The Body Fights Back documentary review: food for thought

part of my Movies for the Resistance and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Honest, compassionate, and very necessary, this is a provocation, a challenge to our individual and cultural preconceived notions about and neurotic relationships to food, weight, and body image.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life; I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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.

The Body Fights Back
Fat shaming is everywhere.

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.

“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.

The Body Fights Back
A body positivity parade in London…

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.

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A Web Revolution
Tue, Jul 27, 2021 11:10pm

To how unhealthy our food environments are, like how crappy fast food is everywhere.

Wed, Aug 11, 2021 5:47am

Wicked problem. Not only does food itself present issues for many of us (due to the evolutionary “fear of famine”), but we have to contend with an industrial collective that needs to sell us more than we need to make their profits. Hard to see this turning around in the context of a capitalist economy.

A word of encouragement for everyone…keep trying. Just like quitting smoking, and failing, doesn’t constitute a good reason to stop trying to quit; so too, losing weight, and regaining does not constitute a reason to stop trying. With time and persistence, many people do find their way into a sustainable way of eating and moving that isn’t a binge/purge cycle…as with most things in life, finding the balance is the hardest thing. Good luck!

D. D. Mac.
D. D. Mac.
Fri, Oct 15, 2021 9:34pm

Sometimes stores don’t stock healthy food because there isn’t a market for it in some areas i.e. fruit and salads are not often purchased in some McDonald’s, although they were available. Sometimes stores pull up stakes in poor areas because they are frequent targets of robbery, arson, and looting. There are usually two sides to the story.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  D. D. Mac.
Sun, Oct 17, 2021 8:44pm

I’m not sure in what way you think this is a rebuttal to anything I’ve written or anything the movie is about.

The only “side” to the reality of food deserts; the lack of time, knowledge, and facilities for preparing healthy meals from whole foods; the absolute crap that massively processed food is filled with; and other related issues is that our entire culture is arrayed against our health, collectively and individually.

D. D. Mac.
D. D. Mac.
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Oct 17, 2021 5:03pm

Not sure why you feel it is a rebuttal. It is an opinion, based on facts, as to why there are food deserts, which was not addressed in the movie. People do not have to buy massively processed crap. It is a personal choice.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  D. D. Mac.
Mon, Oct 18, 2021 9:50pm

There are many reasons why many people have little choice but to buy and consume processed crap. It is NOT always a matter of “choice.”

D. D. Mac.
D. D. Mac.
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Oct 18, 2021 9:52pm

I respectfully disagree.

Sun, Dec 12, 2021 6:22pm

Another thing is that it’s not only a movie about a Black woman, but it’s about a dark-skinned Black woman. We get a lot more movies about Black women now than we used to–but most of them are still light-skinned with Anglo features and 3b hair. Meanwhile, the men will be as dark as Shaq with prominent Black features. Very rarely do we see a Black female protagonist who looks like Tierra Whack, or Khoudia Diop, or Lupita Nyong’o. I know there’s The Princess and the Frog, Cinderella(1997), Moesha, and a few others, but there’s still so little(and no, don’t you DARE bring up Precious; I’m talking about Black girl movies where the dark-skinned protagonist doesn’t get shit upon.). It’s always women like Yara Shahidi, Amandla Stenberg, and Zendaya, even when the character is supposed to be a dark-skinned Black girl or woman, or at least monoracial(none of the three women, dubbed the “Acceptable Black Girls” trio, are fully Black, not one of them).

Time after time again, these young women take away roles meant for actual Black girls, and they’re not even the only ones. And many of them don’t seem keen on stopping anytime soon. Because society sees Blackness as masculine and unattractive, and thus Black women are seen this way unless they are able to cater to the white male gaze and conform to white femininity(because the only way to be feminine is by taking on white features, we can’t possibly express our femininity or lack thereof otherwise. Remember, femininity is not a bad thing, it’s just that our society’s views of acceptable femininity and womanhood literally revolve around whiteness!), because appearance is paramount to women, even non-white ones who society believes will never measure up, while men can look any typa way.

If I, a somewhat dark-skinned(my skin is medium but is much closer to dark) Black girl with 4C curls, became a celebrity one day, and Hollywood made a movie about my life growing up, and I was played by a lighter-skinned Black girl(obviously, all of the aforementioned actresses have lighter skin than me.), especially one of mixed ethnicity(particularly mixed with white, but let’s face it, any race is accepted over Black) such as the women above, I would spit.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  SailorSerena
Mon, Dec 20, 2021 9:14pm

Another thing is that it’s not only a movie about a Black woman, but it’s about a dark-skinned Black woman.

True, but she’s not the only subject of the film.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Dec 23, 2021 2:41pm

Oh. I was under the impression that because she was used in the image above that she was the main character. Still, it’s nice to have that representation in media, you gotta agree! ;)

Abc Xyz
Abc Xyz
Mon, Jan 31, 2022 11:52am

A program for twenty something’s …Now make the same program with clinically obese fifty something’s and ask them what they would tell themselves if they could go back in time, while they’re sitting in the hospital corridor waiting for their next appointment…