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Obesity Documentary Calls for Empathy – IndieWire


“Your Fat Friend” begins with blogger Aubrey Gordon reciting the simple request that elevated her to literary prominence: Just say “fat.” In a viral blog post, she implored her readers to stop tiptoeing around her feelings with a thesaurus full of softer adjectives like “curvy” or “overweight” and simply embrace “fat” as a definitive term. By stripping the word of its negative connotations, she argued, the world might be able to move on from an unproductive conversation about the offensiveness of various terms and focus on finding more tangible ways to help people.

The message resonated with readers around the world. Since launching her “Your Fat Friend” blog in 2015, Gordon has become one of the Internet’s most prominent voices advocating for “fat acceptance.” Highly skeptical of diets, wellness fads, and conventional medical advice, she views many of the struggles faced by fat people as symptoms of a society that ignores their unique needs. Rather than helping people lose weight, she believes that the real solution is reorganizing society to be more accommodating of their current bodies.

"Anatomy of a Fall"
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02: Paul Schrader speaks at Deep Focus: Paul Schrader during the 60th New York Film Festival  at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on October 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for FLC)

After five years of blogging anonymously, Gordon publicly revealed her identity in 2020 before launching two best-selling books and an award-winning podcast. As her loyal readership continues to grow, Jeanie Finlay’s documentary “Your Fat Friend” is the most revealing profile she has participated in to date. The documentary follows Gordon through 2020 and 2021 as she wrote and promoted her first book, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat.” Part video essay about Gordon’s views on fat acceptance and part underdog story about the grueling process of publishing a book, the film should please loyal readers who appreciate her positive message. The film itself is very light on conflict and narrative substance, but it’s not hard to see why Gordon’s eloquence has resonated with so many people.

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Gordon lays out her case for fat acceptance very clearly. In her view, every physical space in society is designed for thin people, which turns benign activities like boarding a flight or seeing a movie into traumatizing experiences for the fat population. She resents the way that everyone from doctors to grocery store employees feel compelled to offer unsolicited weight-loss advice, and fears that American culture’s obsession with weight creates eating disorders in fat people that do more harm than good. Her mission, as she sees it, is to free fat people from the illusion that a certain BMI is a prerequisite for existence.

Gordon and Finlay clearly have good intentions, and her insistence that every human being is deserving of compassion is a self-evident ideal. But the film’s knee-jerk opposition to any efforts at improving people’s physical health often feels borderline irresponsible. In one early scene, Gordon laments how every doctor she visits implores her to lose weight and attributes her various health problems to her obesity. It’s a therapeutic scene that will resonate with people who have experienced the same frustrations, but her assertion that the entire medical community must be wrong is backed up by little evidence other than the fact that criticisms are bad for her mental health.

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It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout the film, as Gordon’s deep concern for people’s self-worth is often obscured by her refusal to acknowledge a public health crisis. Obesity costs America’s already-dismal healthcare system hundreds of billions of dollars each year, and has played a large role in lowering American life expectancies to levels far below those of comparable developed nations. Yet the film never engages with a single systemic cause of obesity. There’s no discussion of “food deserts” that force low-income communities to rely on highly processed foods, school lunch programs that inflict bad eating habits on poor children who have no choice in the matter, sedentary jobs that make us all unhealthy, or the myriad other ways that people fall into unhealthy lifestyles through no fault of their own. The choice between treating people with dignity and expressing genuine concern for their health is not as mutually exclusive as she makes it out to be.

“Your Fat Friend” succeeds in offering a nuanced portrayal of a writer and the views that made her beloved. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film actively infantilizes the very demographic that it wants to elevate. Gordon’s points about mental health and unrealistic media expectations would be so much stronger if they weren’t offset by her criticisms of healthy habits and resistance to solve a problem that is quite literally killing people. Even if she rightly identified a problem in the way American society treats fat people, the film’s fatal flaw is its insistence on replacing one extreme with another.

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Grade: C

“Your Fat Friend” is now playing at Firehouse: DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film in New York City. It plans to expand nationwide in early 2024.

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