an eating disorder fits into a young woman’s life — which it does, often. In 2011, 20 million women suffered from an eating disorder of some kind. Scenes of bingeing and purging appear throughout the series, but only as part of Jessie’s larger story. They’re shot without ceremony or drama, making them all the more provocative. Again, Kahnweiler explains, that was kind of the idea — to get people talking. "Storytelling is such an important part of how we understand things as a society and how we make meaning of our lives and how we have open conversations… I think it’s crazy that we don’t talk about it."
Serious issues like alcoholism, even rape and sexual assault, are given so much coverage in the media, but eating disorders are not treated this way. Was this on your mind while making The Skinny?
"I can’t turn on the TV without [seeing] a prostitute getting raped or someone doing coke and then getting shot, yet women eating large amounts of food on TV is radical… It’s not really matching the reality of me and my friends, and the women I know and what we struggle with… I am not the only eating-disorder narrative… And I don’t have the answers. It’s not like, 'Here’s what I did and I’m great.' Fuck no. I’m mostly doing this to help myself, because when I talk about it, it makes me feel better and less alone."

What was going through your head while shooting the purging scenes?

"It was really hard. It was not fun… [But] there were a lot of women on the crew who fucking got it — or if they didn’t get it, they knew how to be there. If I didn’t have that safe space, I wouldn’t have been able to do it… I just need somebody to be like, 'Are you okay?' Because I’ll be like, 'I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine!' and, no, I’m not fine. I’m pretending to puke in my bra... I really wanted it to be connected to the story and what my character was going through... You’re showing why a person would puke, at what point, what are the triggers, what is it like after, what do you get from it. It [also] was my goal to show that it [felt] awesome. It felt like, 'Oh my god, I’m literally purging all the bad and I literally have a load off,' and I really wanted to show that... The Skinny’s a comedy, but there’s nothing funny about eating disorders. If you’ve had an eating disorder, it’s fucking hell."
Were you concerned Jessie wouldn’t be likable?
"My EP, my big, hotshot Hollywood producer, was like, 'More raw, more real, more vulnerable,' and that’s fucking awesome. But the word 'likable' was never used. When I watch shows now, I’m not like, 'Oh, I like them.' I need someone that’s interesting."
Photographed by Patrick Gookin.
It’s really important to show well-rounded, real people.
"We all have these really painful, sad fucking parts of ourselves... The experience of having bulimia — it’s so fucking sad. I think about the years of my life, the wasted time, the wasted obsession, the wasted self-hate, for what? It wasn’t going toward anything positive. I’m going to get a little Jewish for a second — a thing in Judaism is that the most holy man is the man that’s risen from the shit, who’s gone on the journey. It’s not the man that’s perfect all the time… The Skinny’s part of that, being able to be in these really hard places and the journey of coming out of it or asking for help, having to be humble, having to seek spirituality… It's such a gift that I would've never had [otherwise]." What resources did you provide for your crew prior to starting production?
"I encouraged everybody to watch [the documentary about Amy Winehouse] Amy, and we’d do a weekly movie list. Not just of eating-disorder narratives, but movies with an addiction narrative… It’s not about trying to control your weight. That’s the icing, but for me it’s about control, it’s about getting rid of the bad parts of myself that I don’t like, it’s about taking in other people’s shame, it’s about cutting myself off from bad experiences, and basically trying to play God... It was really beautiful to have a lot of men [on set]. [I asked] this one grip, 'Is this funny?' when we did a bingeing scene, and he was like, 'Yeah, that’s funny, but it’s also really sad.' Yes! Because, yes, eating like that, eating in a violent way, is fucking sad. I don’t have the answer, but it was cool to have a dialogue...because men are not the fucking enemy. Men want to know. We just have to keep talking." How does what’s in the show differ from what’s actually happened in your life?
"I’ll have an idea, and I’ll get with my producers and I’ll write it, and then stuff will evolve and ideas will change... It is based on a lot of personal stuff, but it also goes through the creative process, so it becomes its own thing. Please tell my mom that. (laughs) She just watched the show, actually... She really liked it. She was like, ‘This is going to help a lot of people.’ That was pretty cool of her." What are some other myths or misconceptions about eating disorders that you hope to debunk?
"First of all, that a person that looks like me couldn’t have an eating disorder. For a while, I was like, 'I’m not skinny enough to have an eating disorder'... Physical appearance has nothing to do with it. Two, that it’s really not about the weight. It’s connected to depression and anxiety, and it’s a way to control and manage. [Treatment for] alcoholism and drug addiction is like: 'You need to go to rehab.' But because it’s food, it [can feel] like, 'You’ve got to do this by yourself.' It’s not about self-will… Having an eating disorder is not about whipping yourself into shape… That is what kept me sick for so long, because I was like, 'No more puking. I’m not going to do it anymore. No more puking.' I would write it in my journal at 16 years old. It’s not that easy. It’s like any other addiction. (laughs) I feel like we’re all going to cry!" If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website, or call 1-800-931-2237 to reach its helpline.

More from Body

R29 Original Series