When you look at the photo at the top of this review — of a fat woman enjoying a cupcake — what do you think? How does it make you feel? Does it bother you or annoy you or, perhaps, disgust you?
The woman pictured is Instagram influencer Mojo, and she knows what you might be thinking, and she doesn’t give a shit… though she has struggled to come to ease with herself in this regard, as we learn here.
Mojo is one of the people Estonian journalist Marian Võsumets, with her first film, introduces us to with her brilliant and very necessary documentary The Body Fights Back. Võsumets — and Mojo — are engaging in a deliberate provocation with not only this depiction in the film but in the choice of this as one of the approved stills to promote it. They want to challenge preconceived notions about and neurotic relationships to food, weight, and body image, on both individual and cultural levels.
Look: As a person who has struggled with her weight for her entire life — I first had a doctor put me on a diet when I was still in elementary school, and I will never forget the sadness of “bread” that tasted like cardboard sliced no larger than a playing card — I am an expert in dieting, weight loss, weight gain, fat shaming, ruined metabolisms, and other horrors of our society that deifies thinness, no matter how unhealthily it may be achieved, how unattainable it may be for many of us, and how beyond our purview a lack of thinness may be. So when I heard the title of this film — The Body Fights Back — I assumed this would be about how diets fail not because we fatties lack willpower but because of biology. Because we are — all of us, though some more than others — evolutionarily “designed” to pack on weight when we can, because famine was always potentially around the corner, and the best way to do that was to have a taste for fattening sugar and carbs because they were rare until very recently.
And this movie is about that, but also about so much more. It is about disordered eating, of the sort that can become anorexia, bingeing, and other extremely problematic relationships with food. It is about diet culture and fat phobia. It is about thin privilege and body positivity at any size. It is about how a messed-up approach to food is never actually about food: the people Võsumets portrays here talk of abuse and trauma, past and present, about matters of regaining a control we feel we have lost — or never had — and of comforting oneself. “I was in a lot of pain,” almost everyone here says, in one way or another.
These people are at the extremes of food issues: not everyone who is overweight is a victim of trauma or abuse. So I kept thinking, as I watched this film, “Okay, but is it gonna go here?” And it did, every time. To how unhealthy our food environments are, like how crappy fast food is everywhere. To how wealth disparity impacts food choices, because good-quality unprocessed food — the kind that satisfies your body, the kind we don’t overeat — is expensive, and garbage processed foodstuff — the kind that doesn’t satisfy us, the kind that is chemically designed to make us crave it — is cheap. To how vicious cycles of low mental health lead to more disordered eating. To how problematic BMI is as a measure of health. (For one thing, it was meant to apply to populations, not individuals.) To how “thin” does not automatically equate to “healthy,” and how the concern trolling of those who attack fat people (“I’m just worried about their health!”) is not helping, and is very much received as the baseless anti-fat aggression it is. To how beauty standards impact how we see peoples’ — and especially women’s — bodies, and how that is most emphatically not objective or uninfluenced by culture.
There’s a lot of feminism in this movie, and a lot of intersectionality in the way that we have come to understand the term when it comes to feminism, as in how Black women can have different relationships to and problems with weight and body image than white woman do. But there is also the inescapable intersectionality of how our entire culture in much of the Western world has a disordered relationship with food. (In addition to those people struggling with food and eating — mostly women, but one man, too — we hear from nutritionists and therapists and body-image researchers, who supply larger context.) This film centers on people in London, but, in fact — as I know as an American who has been living in London for the past 10-plus years — the American way of producing food and getting it to people’s tables and into people’s mouths is even more of a disaster than the British system depicted here is.
There’s an awful lot going on in The Body Fights Back, and it is far from comprehensive, but only because our relationship with food — as individuals and as a culture — is incredibly complex. But this is an excellent introductory overview of the problems and the beginnings of the solutions, including the burgeoning philosophies of intuitive eating (learning to listen to what our bodies really need) and anti-dieting. Some of Võsumets’s subjects are unself-consciously willing to disrobe on camera (down to undies only) to show us what their bodies actually look like; what queer and disabled influencer Imogen Fox looks like under her clothes should go a long way toward smashing thoughtless presumptions about thinness. There is so much necessary discussion happening on cultural and political levels about the epidemics of obesity and poor mental health, about the carbon impacts of food production, and many other interrelated issues. Here is the beginnings of an honest, compassionate appreciation and understanding of some of them, which is absolutely essential if we’re going to improve our lives and our planetary environment.