We Spoke to Sara Benincasa About Her Essay "Why Am I So Fat?"

August 21st 2016

Almie Rose

If you're not familiar with writer/comedian/actress/author/Twitter slayer Sara Benincasa, it's time to get cozy and become acquainted.

Benincasa is the author of five books, including "Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don't Tell You In School)" and "Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad."

Her works, from books to tweets, are revered and enjoyed because of how fearlessly she approaches difficult topics like body image and mental health. I asked Benincasa how she puts up with the trolls and how she felt getting naked in front of a focus group for the film "The Focus Group," but I did not ask her why she's so fat.

She already answered that (and it went viral this week).

Sara Benincasa

ATTN:: How do you put up with the bullshit? Surely you don't have the time to write a brilliant essay on Medium ("Why Am I So Fat?") whenever you feel like clapping back to the world, or to one particular troll. As a talented female writer/performer who dares to put herself out there, how do you deal with the bullshit that comes with it?

Sara Benincasa: I don't usually respond because that would be my entire day — responding to praise and to criticism. I'd never get anything done.

But in the case of "Why Am I So Fat?" I was actually watching "Silver Linings Playbook" at long last on a friend's recommendation. And it broke my heart in a great way. I'm from about an hour and change outside Philly, my family is Italian, and I've been the adult child who moved home after a nervous breakdown. So I was in a bit of a more open emotional state when I happened to get a message via Tumblr from somebody about my weight. It didn't hurt me.

But I thought, "I've got all this creative energy suddenly from watching these brilliant performances by JLaw and BCoopz and the incomparable JWeavz. What if I used this energy to write something funny?" After I get hyped up about a great work of art I'm like a toddler who needs to run it off. So I ran off the energy in about ten minutes by banging out a response to the dude. Tumblr's an okay platform for longform writing, but Medium is vastly superior. So I decided to put it on Medium and add some video clips and photographs for fun.

I had no idea it would go viral. I've written plenty of stuff that's gone what I call "baby viral" and then stuff that's gone "teen viral" but to continue an awkward metaphor, this went "adult viral." Which sounds like shingles. Very sexy.

ATTN:: Any advice you can offer to other women dealing with trolls?

Benincasa: Screenshot always. Mute first. Only block if absolutely necessary. Blocking inflames them. Makes them feel superior. You see people all psyched that a superstar blocked them for being harassing pieces of shit. Makes them think they're important. They are worthless. Mute them and they won't see you've muted them. Unfollow as necessary. Report. Report. Report. Report. Report.

I pulled out of a show because I got some creepy emails ahead of time from someone who could've easily been there. No threats of violence. Didn't matter. I take the temperature of the interaction, and I make a judgment call. It's paranoia and oversensitivity right until somebody rapes me. I'll take paranoia any day.

ATTN:: Let's talk about your short film, "The Focus Group." What was it like shooting the scene where you take your clothes off to be judged? It's obviously 100 percent necessary for the story but was there a moment where you thought, "WTF, why did I write this?"

Benincasa: I had a great time, to my surprise. I was a bit nervous but I knew they'd be cool. And they were. Crew was great. Half of our team, including me, director Heather Fink, producer Elisabeth Durkin, and our cast and crew in pre- and post-, was women. That helped.

Also I have great tits so that made it easier. The lower back tattoos are are far more shameful, which is why I wrote a joke about that into the script.

ATTN:: I've seen lots of people describe you as "fearless." You've described Margaret Cho as "fearless." What is fearless to you?

Benincasa: When I say "fearless," I don't mean literally without any fears at all. Margaret has fears in life. I have fears in life. But what I mean is that you do it anyway. She once wrote a book called "I Have Chosen To Stay and Fight." This is my philosophy as well.

Sara Benincasa

ATTN:: What do you think of people like Maria Shriver, who thinks we shouldn't use the word "crazy" because it "demeans those who suffer from real mental health issues and further discourages them from seeking help"? Do you agree?

Benincasa: I hear that absolutely. I still use it sometimes but I check myself on it where I can. She's right. When I say "crazy" I don't mean "mentally ill" but rather somebody who willingly acts like an asshole. But that's my definition and not the world's. So I try to use it less and less now.

ATTN:: You write about mental heath, devoting an entire book to dealing with agoraphobia ("Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom"). What would you do to change how we talk about mental health in this country? Let's assume anything you wanted to change would be changed, no problems, no questions asked.

Benincasa: We would have low-cost excellent care for every American. We would teach children in school how to identify signs of mental illness of various sorts in themselves and encourage them to ask for help. We would teach people to be advocates for themselves. We would encourage that.

ATTN:: You're adapting your novel ("DC Trip") into a film and you're diving into television. What are your least favorite tropes about female characters in television and/or film?

Benincasa: The girl who only exists to help the man. That's most characters in film and TV who are ladies. Not all. Not now. But I'm speaking historically. The girl in the comedy troupe who only plays the mom, the wife or the secretary and those characters are just there to prop up the male lead? Gross.

Sara Benincasa

You can learn more about Sara on her website or follow her on Twitter. She loves to speak at events ("College gigs are my favorite!") and you can check her schedule here.