Mild spoilers are ahead. It's easy to tell yourself that your worst inner thoughts should light a flame and become your inner strength. It's way more difficult to actually, like, do it. Physical attempts to turn its dark, frank depictions of negative thoughts, also known as cognitive distortions or self-talk, into something powerful. But the focus on Rose Byrne character Sheila Rubin's inner saboteur, especially when it comes to body image, makes it difficult to watch. The thoughts in Sheila's head are harsh, especially towards her friend Greta, played by Dierdre Friel. But Friel, for her part, was not deterred.
“We're dealing with some stuff here,” Friel told Refinery29 over the phone.
Physical is set in the early '80s, at the beginning of the aerobics craze that would go on to define the era and long before we could use podcasts to drown out our negative thoughts. It also takes place not too long after the failure of the Women's Rights Movement push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, as dramatized in another Byrne series Mrs. America.
"It was not a time of female empowerment," said Friel. "It was not a time of, women can do everything! People were saying that, but that's not what was happening."
Friel plays Greta, a housewife who the protagonist Sheila meets at their children's crunchy, granola preschool. Later, Sheila needs to woo Greta because Sheila’s husband Danny Rubin (Rory Scovel) needs support from Greta's husband (Ian Gomez) in order to run for local office. But think of that as Greta and Sheila's meet-cute, because their relationship ultimately has little to do with the men in their lives. Sheila invites Greta to take her aerobics class, and the two women ultimately bond over their respective struggles to connect with their bodies.
The negative thoughts depicted in the series mostly center around body-shaming, and can be quite triggering. In several voice-overs, viewers hear Sheila relentlessly put down herself, her own body, and the bodies of pretty much everyone she interacts with. Which, as you might imagine, can be a little distressing to the actors cast alongside her, including Friel.
“At first it’s hard, right,” Friel admitted. “Being a plus-sized woman, I struggle a lot with how I'm perceived in the industry — being the butt of a lot of jokes, which is not my favorite kind of role to play. So when I got my sides just for the first audition, I was like, oof.”
But Friel wanted to give the script a chance, and figure out the context of the remarks. “When I got to read how negatively she talks about herself, it was so painful to see what this woman is like in her own mind,” Friel reasoned. Cognitive distortions like Sheila’s are a manifestation of her own mental health condition and not indicative of how she really feels about others. They're also sadly common, especially for women.
When Friel first watched the pilot (the episode in which Sheila first thinks awful things about Greta) with her boyfriend, he was shocked, to say the least. “He turns to me in the middle of the pilot and he's just like, ‘Do you talk to yourself like that all the time?’ ... and I went, ‘Yeah, all the time.’ He couldn't believe that's how hard I was on myself. I was like, 'Babe, I think almost any woman you would talk to would say, at least some of the time, they can absolutely relate to that level of self-talk.'”
Later, at the end of Physical’s third episode, when Greta attends her first aerobics class and hears Sheila directly referencing negative thoughts as a potential drive, it triggers her a bit and she has to step out of class. It's a moment that anyone who has ever felt insecure in yoga or spin class can relate to, and becomes a turning point in Greta and Sheila's friendship. Instead of leaving her in the dust, Sheila finds Greta after class, empathizes with her, and offers private lessons, not to change her body, but to "make you strong." It's a bonding moment for the two characters.
“Where Sheila starts to find real empowerment through being in her physical body, Greta is terrified of that,” Friel explained, adding that in reality “there's so much power from embracing who you are and what you're capable of and how amazing our bodies are.” But Greta is made to feel terrified by forces she can't control.
“Societally we look at women's bodies specifically. This is what you should look like. This is what you shouldn't look like. That's what your face should look like. That's what your hair should look like. There are all these really specific pressures,” explained Friel. “Greta just has to bail because it's too much.” With all that society has placed on her Greta doesn’t feel like she’s capable of what Sheila proposes — until Sheila says she understands Greta’s negative thoughts about herself. “For Greta to look at someone who's as perfect as Sheila and be like, you understand how I feel? It's a mind bomb.”
While Physical’s approach to negative body commentary is an extremely uncomfortable one, it does raise a seldom-voiced point. We can advance women’s rights. We can work to normalize bodies in all their forms and destigmatize discussions about mental health. We can see more women characters written and portrayed with empathy and complexity in film and television. But negative self-talk is hidden from view within our minds; it's one dragon that’s a bit harder to slay.