The Fearless Film-Maker
Jessie Kahnweiler makes people laugh. A lot. She makes dark comical films about taboo subjects like meeting her rapist at a farmers’ market, white privilege and the most unspeakable of all: having an eating disorder. Her work’s been featured on: CNN, The New York Times, People, New York Mag, Mashable, Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and The Huffington Post.
Her latest, ‘The Skinny‘ produced by Wifey.Tv and Refinery29 is the most exciting web series to hit the Interweb ever because her main character is loveable and successful AND bulimic. Right there on screen is the character we’ve all wanted to see but never dreamed anyone would be ballsy enough to write, or play.
Through hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable narrative, Jessie uncovers bulimia’s secrets: how its your best and worst friend; how its not about food in the end but swallowing sucky emotions. It’s so fucking brave. New York magazine said, of Jessie, “She’s better than fearless. You can smell the fear on her, but that doesn’t stop her from doing the thing.”
1. So you play a character with bulimia. That in itself is fucking awesome because there are no bulimic characters anywhere. Were you ever tempted to tone down or ramp up the eating disorder?
Bulimics are like marines – we are so fucking hardcore!
I try to stay in the moment and always think ‘what is this connected to?’
For me, when I was younger I was trying to push down all my feelings with food and get rid of them, purging myself of emotion and that bad girl part of me. That’s what I was trying to portray in The Skinny – how bulimia really works, it’s about feelings and emotions and managing life. Some people think it is hilarious and some think it’s horrifying. But it’s real. I want to be thoughtful about it but when I’m in the scenes. It’s part creative catharsis and part therapy and part where’s my Xanax but I felt like the bulimia has such good visceral representation on screen.
2. That’s what I love about The Skinny – that it shows your eating disorder’s not about food and diets, but a way to cope with life. Was it like that for you?
Yes. And the problem is it worked for me for a long time. When I started throwing up – I did not have the language for it – I was this loud hairy Jewish chick, 16 years old, and bulimia was something I just did. I thought I found the key to life. I won the emotional lottery. I could figure out how to do this whole life thing. For me, I was the fucking Buddha, I could control the master plan. And of course when you’re controlling the master plan you don’t have time to live in reality.
3. Did you find it hard to give it up then?
God yes. My best friend, who is in recovery says “bulimia’s like that abusive boyfriend.” Some days it works, he takes care of you and other days he’s kicking your ass and ruining everything and getting in the way of you and everything you love. There was a point it stopped working for me.
I used to purge from everything from a hang nail to a sexual assault.
What’s hard about recovery is that nothing makes you want to purge more than not being able to. I felt like I was a newborn, being slapped all the time. It was just crazy – ‘wow that’s a feeling’ and ‘wow that person’s mad and I can’t do anything about it’.
When I was younger I did not want to feel anger and I wanted to make sure everyone loved me. When I recovered I had a full on ‘who the fuck am I?’ I had all these things that I didn’t know about – do I like that, do I want to be like that, what’s sex?
4. You’ve been in recovery for four years – how are you doing now?
I definitely went through a period of being sad about how much time I spent hating myself and my body for no reason and that sucks. But the coming out of that journey has helped me become myself. I believe that becoming a woman is a verb. So having to deal with your eating disorder is a great challenge as it makes you deal with your body and food and sex and men. It’s deep.
Even now, dating in recovery is super messy but I’ve implanted all these things I’ve learned like self-respect and boundaries. In order to be in recovery, I have to work on where I begin and where another person ends and I have to learn how to deal with my own self-hate. Every single day.
And it’s not like now I just love myself. I tell college kids I work with, “Life is not a Dove ad”. Some days you love your body and some days you don’t. You are not suddenly all perfect, every day. You know, every day it’s different. Life is not linear.
5. I read somewhere you found it easier to make a film about rape than bulimia. Why?
Rape culture is everywhere, it’s horrible but it’s easier for people to address. People say to me, “I’m so sorry that happened to you and you went through that”. But with eating disorders people think get it together. They are still viewed as something for spoilt chicks, who need to get a life. The idea that you should just get over it and it’s no big deal is what kept me so sick for so long.
With eating disorders you‘re not a victim. It can feel very hopeless but your not helpless.
With alcohol addiction there is a growing awareness that it is a disease but eating disorders are not looked at the same way. Being in recovery, food is everywhere. Would you say to a drug addict ‘can you do a little bit of heroine every single day? No. The weight thing is hard, even Oprah admits she hasn’t figured it out. It’s hard. This shit is hard.
So it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s not just my story.
6. Women everywhere struggle with food in some form right?
I think as a society, as women, we’re conditioned to be thin and take up less space. How do you fit in and make your body smaller? I think the way to fix that is talking to people about it and having these conversations, because I do think it’s possible to break the cycle.
7. Did you worry that making a show about bulimia might affect you, or trigger old stuff?
There is a threshold in film-making where people and money are involved and that snowballs and it’s no longer just some crazy idea in your head, it’s not just your movie anymore which makes it hard to back out of. So doing the Kickstarter really helped me get to that place of just going for it, as people came out of the woodwork and gave me some money. And then I had to do it.
That said, I did a lot of recovery work before beginning this project.
I didn’t want to make the show a form of therapy or depend on the show and that enabled me the freedom to get personal with it, as it’s not a documentary. Plus I was in therapy for a while and I have a support system and I have a spiritual practice so I have all these things to help me.
It’s so scary to put yourself out there and I have to make space for the fact that I’m doing that. I am like dude you’re walking around raw and it’s amazing but it takes a lot of self-care.
But it’s so worth it. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I would never have thought this nasty, shameful secret would be something millions of people around the world would watch.
7. Was it hard creating your onscreen character, did you have to make sure she wasn’t belittled, or that you weren’t mean to her (as we bulimics can be so hard on ourselves)?
Nobody wanted to make the show and people told me eating disorders are not appealing to watch. I get it. So that’s part of the challenge – how do we make it appealing? Who is this chick? And where is she going? It’s really been hard to portray it in a realistic way and tell an honest story and make it entertaining. But it’s a fun challenge.
For the character, it was about taking a step back and asking what her journey was – that was the gift of working with my amazing producer Esti Giordani. She came up with this question of Jessie always wanting to be better. The better version where she wins an Oscar; the better version where she’s getting skinny. It’s a fun active character to play. She’s trying to get the Internet to love her, trying to make her mum to listen her, trying to get her boyfriend to love her. So that’s what I think about for the character. She’s many things and we wanted to portray that.
Yes, we are bulimics but we are fully formed people – so we try to show her as having hopes and dreams and boy dramas. She has a big life. Like I did. For me, I didn’t lose a house with bulimia. I didn’t end up at rock bottom and I wanted to show I had a big life even with an eating disorder.
Plus, previously I never saw my story onscreen, which had reinforced the shame of thinking I couldn’t talk about eating disorders. It was a personal challenge for myself. Could I make a show about eating disorders? 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.
9. How do you deal with messy, hard feelings now?
When I used to be stressed with my eating disorder, I would wake up and think OMG – what did I eat? And then I would think about what food to get. And now, if I’m stressed I think ‘I’m alive, it’s a beautiful life, thank you god and now…. onto coffee’.
It’s a life long thing. I would’ve been at my grandpas funeral and stressing that I was looking fat and that’s hell. I want to be in my life.
Now, I can eat whatever I want whenever I want. I enjoy my food. I love eating. I don’t want to fear food. The more I eat the less that I purge. The more I eat then the less I need to purge. If I don’t eat dinner or don’t eat carbs I’m going to go on a ravenous carb binge. My best days are when I am 7-years-old and I ate and I was with life. That’s a success.
I still get kiddy when I cry because I get so excited that I am not swallowing the feelings, I am feeling the feelings!
10. Your character steals laxatives in The Skinny. Professor Cynthia Bulik says a side effect from bulimia is stealing (which explains a LOT). Was that intentional in the series?
OMG, I wrote that scene, I filmed that scene and I wasn’t even thinking ‘I’m stealing and that’s a big deal!’
Stealing stuff, that’s so shameful. I use to think ‘I have a right to take what I want because bulimia’s about not having any consequences’. I didn’t want the clerk to see me buying diet pills or laxatives.
That’s the thing with addictions, it’s so powerful you’ll do anything to preserve that secrecy – compulsive hiding, stealing and managing behind the scenes. You always have something else going on. It’s the ultimate distraction – thinking where there’s food, how will I get, and it becomes so innately part of you.
11. Can you tell me a bit about your bulimia – when did it start, why, how long?
I was 16 and one of my best friends was bulimic and we were trying to be there for her. So the idea was planted for me. I found it and it was like I came home. I could finally release and relax and be in my room and eat and watch TV. It felt so incredibly natural. It was just a part of who I am. It was a deep psychological state and it was totally normalizing. And my eating disorder went through a lot of ebbs and flows – there was bulimia and laxatives and heavy bouts of restricting and binging and purging and then months where I wasn’t engaging in any of those things. It was still a mental obsession and it was always occupying me in some way. I went into recovery at 27. Ten years.
12. Did your family know?
They had no idea. They have been so amazing and I’ve gone through my own thoughts of thinking maybe a part of them knew but they didn’t know how to deal with it. It was hard for them.
That’s what I love about the Amy Winehouse doco. It’s talking about it. Parents don’t know how to deal with it. People don’t know what to do. She was telling people and nobody wanted to talk about her eating disorder, they only wanted to talk about her drug and alcohol addiction. That’s why it was important for me to play this part. To bust open this subject.
Plus, I wanted to show you might not know people have an eating disorder because of how they look. I used to think I’m not even a very good bulimic because I’m not skinny.
13. We’ve all thought that. I think that’s what adds to the shame: we’ve got an eating disorder and we can’t even succeed at skinny! How do you deal with having to look at your body on screen – is that hard or do you have tricks to be objective and just look at the acting or directing?
It’s really beautiful and really fucking hard. I want to look hot on this TV camera but I can’t diet. That’s off the table.
That’s why it was amazing to have such a great support system and I couldn’t have done it without them. Eating disorders thrive off isolation and the cure for isolation is having intimacy and being open.
The beautiful thing about being so busy was if I felt fat, then I could ask myself, ‘I feel fat but what are you really thinking about – oh I’m stressed about the 400 things I have to do today’. I had to be a mother to myself and say, ‘OK I understand you feel fat and that sucks but it’s all about action: can you shoot this scene? Can you be in the present moment?’ And like everything else it passed.
If you’re a woman on the Internet people will judge your body. Some people tell me not to read comments and others read them obsessively. I am a human so if somebody calls me a fat piece of shit it’s not that it doesn’t affect me, it’s a learning opportunity and it goes with the job. The most important thing for me is what am I doing? And did I eat three meals today. That’s my only job.
14. What would you say to 15-year-old you before you found bulimia?
I would say there’s nothing wrong with you. You are sensitive and feel A LOT and that is going to make life hard sometimes but it’s also going to make life fucking beautiful. Honour your feelings. If you feel IT – IT matters. That’s what it means to be alive.
Jessie, you are such a beautiful specimen. Keep doing your work, keep telling your stories and we’ll keep cheering for you. Thank you.
Want more? Marc Moran, comedian and godfather of podcasts (the podfather) interviewed comedian Nikki Glaser last week and they both came out about their eating disorders. It’s brilliant, funny important stuff, listen here.