Women can be their own worst enemies. Thanks to countless impossible standards thrust upon them over centuries, it can be easy to internalize the smallest things as major failures. Acknowledging these expectations and other ways in which society marginalizes women is nothing new — it’s the basis of fourth-wave feminism, which came into prominence around 2012. And over the years, it’s become more and more common for women to openly acknowledge just how deeply they’ve been affected by projections of supposed measures of worth, and how much it’s made them hate themselves.
Several recent TV series have explored the topic. The lead of Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) reveled in her self-loathing and the 2018 NBC comedy I Feel Bad said it right there in the title. But no display of internalized self-hatred on TV has been as vicious or as true-to-life as that of Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) on Apple TV+’s Physical.
The dark comedy follows Sheila, a 1980s housewife with an eating disorder and other emotional demons she’s unwilling to confront. She finds a sense of purpose in aerobics — or at least, her obsession with the exercise craze gives her a brief reprieve from the mean-spirited voice in her head. It’s not enough for Sheila to just participate in aerobics, she must become the best at it in an attempt to prove that she’s not a complete failure. But with her success come even more reasons for her to scrutinize herself, and even more brutal insults to play on a loop in her brain.
The main thrust of her self-loathing revolves around her body image, but it becomes about much more than that. She can’t say the right thing, she isn’t acting like a proper mother or wife, she even verbally beats herself up for having thoughts that are too mean about other women without fully acknowledging that she’s at least 10 times more awful to herself than anyone else. In Season 3, the show’s final season, Sheila’s biggest struggle is figuring out who she actually is when things in her head go quiet, and she manages to find new ways to shame herself for feeling so lost.
Over the course of the series’s first two seasons, Byrne delivered scathing internal monologue after scathing internal monologue. As hard as it was to watch at times, it captured how women in particular save the most cutting remarks for themselves. And the raw depiction of complete self-loathing didn’t come with a message of empowerment and acceptance. As Sheila worked through recovery for her eating disorder, there were some breakthroughs, but none that really led to a true “a-ha,” self-loving moment. Instead Sheila’s dark, intrusive thoughts about never being good enough just take on a new form in Season 3.
Kelli Kilmartin (Zooey Deschanel) now represents everything Sheila hates about herself by being everything she’s not: effortlessly successful and charming. The real Kelli is shown briefly in the premiere, but it’s the Kelli who now lives in Sheila’s head that features prominently in the new season, replacing Sheila’s interior monologue, watching every time she makes a mistake, perkily dropping a biting comment that stings only slightly less than one of Sheila’s own digs.
Sheila shows growth by externalizing these thoughts — hearing the same words out of another woman’s mouth (albeit imagined) allows her to recognize just how harsh some of those critiques really were. But it also shows the lengths that Sheila will go to in order to keep constant criticisms in her ear. She knows that this Kelli isn’t real, but she can’t help but snap back or engage in full conversations with her out loud, leading those closest to Sheila to begin to question her mental stability. She finds moments of happiness, but still can’t let herself sit in them for long before making Kelli appear to tear her down.
There’s something refreshing about seeing a television character so inextricably tied to their intrusive thoughts because in real life, there is no quick fix. Letting go of your internal critic can be like going through a break-up. One bad thought isn’t so easily replaced by a good thought just as one bad partner isn’t so easily replaced by a good one. And even striving for self-acceptance can lead to complicated feelings. That voice in your head, mean as she is, is a part of yourself, too. Is selective acceptance the true road to self-empowerment?
When Sheila backslides into self-hatred, at least she’s being honest about how difficult it is to let even the most malicious thoughts simply disappear. In Season 3, Episode 1, “Into the Groove,” Sheila notes how lonely she’s felt since the voice went away. Immediately after, she’s almost compelled to make the conscious choice between being alone or continuing the cycle of self-loathing just to not be alone. She chooses the latter, because it’s all she’s ever known. It’s the same feeling that makes watching Sheila do this to herself oddly comforting to watch. It may not be the most uplifting or inspiring depiction of the female experience on television, but at least it’s familiar.
New episodes of Physical drop Wednesdays at Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.