“Diets” have been around since the 16th century, but the tie-in to fitness is a more recent phenomenon. In the UK, “fit” became shorthand some years back for someone thin, not heavy, a euphemism for skinny and thus attractive.
That in turned has spawned a smart and sympathetic push-back documentary, “The Body Fights Back,” a film that looks at body dysphoria, body type biases and the ways they’ve worked themselves into the culture and even into medicine.
The cleverest thing about Marian Vosumets’ film is how it pricks the viewer’s prejudices as it introduces us to an assortment of British folk with all-too-typical relationships with food and potentially unhealthy attitudes about body image.
The people we glance at and see “Well, she’s thin” or “She used to be fat and isn’t” or “He’s so fit he’s a walking muscle” aren’t the healthiest folks Vosumets interviews on camera. We learn that this self-described “big” woman is a TV spokesmodel and that “thin” woman has a nearly wrecked body or has been hospitalized with eating disorders.
And that Rory fellow who consumes calories for bulk and muscle building? He’s prone to “last supper” bingeing and gorging. I learned a new word. “Bigorexia” is a catchier way of saying “muscle dysmorphia,” something young men fall into — obsessive working out and dieting to build that “perfect” body.
We hear from experts such as a psychotherapist, a surgeon, a body image researcher, nutritionists and others who talk about the dieting-industrial complex, media image normalizing of standards of beauty and the class divide in terms of the quality of food people can afford to consume.
“You want us to be healthy,” cracks plus-sized model and influencer Mojo, then “why isn’t everything organic?”
An expert opines that “What started out as…let’s just take better care of ourselves really quickly turned into something horribly destructive.”
It’s unsettling hearing healthy, middle class people talk about living in “malnourished panic,” following Rory as he rock climbs, lifts weights and consumes seven tiny meals a day, how he’s made “a religion out of counting calories.”
The film’s shortcoming is brushing past all the “healthy” counter-arguments often shouted-down as “fat shaming” today, the epidemic levels of early onset heart disease, diabetes etc. No, it’s not your job to comment on somebody’s weight and appoint yourself the diet police in pursuit of some unnatural “norm.” But nobody should fool themselves about the risks, lifestyle and lifespan limitations associated with excessive weight either.
Tenisha, a native of Dominica, recalls the culture shock of of moving from the Caribbean, where “the thicker you are, the more celebrated you are,” to an island where “thin is in” has been the rule since Twiggy.
“The Body Fights Back” gets at the psychology of “food as a friend I could turn to that would make me happy,” lets us hear repeatedly from a weeping, guilt-ridden parent who now understands and acknowledges her part in her daughter’s anorexia, and sees people moving on with life with a more positive body images that give their stressed systems a break.
Kind of makes you wonder who “The Biggest Loser” really is.
MPA Rating: unrated, near nudity, profanity
Cast: Mojo, Hannah, Rory, Tenisha, Imogen, Michaela
Credits: Scripted and directed by Marian Vosumets. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:46